Are Apartments Bad for Brookhaven?

Single-family home owners tend to be skeptical of apartments, and Brookhaven homeowners are no exception.  The perception is that 1) apartments will be a drag on property values, 2) apartment renters will not be vested in the well-being of the community, and 3) apartment renters will create traffic congestion on Peachtree and Dresden.  Are these ideas supported by urban studies and economics?

Let’s look at each perception more carefully.

1) Apartments will be a drag on property values

You’ve probably heard the old adage that real estate value is determined by “location, location, location,” and therefore we want to be cautious in generalizing from studies.  However, in 2007 a Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies’ research paper looked at this question in detail by reviewing a number of previous studies.

(http://www.jchs.harvard.edu/sites/jchs.harvard.edu/files/rr07-14_obrinsky_stein.pdf)

Many of the reviewed studies focused on the question, ‘do lower-income or workforce-income focused apartment developments lower the property value of surrounding single-family houses?’  All studies concluded that this was not the case.  While individual results would be neighborhood-specific, the overriding conclusion was captured by the statement, “We find that large, dense, multi-family rental developments….do not negatively impact the sales price of nearby single-family homes.”  Interestingly, the inverse was often true—homes located near dense multi-family developments appreciated about 0.5% faster than homes located further away.

In the case of Brookhaven—location, location, location–we can find good reasons to expect the latter (faster appreciation) to be true.  First, all new apartment projects in Brookhaven have been “luxury” Class A quality with rents in the $1.80 – $2.20/SF range.  That means a 1,200 SF 2 bedroom apartment will rent for about $2,400/month, a rent that can only be handled by well-paid or well-off households.  Secondly, all of these apartments are built to “condominium standards” with the expectation that they can be converted to condominium home-ownership when market and financing conditions are favorable. There is nothing shoddy about the construction or sound-proofing. Thirdly, the influx of apartment renters increases local street and retail activity, confirming the popularity of Brookhaven and making it known and attractive to a wider group of metro-Atlantans.  More “buyers” per seller equals upward pricing pressure in the Brookhaven market.  Fourthly, young apartment dwellers become a key part of the home-buying market as they couple up and/or have children.  Presumably, many of them like living in Brookhaven and will want to stay as they search for a single-family home. This also serves to drive up the price of Brookhaven single-family housing.

 

2) Apartment renters will not be vested in the well-being of the community

This perception often takes the form of two subsidiary assumptions: 1) apartment dwellers do not engage in local social and civic activity and 2) the presence of apartments increases crime.

It seems self-evident that if you don’t own, you care less. After all, you can leave at any time (almost). The Harvard study referenced above looked at this question and found the evidence less clear.

Yes, apartment dwellers are less likely to vote in elections than homeowners—47% vs. 78%.  This supports the “care less” argument.  On the other hand, apartment dwellers were more likely to socialize with their neighbors (33% vs. 17%), just as likely to engage with local social groups (book clubs, recreational sports leagues, dinner clubs), almost as likely to identify closely with their city, and only moderately less likely to identify closely with their neighborhood.  While it may be true to say that homeowners are generally MORE invested in the community, it would be inaccurate to characterize apartment occupants as “uninvested.”

Do apartments correspond with higher local crime rates?  The Harvard report reviewed three studies, all of which found “no connection between crime and housing density.”  While there is a statistical connection between crime and socio-economic status, this would not apply to apartments in the Brookhaven Overlay area as, given the costs of apartment living in Brookhaven, there would be little statistical difference in socio-economic status.

 

3) Apartment renters will create traffic congestion on Peachtree and Dresden

New apartments bring greater density to central Brookhaven and therefore more cars.  Do more cars equal more congestion?  This is not as simple an answer as it would seem since it depends on frequency and timing of car trips, unused road capacity, and traffic engineering, but let’s assume that more cars will create at least some more congestion.  Will this make Peachtree and Dresden impossible to navigate?

To answer this question, Brookhaven’s new Comprehensive Traffic Plan uses traffic engineering protocols to study Peachtree and Dresden.  The pertinent descriptor is “Level of Service” (LOS) of each road, and the Comp Plan analyzes today’s LOS and that of 2034 based on development and growth projections.  Peachtree is currently rated a “C” and Dreden a “D”.  In 2034, Peachtree is projected to have an LOS of “D”, and Dresden is projected to remain a “D”.  Here is the definition of those LOS ratings, from the Comp Plan text:

At LOS C, traffic flow is stable with a level of comfort and convenience for the driver. However, at LOS D, speed and freedom to maneuver in traffic become more restrictive. LOS E indicates that a road is nearing its capacity to serve traffic and flow is unstable, driver comfort and convenience are poor, and “stop and go” conditions are present.

 In other words, despite our intuitive assumptions that “things will get much worse with more cars”, the traffic engineering analysis suggests that Dresden has the capacity to handle the additional cars without more congestion, while Peachtree will experience more congestion—at least by 2034 when all sites along Peachtree are built out. Note that the Comp Plan goes on to recommend “technical analysis” of the Peachtree/Dresden and Peachtree/N. Druid Hills intersections with an eye to improvements to ease future congestion.  In other words, roadway and intersection improvements are available to mitigate congestion.

In summary, there’s no documented reason to think apartments are bad for Brookhaven.  If anything, higher density housing– whether apartments or condominiums–bring a greater variety of housing stock to Brookhaven, and “Diverse housing stock, in fact, is the key to creating a vibrant and diverse community.”  [Bradley Calvert. http://www.planetizen.com/taxonomy/term/35111]  In addition, more households in a compact area will support more shops and restaurants, which in turn give all Brookhaven residents more eating/shopping/service choices.

The Harvard study goes on to note, “Experience suggests that opponents who live near apartment developments are often hard to convince.  For some, opposition to apartments may be more emotional than analytical.  Anecdotes trump statistics.”

There may be other views rooted in analysis on this subject.  Responses based on studies and statistics are welcome and will be posted to further this discussion.

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