US Multifamily Market Sends Mixed Signals

The US apartment market performance metrics for April show a mixed bag of results, says a report by RealPage. Survey results for 9.1 million multifamily units across the country show April’s occupancy rate at an average of 95.4%, drifting down a mild 20 basis points from the March result to a level that matches the performance from April 2019.

The more telling comparison point may be to go all the way back to the occupancy figure from mid-2008 prior to the Great Recession. Viewed from that perspective, April’s occupancy of 95.4% is encouraging, coming in 160 basis points over the mid-2008 reading. That occupancy premium provides some cushion for the decline that is to come. Furthermore, it may help landlords limit the magnitude of near-term rent cuts, at least to some degree, says the report.

With so many households staying at home, strong resident retention for expiring leases is helping boost occupancy. About 53% of renters chose to stay in place at lease expiration in 2019 and early 2020, and that figure inched higher in recent weeks. Furthermore, some who had informed apartment operators of intentions to leave later rescinded those move-out notices, either signing short-term leases until the health crisis becomes more manageable or leasing on a month-to-month basis.

Because new product delivery was delayed, the limited multifamily completions in April also helped boost the overall occupancy rate.

But while it’s good to have full units, it’s obviously better to have those units occupied by rent-payers. The good news is, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council’s Rent Payment Tracker, 91.5% of the residents of properties under professional management paid April rent. That’s about 4 percentage points under the year-ago level, but it’s a much better result than many anticipated given the size of recent job cuts.

“Among the big markets in Texas, Dallas/Fort Worth is faring best,” Greg Willett, RealPage’s chief economist, tells “Occupancy comes in between 94% and 95% in each metro. While that’s a little under the national norm, lots of product moving through lease-up almost always holds local occupancy in Texas markets below the US standard. Modest pricing momentum remains intact across Austin and DFW. Asking effective rents are up 1.5% to 2% annually. Struggles are more pronounced in Houston and San Antonio, reflecting that the local economies are heavy on industries taking a hit right now. Houston’s energy sector is downsizing once again and a big hospitality sector is hurting San Antonio’s performance. Occupancy in both metros has slipped to the 93% mark. There are slight cuts year-over-year in asking effective rents. With more than a third of the product offering a period of free rent, use of pricing concessions is more common in Houston and San Antonio than in any other markets across the country. Giveaways in properties moving through initial lease-up are big, at least a month of free rent and sometimes two months.”

However, April’s payment results didn’t extend across every market. Other key potential trouble spots include New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

There are annual cuts in asking effective rents in 11 metros. The biggest loss, a change of -1.6%, is in San Francisco. Asking effective prices are down 0.1% to 0.9% across Orlando, Los Angeles, San Jose, Denver, Oakland, Houston, San Antonio, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale and Providence, RI.

While those shifts in asking effective rents are informative, the more telling story is what’s happening in the rents achieved in executed leases. There’s a meaningful disconnect in the two figures, as the drop in pricing power for executed leases goes deeper than the decline in asking effective rents, according to the report.

In contrast to the 1% annual increase registering for asking effective rents, executed new-resident lease prices were down 4.5% from year-earlier levels as of the last week in April.

April’s apartment performance metrics showing continued tight occupancy is encouraging and rent payment levels from the existing resident base exceed the expectations that many had.

Still, the overall message for multifamily is the sector is likely in for a rough prime leasing season. While leasing velocity late in the month showed some momentum from the dismal results recorded in late March and early April, it’s probably wise to expect that near-term absorption could come in at a level barely more than half of last year’s volume.

Furthermore, while the declines in asking effective rents are modest, most leases are being signed at levels below what those quoted rents would suggest. Performance hasn’t gone off the edge of the cliff, but it is notably weakened for now, says RealPage.

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