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Pandemic to Reshape Multifamily Living in California

California Building News | September 4, 2020


The pandemic is radically transforming multifamily living design... and forcing developers to rethink building apartments and condos in big cities. De-densification of cities is being driven by people's generalized fear urban centers, their declining use of mass transit as well as concerns about riding elevators up soaring residential and office towers.

Once magnets for knowledge workers and those that support them, urban downtowns like in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego are experiencing a migratory outflow of people. City budgets are hard hit by massive costs of fighting the virus and huge revenue shortfalls from business interruption. The urban fiscal crisis will likely drive out more people when attempts are made to force already burdened companies and affluent citizens to bear the costs with higher taxes and fees.

Downtowns will be much less appealing when they can no longer feature many of the urban attractions supported by public revenues that the booming private sector once funded. Trendy restaurants are closing, along with clubs and formerly packed sports and entertainment venues. The numerous workers that were once drawn to these downtown magnets are now free to work from anywhere. Consequently, populations are spreading out to the suburbs and smaller cities throughout California and neighboring states.

Car sales, already rising, are another harbinger of the looming flight to the suburbs and towns beyond metropolises. Moving companies are recording the out-flow. And since the economic devastation will likely affect consumers’ ability to buy homes, apartments and condos—always popular in California—will be the homes of choice for many.

More than 3 million people in Los Angeles County live in an apartment. So do more than 876,000 in the San Francisco metro area and another 720,000 in greater San Diego. Overall, 6.7 million Californians are apartment dwellers. And with a very high percentage of people forgoing home buying during the Pandemic Era, multifamily living will become more important than ever before. Incomes are down and many people are wary of making more changes in their already perilous lives.


Pandemic Causes Multifamily Redesign

Thanks to the pandemic, apartment living will be very different from what had been the recent trend toward small personal units and larger community spaces, say numerous industry sources. That trend will give way to bigger individual units where people can live, work and recreate within their own enclosures that might also include more personal balconies and terraces. They will certainly not risk spending much time in gyms, swimming pools, hot tubs, saunas, steam rooms and other common amenity areas where once-beloved neighbors are now actually seen as a threat.


Tall city center towers that rely on elevators will likely lose appeal as low-rise complexes in the suburbs and smaller towns gain in popularity. Residents will seek more distance from each other, as well, with separate entrances close to parking lots. Since many people are permitted to work from their homes, their interior design will also undergo transformations to accommodate more business-like settings situated distinct from their personal spaces.


Multifamily design for the future will likely see more rooftop and courtyard common areas, where healthy fresh air can better circulate, and more elevators with safety features such as UV-C lighting to zap airborne pathogens. Developments that had been clustered around mass transit will be less desirable since more people are not only allowed to work from home but are wary of close contact with other commuters. In recent decades, urban planners concerned about air pollution have been pushing developers to build near transit stations.


MBH Architects’ Rick Christiani says, “COVID-19 has accentuated the need for affordable housing as jobs are lost and evictions increase. Those living in overcrowded house-holds are more likely to fall ill, and low-income essential workers are unable to isolate when exposed. The pandemic has also demonstrated the importance of quality housing as people spend more time in their homes. Desired features have become health requirements, including natural light, ventilation, outdoor access, and decentralized HVAC which does not recirculate air. As homes become classrooms and offices, Internet access and productive spaces have become necessities.”

For example, “the Fetters & Celestina Apartments exemplify high density housing that is 100% affordable and provides safe, livable homes. The development houses families and seniors affordably without the overcrowding that leads to infection. The project meets residents’ needs without sacrificing their health with decentralized mini-splits for heating and cooling, on-site class-rooms and computer access, and nearby trails and gardens,” he concludes.

Economic Downturn Boosts Multifamily Living

“For those who wanted to take the leap from renting to buying this year, their hopeful plans are quickly changing. At the start of 2020, 11% of renters said they were ready and planning to buy a home this year,” according to a recent survey conducted on RENTCafe.com. Conditions were looking up for Gen X renters, 15% of whom were making plans to buy a home this year, as well as for 14% of Older Millennials.


However, the pandemic has obstructed the path to homeownership for 43% of renters ready to buy, the survey results revealed. On top of high home prices, this is yet another deterrent forcing many renters to further delay or give up on the most important archetype of the American Dream. The survey, which ran at the end of May 2020, asked 7,000 renters about their housing plans before and after the coronavirus hit.


Of those who decided to continue renting, the largest share had plans to downgrade to a smaller apartment, driven by Gen Zers and Baby Boomers. However, Millennials and Gen Xers had bolder plans, a high percentage of whom expressed a wish to upgrade to a larger apartment in 2020.


Patrick Lynch, vice president research and analytics, Middleburg Communities, says “Historically, there has been a tight relation-ship between household incomes and home-ownership. The higher the income, the more likely a household is to own and vice versa. The economic impact of COVID will drive average incomes lower over the near future, which will likely shift some households from owners to renters, or keep them in rental housing longer than they had planned. Tougher credit standards, a limited stock of homes, and prices that have not really dropped, will also prevent many would-be homeowners from buying. So we expect the overall homeownership rate to decline.


“However, we may see some residents of urban luxury apartments, many of whom have the income to buy, decide that now is the time given the low interest rates. They may purchase in the suburbs or even in a different metro area entirely if they are given the freedom to work remotely.”


Home Office Design Imperative for Many

With so many knowledge workers living in multi-family-dense metropolitan areas, it is particularly important that these people living in smaller spaces be able to carve out segments of their homes dedicated to work—as distinct from living. Designs are being suggested that give even dwellers in the smallest spaces room to work. Add to that the need for students to learn from home and every square foot in an apartment must be refocused.


“Set your units apart by adding dedicated work-at-home spaces into your floorplans. Whether it’s an unused corner, old alcove or niche, extra closet, bonus room, or open wall, you can provide your residents with a dedicated work-at-home space even in the smallest unit footprint,” says Sarah Boughan at Organized Living, a national home storage and organization company.

She adds, “By taking advantage of adjustable desk solutions, you can use any open wall to add a functional work-at-home space that residents can use day-to-day. Adjustable systems provide your residents the ability to move, add or adjust components over time as their needs change. No longer do residents need to be in the office to get their job done when they can utilize a small amount of space in their apartment to perform the same duties.”


Published: California Building News