Multi-Family Housing as a Lifestyle Choice in 2020

Changes, trends and how to attract a prospective resident in multi-family living

By Sanford Steinberg

Designing multi-family communities takes more than a sharp pen and good eye — it involves an understanding of real estate, construction, marketing, the built environment, psychology, sociology, economics and anthropology. One of my mentors, Barry Berkus AIA, gave me a worthy piece of advice about the practice of architecture when I was a graduate student at UCLA. He told me to concentrate on a specific field of architecture and become the best. Thirty some years later with a successful national practice and over 300,000 units built, I hope I am doing something right.

Changes in Multi-family Housing

When I started out, the multi-family market was seen primarily as an interim housing decision, not as a lifestyle choice. This has shifted over the past 15 years. Green building did not drive design; it wasn’t until 2008 that a green certification program was available for residential construction. I am a strong proponent of building green and in 2010, I was the first architect in the country to certify a large-scale multi-family community to the ICC 700 National Green Building Standard®. Convincing my clients to build green was easy once they realized the benefits for their residents, the marketing potential and how it improved the eventual exit strategy of selling the property. Now all of our properties are designed using the program as a roadmap.

When I started out, the multi-family market was seen primarily as an interim housing decision, not as a lifestyle choice; this has shifted over the past 15 years.

Attracting the Prospective Resident

When I approach a new design, the first thing that I look at is the environment surrounding the potential site. This will give me cues for the marketing window, regardless of the target demographic. I always tell my clients, “The Building is your Billboard,” and you have that one chance to visually capture the prospective renter. Curb appeal and entry experience is paramount for locking in the perspective renter. My goal is to design a community that makes it easy for the leasing agent to sign a new resident.

Once I know the site constraints and the target market, the magic begins. First we create an elegant arrival experience — a feeling that this place is special. Exteriors are designed to stand out from the competition and be timeless. The leasing facility will have a special design element that directs the perspective to the community’s grand lobby.

Community Amenity Trends

Once inside the leasing facility, prospective residents should be able to visually experience all of the major amenities for the community. The former club room is transforming into an area of multiple use spaces that include private booth seating — which are becoming popular due to COVID-19 — as well as large group seating, game tables, bar/kitchens and several televisions.

The business center has transformed into functional satellite office space that includes multiple conference rooms, a central Think table for charrettes and brainstorming, as well as peripherals for your laptop. As many people are working from home due to COVID-19, multiple video studios with the latest technology are the newest amenity we are incorporating in our communities.

Popular outdoor amenities include resort-style pool areas with cabanas and outdoor living rooms; dog parks segregated by pet size with pet washes, beer gardens, car washes, boat parking and electric vehicle charging stations.

Design Elements in the Unit

Today’s unit plans are designed with island kitchens open to the living area and plenty of natural light. Tips for designing in to attract residents since the onset of COVID-19 include 100% operable windows for ventilation; adding private balconies/patios that are designed for outdoor living; and expanding ground floor units’ patios with fencing to provide private yards. Adding a simple drop shelf at the front door not only becomes a key drop, but also a space for hand sanitizer. Residents have “stuff,” providing generous walk-in closets with designed storage are important for residents to minimize clutter and create a lifestyle of simplicity and livability.

What’s Next?

Micro-Unit communities are expanding beyond the major urban markets of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington DC, such as our upcoming project ‘Interpose’ in Houston, Texas.

The Interpose, a 170-unit micro-apartment community, is the first all micro-unit rental community in Houston. Located in Washington Heights, a Houston-area neighborhood dominated by young professionals seeking an urban lifestyle. Rendering by: Steinberg Dickey Collaborative, LLP.

Finally, the latest trend I am seeing is single-family for rent communities. These communities have become desirable due to financial barriers to home ownership, residents looking for the “lock and leave” lifestyle, and the onset of COVID-19.

Sanford Steinberg is CEO and principal of Steinberg Dickey Collaborative.