FOR THE PAST THREE YEARS, THE National Multi Housing Council (NMHC) and its joint legislative partner, the National Apartment Association (NAA), have undertaken an extensive public relations effort to improve the image of apartments. Our first goal has been to eliminate the false stereotypes associated with multifamily residences.
So far, we have recorded numerous successes. Many articles on the growing popularity of apartment living have appeared in newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to USA Today. And chances are, your local paper has featured a favorable story on apartments citing NMHC sometime during the last three years. Similarly, when NMHC focused media attention on the flaws of the rent vs. buy debate, favorable articles again appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes and Investor's Business Daily.
Victories and setbacks
We have scored political victories as well. To balance the dominant homeownership viewpoint, we secured language in the 2000 Republican party platform recognizing the importance of a balanced housing policy, including rental housing. At our urging, congressional leaders also have publicly acknowledged the importance of apartments.
But at the end of 2001, an article that appeared in The New York Times Magazine reminded us how much remains to be done. The story relates a conversation between Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) about the impact of Sept. 11 on New York City neighborhoods.
In the article, Sen. Lott is quoted as saying, “When I went there [to Ground Zero] with Hillary and Chuck, they talked about getting people back in their homes. And I looked around and said, ‘What homes?’ Because when you say ‘home,’ I think of a free-standing building. I never thought of them [high-rises] as homes. But they are.”
Sen. Lott's comment is a reminder that a large part of the U.S. population holds outdated perceptions about housing preferences. As America's population diversifies, citizens are re-thinking their housing choices. Forty percent of renters say they rent out of choice and not financial necessity. This is up from 32% one year ago. These lifestyle renters include young professionals and empty nesters looking for shorter commutes, more amenities and financial freedom.
While these changes are well-known to apartment firms, many policymakers remain uninformed. This has resulted in outdated legislative and regulatory housing policies. So, we continue our battle.
Spreading the message
Our newest tool is a 16-page brochure that debunks the most persistent myths about apartments. It also explains how policymakers who oppose apartments lose a valuable alternative for their community-development challenges. The brochure, entitled “Creating Successful Communities: A New Housing Paradigm,” tells the real story about apartments. (A PDF version of the brochure is posted on NMHC's Web site).
In late January, NMHC and NAA hand-delivered the brochure to the nation's mayors at their annual gathering. In February, we shared it with leading community development and smart-growth stakeholders at a summit on housing density co-sponsored by NMHC, the Urban Land Institute and the American Institute of Architects. In March, hundreds of apartment professionals will come to Washington, D.C., to meet with their congressional delegations and distribute the brochure.
In the world of politics, nobody expects to change minds overnight. Change requires a concentrated effort and many small steps. NMHC and NAA will continue to argue for the industry, but our ultimate success will require a mobilized army of apartment professionals delivering the message to decision makers in their communities.
Today's population is more open to apartment living than ever before. Isn't it time for our policymakers to catch up?
Clarine Nardi Riddle is the senior vice president of the NMHC/NAA Joint Legislative Program.
Myth vs. Reality of Apartments
Myth #1: The dream of homeownership is universal
Reality: Apartment living is gaining in popularity, particularly among higher-income households
Myth #2: Apartment residents do not pay for the services they use
Reality: Apartment residents pay property taxes via rent, often at a higher rate
Myth #3: Apartments disproportionately burden school systems
Reality: Single-family owners have three times as many school children
Myth #4: Apartments bring traffic congestion
Reality: Apartment residents own fewer cars and are more likely to use public transportation
Myth #5: Apartments bring down property values
Reality: Homes near apartments maintain their values
Myth #6: Apartments increase crime rates
Reality: Apartments help create safe and secure neighborhoods
Myth #7: Homeowners make better citizens
Reality: Homeownership is not required for good citizenship and strong neighborhoods
Myth #8: Apartments increase local infrastructure costs
Reality: Apartments use municipal infrastructure more efficiently
Myth #9: Americans oppose higher density development
Reality: Consumer acceptance of higher density development is understated
Myth #10: Homeownership should be our top housing policy priority
Reality: Apartments are uniquely qualified to address many of our most pressing needs