Unsurprisingly, when it came to talking about the evolution of renters’ needs, COVID and the pandemic were big conversational hitters. The residential sector relies upon having a finely tuned ear to the ground, listening to what it is that the renters want, and need. And, as our lives have rapidly progressed towards a more digitally dependent way of life, renters now have connectivity at the top of the agenda – meaning that it must sit atop any developer’s agenda too.
Michael Hanak, Starlight Investments encapsulated the shift in resident requirements well when he said: “Prior to COVID, the focus was on amenities and now people are working from home, their focus has shifted. The tech piece has become front and center. The responsibility is on the landlord and developers to understand the expectations of tenants and what they’re thinking when they’re about to enter an apartment.”
The need for a more digitally capable and well-connected residential approach was further unpicked by Andrei Girenkov, Greystar, who pointed out that: “one year of COVID has accelerated our digital roadmap by five years: It’s a need that’s here and now.”
As the discussion progressed, the other panellists echoed the sentiment that COVID had certainly accelerated the need for connectivity in (the previously slow to adapt) multifamily sector. But, what came to light during the discussion that this isn’t an industry-specific shift, as Kevin Donnelly, NMHC, was keen to highlight that the move towards a more technologically driven mindset can be observed at a governmental level: “We’re tracking federal policy and the way it impacts our renters – we’ve seen a massive shift in the way our governments implement technology, broadband deployment and are addressing access issues.”
However, It’s not going to be plain sailing. Bringing unanimous levels of connectivity to the residential sector comes with its own unique set of challenges. Stephanie Fuhrman, Catalyst Housing Group, acted as the voice of reason during the discussion as she highlighted the fact that, if we want multifamily buildings to be well-connected, digital-first spaces, real estate’s got some work to do: “5G will land well in certain communities, but in high rise communities it’s not going to solve problems like dead elevators or unused space.” And real estate needs to be prepared for the fact that “on the retrofit side, it’s a completely different game, and it can be complicated and expensive. There isn’t always a clear Return on Investment.” So, whilst creating well-connected buildings in which people can live, work, and thrive to their full potential is the ultimate goal, we must be prepared for the challenging road ahead.
But, how to stay ahead? New buildings can’t be new forever, and it’s the never-ending job of real estate to consider how buildings will remain relevant. In regards to future-proofing, an interesting concept brought to light by Charles Davis, Hines, was the idea of the ‘known’ and ‘unknown’ futures – the principle that we know so much about what’s coming, but there will always be uncertainties (the unknowns).
In regards to technology, the ‘known future’ refers to what’s out there now, this means researching well and making room for what you know already exists. When it comes to the ‘unknown futures “all we can rely on is history. Historically, we know that tech gets smaller rather than bigger. We must be innovative and create pathways for the things we don’t know so that we’re ready for when it arrives.” Charles Davis, Hines.
What Davis points out is that our personal tech (phones, laptops etc) are becoming more streamlined, slimmer, lighter pieces of technology. With this in mind, we can assume that we’ll want increasing levels of technology to take up decreasing levels of space. The cables and wires that connect our digitally-dependent way of life should be out of sight, out of mind, but very much within use. Connectivity must be the greatest, most invisible utility in a building.
Overall, the panel discussion made it clear that we, as an industry, are sitting right at the precipice of a great shift. The past 18 months have caused seismic waves of change across the world, and we’ve all had to accommodate a much more technologically-driven way of living, and we’ve adapted with remarkable ease. It’s now essential that landlords operate with open ears, ready to listen to renters’ new needs in light of our rapid and radical shift towards a tech-centric future.