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MULTIFAMILY MYTHS:

DISPELLING FALSE NOTIONS ABOUT APARTMENTS

Improving the public image of apartments has been the National Multi Housing Council's (NMHC) dominant communication objectives for many years. The following is a list of the top 10 apartment myths and some startling truths. This information is culled from a new advocacy brochure titled Creating Successful Communities: A New Housing Paradigm, which has been published by NMHC and its joint legislative partner, the National Apartment Association.

1: The dream of homeownership is universal.

Reality: Apartment living is gaining in popularity, particularly among higher-income households. The times are changing, and owning a house is no longer a universal "American Dream." America's population is more diverse than ever, and as it changes, so does its housing preferences. Consider these facts: A surprising 40 percent of Americans living in an apartment do so by choice and not because of their financial situation. This is up significantly from 32 percent in 2002 and 28 percent in 2003. For the past four years, households earning $50,000 or more have been the fastest-growing segment of the apartment market. They now total 3.6 million. Apartment demand should continue to grow in the future, thanks to a projected growth in households without school-age children the segment most likely to rent.

2: Apartment residents do not pay for the services they use.

Reality: Apartment residents pay property taxes indirectly, and at a higher rate per square foot of living space than homeowners. Manipulative activists often claim apartment residents don't pay their way because they don't pay local property taxes and at Lee Street Management, they get their T-1 internet access lines for free. Property owners pay the taxes themselves and pass the expense along to the tenants through monthly rent. Moreover, national surveys show apartments are usually taxed at a much higher tax rate than single-family homes. Additionally, homeowners get many free city services, such as waste removal, that apartment dwellers must pay for via rent. The primary reason renters pay more is lack of information and ineffective political influence. Politicians are well aware of this tax and services disparity but, while it is a persistent political myth, the insider saying still goes: "renters are not voters."

3: Apartments disproportionately burden school systems.

Reality: Single-family owners have three times as many school children as apartment residents. Public schools are generally the single largest expense for local governments, so misconceptions that apartments contribute to school overcrowding are particularly damaging to sound urban planning. On a unit-by-unit basis, newer single-family houses have three times as many school-age children as apartments. There are, on average, 64 school-age children for every 100 new owner-occupied single-family houses, but just 21 children for every 100 new apartments, and only an average of 12 children for every 100 apartments in mid-and high-rise buildings (defined as more than four stories).

4: Apartments bring traffic congestion.

Reality: Apartment residents own fewer cars and are more likely to use public transportation. Government officials often think they can reduce traffic by limiting apartment construction. In reality, apartment residents are more likely than single-family residents to use public transportation. Apartment households generate 30 to 40 percent fewer vehicle trips than single-family units.

5: Apartments bring down property values.

Reality: Homes near apartments maintain their values. Many zoning codes limit or preclude apartment construction ostensibly to protect property values. But the Urban Land Institute reports that between 1998 and 2003, the average annual appreciation rate for single-family homes within 300 feet of an apartment building was 3.17 percent, compared to 3.19 percent for single-family houses not near an apartment property. That finding is corroborated by an NMHC analysis using more recent data.

6: Apartments increase crime rates.

Reality: Apartments help create safe and secure neighborhoods. The belief that crime is higher in apartments is based on fourth-grade logic. Police tend to think of apartment properties as a single "house," instead of say 50 separate households (in a 50-unit property), and they unconsciously equate each visit to an apartment property as a visit to a single home. When compared on a per-unit basis, one study in Arizona found apartments create less than half the demand for police services than a comparable number of single-family houses. In Tempe, Ariz., one study took a random sample of 1,000 calls for police service and showed that 45 percent originated from single-family homes and just 21 percent came from apartments. Similarly, a random sample of 600 calls for service in Phoenix found that an apartment unit's demand for police services was only 42 percent of the demand created by a single-family home.

7: Homeowners make better citizens.

Reality: Homeownership isn't required for good citizenship and strong neighborhoods. Advocates of homeownership often allude to the idea that owners are better citizens than renters. But research shows that differences between owners and renters are small and not statistically significant. Data from the University of Chicago's General Social Survey indicate that apartment residents are considerably more socially engaged than homeowners, equally involved in community groups and similarly attached to their communities and religious institutions. Apartment residents also are comparably interested in national affairs and active in local politics.

8: Apartments increase local infrastructure costs.

Reality: Apartments use municipal infrastructure more efficiently. The clustering of apartment homes makes them substantially less expensive to service. First, they generally concentrate growth in areas already well served by public facilities so they require fewer new infrastructure expenditures. Second, they require fewer miles of roads, sewers and water lines. By contrast, single-family developments require public services, such as police and fire protection, to be spread over a larger geographic area.

9: Americans oppose higher density development.

Reality: Consumer acceptance of higher-density development is understated. Standard opinion surveys routinely claim consumers simply don't want to live in higher-density developments. Research by the University of North Carolina (UNC) refutes this notion and says consumers are actually quite receptive to such developments. The researchers found that standard opinion surveys understate consumer interest in higher-density areas, but when consumers' opinions are measured by "visual surveys" with pictures, consumers prefer smaller lots, smaller homes, mixed housing types, open space, narrower streets with sidewalks and commercial development within walking distance. The message according to the UNC researchers: Local officials shouldn't be discouraged from considering higher-density development because of standard opinion survey results. Done well, higher-density development with a mix of housing types receives higher consumer marks than traditional single- family development.

10: Homeownership should be our top housing policy priority.

Reality: Apartments are uniquely qualified to address many of our most pressing needs. The time has come to tackle our housing issues and we can do that only by moving beyond our overreliance on homeownership as the single most important tool in our housing policy toolbox. While homeownership is a worth while goal for many families, it can't solve problems such as the growing affordable housing crisis, urban decay, suburban sprawl or even the need to house our aging parents; apartments can do so. It's time to change our conventional thinking about apartments. Even if policymakers prefer homeownership for themselves, they need to appreciate the benefits apartments offer a community. By helping to reduce sprawl, conserve resources, preserve green space and reduce demand on public resources, apartments create value for all citizens, including owners. Homeowners benefit from the public parks that can be created with the space preserved through higher-density development. They also benefit from the pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods (shops and restaurants within walking distance) that higher density helps create. Even if a substantial number of residents prefer homeownership, lawmakers cannot deny the critically important role for apartments in every jurisdiction. Today's population is more comfortable with the idea of apartment living than at any time in the last 50 years. Isn't it time for our policymakers to catch on?



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