It would be an understatement to say that these are good times for the apartment industry. For most of us, they are probably the best in our lifetimes.
Capital is abundant, and growing demand is outpacing increases in supply even as new units come online. And there's reason to believe there is still a significant amount of pent-up demand still to come into the market. To the outside world, though, it all consolidates into one conclusion-rents are rising.
Understandably, our member firms want to make sure their investors (and prospective investors) know about the healthy rent increases they have been getting in some markets. And our members should be proud of their business and operational acumen. But I cringe every time I see someone quoted in the media saying how much they have been able to "push rents" because the smart business storyline is rarely the message repeated in the mainstream press.
To the outside world, rising rents-particularly in a stagnant income growth environment-just means more and more families are having a hard time making ends meet. So, while talking about pushing rents makes sense for investors, it doesn't help our industry's overall favorability with consumers or policymakers.
Our success today makes us easy targets for inclusionary zoning or rent control proposals championed by often well-intentioned advocates seeking to address the affordability gap. They hear about rising rents and want a solution, often unaware of the real costs and unintended consequences of many of these so-called easy and no- or low-cost solutions-namely, even higher rents and less supply.
So, how should we, as an industry, be talking about rents and affordability? Here's what I say when the topic comes up.
First, today's strong rent growth is a temporary situation in what is a highly cyclical market driven by factors largely outside of the industry's control. The collapse of the US financial markets in 2008 virtually shut down new apartment construction for several years, severely constricting supply at a time when rental demand was about to surge.
Second, apartment construction is ramping up. As those units are delivered, rent growth will moderate. But even with more apartments in the pipeline, construction activity remains below the level needed to meet rising demand. Many non-financial obstacles to new development, such as unnecessary and duplicative regulations, outdated zoning policies and Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) opposition to apartments, continue to stifle new construction and raise the costs of those properties that do get built, contributing to higher rents for our residents.
Third-and this may be the most important fact-American's affordable housing shortage is more than just a housing problem. It's not only that rental housing has gotten more expensive to produce and operate, but it's also that other economic factors have suppressed household income growth. On an inflation-adjusted basis, median renter household income today is virtually the same as it was in 1981.
And fourth, for those who still argue that there are outsized profits in the multifamily sector, I'm quick to point out that rents, when adjusted for inflation, are roughly on par with what they were in 2002, meaning apartment firms' purchasing power has remained basically flat over the past decade plus while operating costs have continued to rise.
That's the message we are taking to policymakers at all levels. And it's one I hope you will join me in spreading as you talk to reporters as well as state and local officials. To help you drive these points home, we've created a new set of advertising tools; published new national, state and metro area economic impact data; and updated our interactive apartment calculator as part of the recent launch of the latest iteration of our national public relations campaign. Please check it out at www.WeAreApartments.org.