The Cannery Lofts in downtown Dayton has taken a variety of steps to make its apartment buildings safe for residents. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF

Dayton-area apartment demand hurt by COVID-19. Will it recover?

Apartment demand typically heats up in April, but leasing activities across the Dayton region are down as much as 30% during the coroanvirus pandemic, according to a local apartment association.

While the peak renting season is off to a slow start, area landlords say attitudes about and interest in apartment living have not significantly changed, even though higher-density housing may be seen as having a higher potential for infection exposure.

Unlike single-family homes, apartment buildings usually have common areas, laundry rooms and frequently touched surfaces like elevator buttons, door knobs, garbage chutes, counter tops, as well as face-to-face hallway and elevator encounters that can make social distancing more difficult.

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But apartment managers are going to great lengths to keep residents and staff safe during the public health crisis with policies encouraging healthy behaviors, enhanced cleaning and sanitation and virtual showings, said Lloyd Cobble, president of the Greater Dayton Area Apartment Association.

Brianna Wilson, 29, was a resident of the Cannery Lofts at 500 E. Third St. until Friday, when she moved to the Centerfield Flats at Water Street, another downtown apartment property.

Wilson said living in higher-density apartment buildings with a lot of people isn’t exactly ideal during the pandemic, but Cannery’s management have taken a variety of steps to mitigate the potential spread of germs and disease.

Inside doors have been left open to minimize contact, and management closed the gym and other common spaces and provides tissues outside doors and high-touch areas, she said.

“I can’t think of anything they could have done that they haven’t done,” she said. “They are taking a lot of precautions, but they obviously can’t control what everyone in the building does.”

The Cannery Lofts closed common areas, opened all stairwell doors to minimize surface contact, installed baskets with hand sanitizer and tissues at each loading dock elevator and removed package closet doors, said Crystal Alexander, the apartment complex’s assistant community manager.

The Cannery is installing “no-contact” door openers that connect the apartment buildings and has spaced out larger resident packages in the lobby, she said.

“The backbone to our success is the unity of our small community,” she said.

Apartment operators say the souring economy and financial uncertainty are to blame for reduced leasing activities, and not safety fears about apartment living.

“The industry is adapting,” Cobble said. “I don’t expect demand for apartments to go down.”

Apartment leasing was down 20% to 30% across the region last month compared to April 2019, and higher-priced apartments in particular have seen significantly reduced traffic, said Cobble, who is the vice president of Oberer Management Services.

Last month, market-rate properties in Oberer Management Services’ portfolio saw a 30% decrease in move-ins and a 35% decrease in new leases year-over-year, Cobble said. Oberer manages about 4,000 apartment units.

The slowdown hopefully is just temporary, and demand will fully recover when state restrictions meant to slow the spread of infection are eased and the economy starts to reopen, Cobble said.

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Cobble said apartment interest has not gone away, but right now, people aren’t moving as much. Increasingly, people are taking virtual tours and viewing online listings and ads, which suggests they want to move soon.

Despite decreased leasing activity, apartment occupancy rates seem to be holding steady, as residents decide to stay put, Cobble said.

Oberer saw a 35% decrease in move-outs among units in its portfolio compared to last April, he said.

Apartment managers and operators understand they must protect residents and make them feel safe and comfortable, and the apartment industry quickly made major operational changes to achieve this goal, Cobble said.

Higher-density environments have become coronavirus hot-spots and have been blamed for helping spread the virus, like nursing homes, cruise ships, prisons, subways and high-rise apartments in places like New York City.

But though the Dayton region has a variety of high-rise apartment buildings, they are much smaller and less crowded than those found in the Big Apple and other large U.S. cities, industry groups say.

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Apartment office operations have been scaled back at many properties, and apartment managers are offering self-tours and virtual tours, using online tools like Zoom to walk prospective tenants through units to avoid in-person contact.

Office workers are limiting contact with tenants by encouraging electronic payments and using electronic communication, and most maintenance workers are only handling emergency work orders.

Maintenance technicians are wearing personal protection equipment when they make repairs, and many companies are asking residents to go into separate rooms when repairs take place.

Apartment buildings’ amenities like gyms, community rooms and game rooms have been closed, and workers are cleaning common areas regularly, putting out hand sanitizer and posting signs encouraging social distancing.

High-touch surfaces like door handles, elevator buttons and countertops are washing and cleaning priorities.

Apartment tenants should wear masks in elevators, limit occupants in each elevator car and use tissues or something similar to press elevator buttons, said Dan Suffoletto, spokesman with Public Health — Dayton & Montgomery County.

The CDC recommends tenants wear face coverings and restricting the number of people allowed in shared spaces.

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It’s too early to tell if COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on apartment demand, said Caitlin Walter, vice president of research with the National Multifamily Housing Council, whose database covers 11.5 million professionally managed apartment units.

But millennials, the largest living generation, have remained renters in later in life than previous generations because they prefer the urban lifestyle and housing flexibility, she said.

Millennials, who were between the ages of 22 and 38 last year, have homeownership rates at least 8 percentage points below the two previous generations, baby boomers and Gen Xers, when they were the same age, according to the Urban Institute.

“Before this happened, the underlying fundamentals were very good for apartment living, so I’m optimistic those fundamentals will remain in place,” Walter said.

Some industry groups say Ohioans might end up flocking to rental housing because of the COVID-19 economic slowdown.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, many people decided to double up and live with roommates to reduce their housing costs.

Apartments offer budget stability by eliminating surprise expenses, which will be attractive as people try to weather the economic fallout of this outbreak, said Don Brunner, vice chairman of the National Apartment Association and chief operating officer with BRG Realty Group in Cincinnati.

Apartments provide greater flexibility that allow people to move as needed, and they also offer a much-needed sense of community, Brunner said.

“People still need to move and apartments remain an attractive, in-demand housing option,” he said.

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