American Community Survey Offers Fresh Data for Multifamily Industry

Washington, D.C.--The new way of collecting data represents an improvement for multifamily property owners and developers.

Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

Washington, D.C.–The questionnaire for the 2010 decennial census did not, as in previous decades, ask any questions about housing beyond how many people live at a particular address. The long form, which asked a fair number questions about housing, but which also irritated respondents, is now a thing of the past, replaced by the American Community Survey (ACS), about three million of which are mailed to U.S. households each.

According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), the new way of collecting data represents an improvement for multifamily property owners and developers, since the ACS provides a fresher picture of local markets from a single source. “When information was collected only once every 10 years, it often was necessary to rely on projections by private consulting firms or others in order to compare multifamily housing markets,” writes Paul Emrath, assistant staff vice president of housing policy research for the NAHB, which published its most recent Multifamily Market Outlook at the end of June.

ACS compiles various basic U.S. rental housing statistics according to metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), the largest of which are broken into “metropolitan divisions.” That way there can be separate statistics for, say, San Francisco and Oakland, which happen to be in the same MSA but which are otherwise rather different multifamily markets. The next release of ACS data is tentatively scheduled for the end of this summer.

The size of the various multifamily markets is perhaps the most basic data offered by the ACS, but it also tracks vacancy rates of the MSAs and metropolitan divisions, down to the lowest (which was the Blacksburg-Christiansburg-Radford, Va., MSA at 1.2 percent, according to the ACS of 2006-08, which was released last year).

Nationally, about 30 percent of the population lives in single-family units (either detached or attached single-family townhomes), 20 percent live in small (2-4 unit) multifamily structures, and a small share are in manufactured housing. The balance live in multifamily dwellings of five or more units, and the ACS tracks areas in which rental housing is most concentrated in larger buildings. The New York-White Plains-Wayne, NY-NJ metro division at number two in that regard is probably little surprise; but the ACS also reveals that the Fargo ND MSA has the highest concentration of large multifamily buildings in the country.

Gross rents are also tracked by MSA and metro division. Even as the recession hit, California had six of the ten most expensive markets in terms of rents. Renters have the highest incomes — another data set compiled by the ACS — in a similar set of California areas, with some of the other high-priced markets such as New York and Honolulu thrown in.

Finally, the ACS measures the volatility of multifamily markets in two ways: metro areas in which the rental stock is growing most rapidly (until the recession, Florida and Texas were well represented on that list); and the markets most dominated by recent movers. Nationally, the markets on that list are much more of a mixed bag — many of them are college towns, but not all. The Corvallis, Ore., MSA had a 86.7 percent share of renters who moved in after 2004, for example, which made it number one on the list. Numbers two and three on the list are the Aurburn-Opelika, Ala. MSA, and the Logan, Utah MSA.

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