Thursday, October 22, 2015

Apartments: Q&A with NMHC Chief Economist Mark Obrinsky

by Bill McBride on 10/22/2015 06:11:00 PM

Following the release today of the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) quarterly apartment survey, I had an email exchange with NMHC chief economist Dr. Mark Obrinsky. I've known Mark for several years, and he has helped me understand the apartment market (and other economic topics). His bio is here.

McBride: I’ve found the NMHC quarterly apartment survey very useful in analyzing the apartment market. I understand the indexes are standard diffusion indexes. Could you share with us the coverage of the survey?

Obrinsky: We survey NMHC members who are apartment owners, property managers, developers, brokers, investors, and lenders.

McBride: In the October 2015 survey released today, the tightness index was at 53 (Any reading above 50 indicates tighter conditions from the previous quarter). This would seem to suggest upward pressure on rents, and downward pressure on the vacancy rate. Is that a reasonable interpretation?

Obrinsky: Indeed, a market tightness index reading above 50 indicates higher rents, lower vacancies, or both.

Note that in the most recent survey, 60% of respondents indicated conditions are unchanged from 3 months earlier; 23% indicated tighter conditions, 16% indicated looser conditions. A reasonable interpretation would be that most markets saw little change – and that the number of markets where conditions tightened was a little higher than the number of markets where conditions loosened.

McBride: Other sources, such as the Reis apartment survey (large cities only) seem to suggest the vacancy rate has bottomed. Reis Senior Economist and Director of Research Ryan Severino recently wrote:

“It appears as if the market has finally reached its inflection point during the third quarter. Although the national vacancy increase of 10 basis points was slight, it was actually a slight acceleration of a trend that began during the second quarter of 2014. ... Importantly, this rise in vacancy has occurred without the deluge of new supply that is in the pipeline but has not yet hit the market. When that occurs, likely in the next few quarters, vacancy increases are sure to accelerate because the market will not be able to digest that much new product.”
Do you think the vacancy rate has bottomed or is near a bottom?

Obrinsky: By most measures, the national vacancy rate for apartments is quite low. For example, the Census Bureau’s estimate for rental units in buildings with at least 5 units is at its lowest point since 1984. Some private data providers estimate the vacancy rate for investment grade apartments at 4% or less. Thus, there isn’t much room for the vacancy rate to decline from here, especially with new construction finally getting close to the level needed to meet the increase in demand for apartments.

That said, the vacancy rate is only one indicator, and no single indicator is likely to capture the dynamics of the industry. Higher demand can show up as either a lower vacancy rate or higher rent growth or both. In today’s market, the impact of strong demand is evidenced not only in the low vacancy rate, but even more so in rent growth. Several data sources show rent growth at or above 5% annually, and by one measure rent growth is the strongest since days of the tech bubble (when national averages were skewed by the outsized rent growth on the West Coast, particularly in northern California). This is especially interesting considering that rent growth slowed in 2012-2013, but has picked up strongly since then.

McBride: An indicator I follow for new multifamily construction is the AIA Architecture Billings Index. The sector index for the multi-family residential market was negative for the eighth consecutive month in September - and this might be indicating a slowdown for new apartment construction. Multifamily has been a significant driver of the rebound in total housing starts over the last several years, so a slowdown would be important. Do you expect multifamily housing starts to level out, or do you expect further growth?

Obrinsky: I have long said we need 300-400 thousand new apartments annually for an extended period of time to meet the ongoing demand increase plus pentup demand from the recession and its aftermath. (This range also includes the estimated 100-125 thousand units lost each year due to destruction, deterioration, or conversion to other use.) I would expect to see starts in this range for some time.

McBride: Back in April 2010 the tightness index increased significantly, and this was one of the first signs of the coming rental boom. Back then you and I discussed the favorable demographics for apartments, and also the impact of the housing bust and foreclosure crisis on the rental market. The foreclosure crisis is mostly behind us. What is your current view on demographics and the apartment market?

Obrinsky: I continue to think demographic trends are bullish for apartments. In particular:
• overall population growth (good for rental and for-sale housing). The UN projections show that only 7 countries will add more people over the next 10 years (and only 6 countries will add more people in the next 20 years).
• continuing trend in household composition: more single-person households (now the most common household type, surpassing married couples without children), single parents, and roommates. All these household types have a higher propensity to rent than the national average.
• immigration has bounced back from its recession-induced lows, and immigrants are more likely to rent than native born. And: newly arrived immigrants (less than 10 years in the US) are more likely to rent than immigrants who arrived earlier (in the US 10 years or more), but even immigrants who arrived earlier are more likely to rent than native born householders.
• young people are entering the housing market in large numbers (and will continue to do so for years), and young people are the most likely group to rent.
• baby boomer downsizing, giving up the large suburban single-family home to move to multifamily housing (condos and apartments) in close-in suburbs or cities. There is mixed evidence on this, but even if the share of older households who do this is unchanged from previous generations, the fact that there are so many more boomers than previous generations mean this could be an important source of demand.

And just to clarify: renting vs. owning doesn’t have to be – and through most of our postwar history wasn’t – a zero-sum game. We can have more of both. In saying that demographic trends are favorable for apartments, I am not saying that the homeownership rate will continue to fall indefinitely.

McBride: Thanks Mark!