By Carl Goldberg
To say that the world is at a crossroads would be something of an understatement. At least 900,000 people are dead from COVID-19, including more than 14,000 dead in just New Jersey, and more than 30 million Americans are unemployed. What is undeniable is that we are all living through a period that requires us to examine with new intensity what we really mean and what our actual goal is when we discuss issues of housing and the economy.
How we examine the changing real estate and housing opportunities will be one crucial means of stepping forward toward creating new employment, new developments for changing demands and increasing the state’s tax base, something so important as we stare at huge budget deficits. However, if residential and office vacancies increase, the impact on property taxes will be significant. As the value of property decreases — which would be the case if buildings empty out – so does the property tax valuation.
It is undeniable that, among other things, consumer demand has changed dramatically during the past four months. While I continue to believe that residents seeking an urban/walkable lifestyle will favor the many downtown infill opportunities across the state and along the Gold Coast, research from Zillow shows an increased interest in suburban areas that cannot and must not be dismissed.
While many offices remain closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, we are starting to plan for the reopening of or workplaces in the safest manner possible. Workers are going to expect a more flexible office environment including, where possible, different hours and work-from-home options. Companies with large urban headquarters may need to look for satellite office opportunities since public transportation may not be the first option for commuters.
Employees will have a very different view of their work environment when they return to their offices and this will expand to what our residents expect from their homes. What amenities will support this lifestyle? Homeowners might be looking for yards and other outdoor spaces that still allow for safe interaction while apartment-dwellers may prefer expanded outdoor amenities both private, such as more floorplans with balconies, and public: outdoor cooking spaces, outdoor dining spaces, outdoor fitness spaces, outdoor stairs and breezeways even in manor-building products.
Co-working spaces, already popular in many newer multi-family residential buildings, may need to be expanded and even reconsidered, providing more private spaces for individuals working from home to take phone calls and Zoom meetings away from partners and children who are also working from home.
How do we stay social — live, work, play — while remaining safe? Mixed-use developments and their host municipalities may need to reconsider parking requirements in order to provide additional outdoor dining space, for instance.
Office floorplans may change, shifting away from open workstations and back toward a model of cubes and doors that close. Municipalities may need to recognize the demand for larger apartments that include an additional den or bedroom. Amenitized apartment buildings with robust management and on-site teams may need to be even more creative when seeking to create a sense of community for their residents, with Zoom happy hours, book clubs, or Netflix Party movie nights joining the more traditional roster of in-person gatherings.
Perhaps most importantly, what are we looking for when we think about safety? This expands potentially beyond cleaning protocols and into fundamental questions of construction in order to provide adequate, safe ventilation to our residents. Office developers may need to consider seriously the impacts of sick building syndrome, the need for windows that open and increased access to daylight, for example. And while many green building standards already encourage these steps, what about the buildings that do not seek these certifications? Will we need more elevators? What will these measures cost and will tenants be willing — or able — to pay for them?
New Jersey’s answers to these questions, to the ways that we can move forward to expedite new, safe housing opportunities for ourselves, will be an important step toward economic recovery. This must include creative thinking not just for high-end multifamily residential construction but for inclusionary and mixed-use developments as well as affordable housing to support our essential workers, our teachers, our first responders in these difficult times.
New developments are typically designed and planned two to four years in advance, so making these changes is more than just flipping a switch. But we need to think ahead and to reflect on the lessons we’ve learned during the past six…