Nearly 40 million Americans live in high-rise condos and apartments. And because of the COVID-19 pandemic, developers and residents have been forced to rethink high-rise condo and apartment living in terms of health, space, and utility.
To capture these thoughts, and to understand the future of high-rise living, a team at Grimm + Parker Architects, which specializes in high-rise architecture projects, last summer conducted a fact-based exploration of the challenges and pressures that developers and residents experienced during the health crisis, and how those factors are likely to affect apartment design.
The vast majority of the survey’s respondents—92%—saw the social and physical implications of COVID-19 as being at least moderate, and in some cases significant. “Quarantine is difficult enough, but the added noise from other residents makes it so much more difficult. I can hear doors slamming, cabinets slamming, constant thuds from neighbors above, dogs barking. It wears on mental sanity,” said one exasperated resident whom the report quoted. Download a PDF recap of the Grimm + Parker multifamily research report, The New Normal & The Future of Multifamily Housing.
The survey pointed out that there was a lot of concern expressed about health and safety, and the increasing density of high-rise apartment and condo projects, which complicated social distancing and the ability of residents to “separate” rooms within apartments for different uses. And 80% of residents indicated a shift in desired residential unit types, which was a disconnect in developer thinking.
Common challenges cited by respondents included the lack of adequate space while sheltering-in-place, to live, work, and exercise. Only 11% of the resident-respondents lived in a high-rise condo or apartment with a balcony, so quarantine made access to the outdoors problematic. Conversely, those respondents with balconies were able to adapt that space for, say, fitness or meditation.
The report touched on how COVID-19 has altered tenants’ and developers’ perceptions about an apartment building’s amenities. For example, 80% of users said it was a challenge maintaining social distancing while exiting their buildings. More than 30% cited issues with the high-rise condo building’s cramped laundry rooms or package collection areas. And 91% said they’d be changing the way they use amenity spaces in the future.
Two-thirds of the developers who responded to the survey indicated they would like to see amenity spaces adjusted to fit social distancing standards and improved hygiene protocols. Elevators, lobbies, laundry rooms, and grocery pick-up zones were among the most mentioned spaces.
The Boston Globe reported that veteran Boston broker Kevin Ahearn, stated that more than 2,000 condo sales have already closed this year. That’s a 71 percent jump from the same period last year, and higher than 2019. It’s shaping up to be one of the strongest years in two decades.
He thinks that condos in Boston will continue to sell at a rapid clip and that: young urban professionals and suburban empty-nesters looking for a smaller second home, perhaps closer to where they work in a high rise building
“Everybody was talking about different opinions about what would happen when people had the option to work remotely, . . . but I live downtown, . . . and it is filling up pretty dramatically,” Ahearn said. “We’re in cruise control right now.”
Sue Hawkes, whose Boston firm, The Collaborative Companies, markets many new high-rise condo developments, said she’s seeing the usual suspects hunting for condos downtown, even the young people who were thought to have fled cities when COVID-19 hit.
“Young people didn’t leave permanently, they just took a hiatus . . . and moved back to their parents’ house for a while or rented in the suburbs because they could work from home,” she said. “They are coming back and purchasing.”
A few miles away in the Seaport District, there’s a similar feeling of optimism from Alexander Shing. He runs Cottonwood Group, the California-based developer of EchelonSeaport, a massive condo complex that began selling before the pandemic. He said the nearly 450 units across two buildings are now more than 75 percent sold, and a neighboring apartment building has filled quickly as well.
Amazon’s Seaport expansion, which will place 3,000 tech employees basically across the street from EchelonSeaport, is an added bonus.
Besides the period of time when the sales team couldn’t host in-person tours, Shing said, he doesn’t think the condo market dipped during COVID. A handful of residents purchased condos last year that they only saw via FaceTime, he said.
Supply is tight, said Hawkes, a product of the pandemic and construction delays that pushed back the new development. At the current pace of sales, everything on the market would sell in less than two months, according to Douglas Elliman; in June of 2020, there were four months of supply.
For the buyer, limited supply means higher prices, Hawkes said.RELATED: Home prices still surging, but there’s a little more to buy now
But for many, that isn’t a dealbreaker, said Deborah Hauser, executive director of residential brokerage at Boston-based Senné. The industries fueling job growth in Boston — life sciences, technology — pay well. Empty nesters are selling suburban homes for sums that have climbed even faster. Young professionals who spent last year living with their parents may have a little more money to spend.
And these new buildings, Shing notes, have built-in bells and whistles that may fit with people’s “post-pandemic values”: access to outdoor spaces, fitness centers, recreational space, and places where they can plop down with a laptop and work. Those features were part of EchelonSeaport’s design, Shing said, and now they are even more sought after.
Sometimes that just means modest tweaks, Hawkes said, or even just new terminology. Conference rooms are “Zoom rooms,” and co-working areas are “work pods.” Hauser said she’s seeing more dog grooming rooms for the wave of people that bought puppies during the pandemic, as well as more bike rooms that have tools like tire pumps on hand.
The fundamental appeal of downtown Boston hasn’t really changed.