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Midsize Cities Seeing Need for More Dense Multifamily Housing, Expert Says

Courtney Seeple of The Towbes Group tells an industry conference that the supply of smaller, amenitized rentals doesn't meet demand

The need for dense or infill mixed-use housing has been expressed by architects, developers and planners in large urban areas for decades, often in connection with transportation hubs. Now, middle-sized cities are also pondering denser multifamily projects, to house workforces and provide affordable residences, according to a local real estate expert who addressed an audience of city officials, real estate developers and urban planners at a recent American Planning Association conference.

With the relatively expensive, for-sale detached-housing market in the doldrums, more medium-sized cities are investigating affordable dense housing, often near the center of town, said Courtney Seeple, vice president of project management at The Towbes Group Inc., a Santa Barbara-based real estate firm with a multifamily portfolio of more than 2,000 units in the Tri-County area.

A featured speaker at the California Chapter of the American Planning Association on the topic of dense multifamily housing, Seeple said even medium-sized cities are looking at mixed-use housing, physically placed above retail space. He said the smaller cities may not have the mass-transit connection to dense housing, but they do want to strengthen their cores, and bring people and affordable housing closer in.

Seeple’s APA presentation, titled “Workforce and Rental Housing: Myths and Realities,” resonated with planners and developers from outside California’s major cities, Seeple said.

We were getting a lot of inquiries from the Roseville-, the Santa Barbara-, the San Luis Obispo-type cities,” he said. “The depth of the ongoing housing bust may compel both erstwhile homebuyers and public officials to reconsider the shape of residential architecture going forward. Buyers may not forget the calamity so soon, and indeed government may retreat from a posture of encouraging homeownership above all else. We may see secular growth in the rental market for many years to come, so municipal officials are re-considering who needs that housing, and how to improve their city and town landscapes.”

Citing industry data, Seeple noted that there are 37 million rental households in the United States today, but another 4.1 million will be added by 2015. Both young workers and empty nesters as well as others are demanding rental housing.

Yet officials and developers are lagging the curve, Seeple said. New apartment construction nationwide fell to a 50-year low in 2009, according to the Census Bureau. Two years ago, builders started 97,300 apartment units in multifamily buildings of five units or more, the lowest since the Census Bureau began tracking the data in 1959. In contrast, the record-high was 906,200 units in 1972.

And the size and shape of rental housing will be changing also, Seeple said. New renters, often singles or small families, may want smaller units and carports as opposed to garages, but they also want amenities such as recreational facilities, wi-fi and apartment clubhouses with pools. As an example, Seeple cited the firm’s award-winning Ralston Courtyards, a 108-unit apartment community in Ventura, which was completed in October 2010. Developed on a relatively small three-and-a-half acre site, The Towbes Group was able to achieve 30 dwelling units per acre while incorporating nearly 10,000 square feet of interconnected courtyards and outdoor common areas as well as a clubhouse with an outdoor pool and spa. Ralston Courtyards hit 98 percent occupancy in less than seven months.

“The challenge for planners and developers going forward is to provide affordable rental housing to meet demand, and to improve city and town landscapes,” Seeple said. “With proper architecture and development, these goals are not only necessary, but compatible. We can provide workforce housing, and strengthen town cores and retail districts-all through rental housing.”

— Bruce Beck is a publicist representing The Towbes Group.

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