Despite lots of construction, Milwaukee still needs more 1-bedroom apartments

New apartment construction in American cities tends toward large buildings with small units, leaving fewer new options for households with more than 2 members.

Complaints abound about the lack of apartments suitable for a family with kids. In Milwaukee, I often hear questions like, “Who is going to live in these?” and “Where will families go?”

The truth is, even the robust growth of studio and 1-bedroom apartments has failed to meet the even more rapid rise in the number of these households. Over the past decade, the city of Milwaukee added around 9,300 1-person households versus about 2,200 new studio or 1-bedroom housing units.

Surely, not all these 1-person households will want to live in a small unit, but judging by current dwelling behavior, many clearly do. The growing gap between potential residents of small units and available inventory is larger than that for any other market segment.

Bigger buildings, smaller units

The next two graphs show annual construction statistics for the Midwest. In 2022, 63% of new apartment units came from buildings of at least 50 units, compared to just 21% in 2005. Apartment buildings with 2-4 units are hardly built anymore. They contributed just 1% of new apartments last year, down from 11% in 2005. Likewise, small apartment buildings with 5 to 9 units contributed 22% of new units in 2005 and just 4% in 2022.

bar plot showing the annual share of multifamily units completed by number of units per building in the midwest region

As apartment buildings have grown larger, units have grown smaller by every measure. Seventy-eight percent of apartments built in 2005 contained at least 2 bedrooms, falling to 50% in 2022.

From 2000-2009, studio apartments made up about 1.5% of annual apartment construction. During the first three years of the 2020s, studios comprised 12.3% of new construction.

In 2005, 28% of new apartments were under 1,000 sq. ft. and 10% were 1,800 sq. ft. or larger. In 2022, 51% of new units were under 1,000 sq. ft. and just 2% were at least 1,800 sq. ft.

bar plot showing the annual share of newly-built apartment units by number of bedrooms in the midwest region

Growing demand for small units

Often, reasons for this dearth of “family-sized” apartments are given from the supply side. Zoning codes often make it hard to build the kinds of small apartment buildings that would fit in residential neighborhoods. Where room allows, bigger buildings are both more profitable. U.S. fire codes require large apartment buildings to be built around a central hallway. These “double-loaded” floor plans limit the number of multi-bedroom apartment units common elsewhere.

In cities like Milwaukee, there is also tremendous demand for small apartment units.

Even as Milwaukee’s population has fallen over the past 50 years, the number of households (or occupied housing units), has remained stable due to the growing number of people living by themselves.

Just over the past decade, the city added 9,300 1-person households and 1,500 2-person households, while losing 11,500 households with 3 or more members.

bar plot showing the number of households by household size in the city of Milwaukee over time

Milwaukee’s housing stock has, overall, not caught up to these changes.

Recent census estimates count about 87,000 single-member households in Milwaukee, compared with an available supply of 52,000 studio or 1-bedroom apartments.

In sharp contrast, Milwaukee holds 23,000 more 2-unit dwellings than 2-person households and 53,000 more 3-unit dwellings than 3-person households. Four-person households are closely matched to the number of 4-bedroom homes, and the number of households with 5 or more members (though shrinking) still outstrips the number of 5+ bedroom houses by about 16,000.

bar plot comparing households by size with housing units have the same number of bedrooms

Of course, households do not match house sizes in the neat way those numbers suggest. Children in large families have always shared bedrooms and small households sometimes want more space. As I began writing this piece, I wondered if the relationship might run in reverse. Perhaps parents have less money to spend, and so wind up in smaller houses, while couples without children might be able to afford the largest houses.

As it turns out, this is not the case. Within the constraints of Milwaukee’s housing supply, people generally wind up choosing homes that closely match their household size.

The most common situation, involving 37% of households, is when the number of bedrooms exactly matches the number of residents. Another quarter of households have one extra bedroom. Fourteen percent have two extra bedrooms, and another 14% have 1 more person than they do bedrooms. Only 9% of households have at least two fewer bedrooms than people.

Forty percent of 1-person households live in either a studio or a 1-bedroom apartment. Another third live in a two-bedroom unit. The modal 2-person household lives in a 2-bedroom unit (41%), and just over half of 3-person households also live in a 3-bedroom home.

More of a mismatch exists for larger families, those with 4 or more members. Half of 4-member households live in a 3-bedroom house, a quarter have 4 or more bedrooms, and another quarter live somewhere with fewer than three.

Among households with 5 or more people, just 9% live in a house with 5 or more bedrooms, reflecting the lack of supply in this category. Large families are still the most likely group to live in one of these uncommonly large houses.

table showing the proportions of households (by size) living with different numbers of bedrooms

In a city like Milwaukee, with little available land for new construction, it comes as no surprise that most new construction is tailored to the only market segment with significant growth—adults without kids, usually living alone. Three-bedroom units abound, albeit primarily in aging housing stock.

The big challenge for builders and policymakers will be figuring out how to build enough smaller units that are appealing and affordable to the growing numbers single-member households. The large apartment buildings that dominate the current construction landscape are an important part of that. Milwaukee also needs to advance strategies like accessory dwelling units and corner quadplexes that accommodate shrinking household sizes in popular, already built-out residential neighborhoods.

Data Note

The Census Bureau does not publish a table counting households by members and bedrooms, so I computed this data from the most recent batch of census microdata. Due to limitations with the dataset, these statistics include Milwaukee County’s north shore suburbs.

Additional statistics are drawn from the 2017-21 American Community Survey, the 2008-12 ACS, decennial censuses from previous years, and the Survey on Construction.

Continue ReadingDespite lots of construction, Milwaukee still needs more 1-bedroom apartments

Milwaukee home sales volume follows to lowest in years, prices are trailing inflation

The number of houses sold in Milwaukee fell by 32% during the second quarter of 2023, compared to the same period last year. While prices continued to rise, they did so more slowly than the inflation rate.

In “real,” inflation-adjusted dollars, the median sale price was about $10,000 below the peak in 2021, albeit still well above pre-pandemic prices.

My analysis of preliminary state transaction records shows about 1,950 “arm’s length” home sales during April, May, and June of 2023. That is roughly 900 fewer than either of the past two years and close to the total sold in the second quarter of 2020, when much of the economy was still frozen by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In my last housing market report, I described first quarter home sales as falling to “pre-pandemic levels.” Now, it’s fair to say that the housing market is even cooler than that. Sales were down about 6% through the first three months of 2023 compared to 2019. That downward trend has continued, and sales in the 2nd quarter of 2023 were fully 18% lower than in 2019.

bar plot showing quarterly arm's length home sales in the city of Milwaukee, 2018-2023

The median nominal price paid for a home during April-June has increased each year since 2019, but recent price growth has trailed inflation.

This year’s median price in the second quarter was $170,000. When adjusted for inflation to the value of the June 2023 dollar, the median price was $172,000 in 2022 and $181,000 in 2021.

dot plot showing the quarterly median home sale price in Milwaukee

The number of home sales declined by at least a fifth in every aldermanic district over the past year. The smallest drops came in 4th district (covering downtown) and the 12th (the eastern half of the near south side). The sharpest declines occurred on in the north side’s 1st district (-45%) and the 14th district (-39%), which covers Bay View and surrounding areas.

Inflation-adjusted prices grew, year-over-year, in 7 districts and declined in 8. The greatest decline came in the 4th district, where the median price fell 14% between the 2nd quarters of 2022 and 2023. The largest proportional increase occurred in the 6th district, which includes Brewer’s Hill, Halyard Park, Harambee, and much of Riverwest. The median price jumped 39%.

maps showing the percentage change in sale volume and median price in Milwaukee aldermanic districts, comparing Q2 of 2022 with Q2 of 2023

As in the first quarter of this year, out-of-state landlords have switched from net buyers of Milwaukee houses to net sellers. During April, May, and June of this year, an out-of-state owner was the seller in 12% of transactions and the buyer in just 7%. A year ago, the relationship moved in the other direction, as owners outside Wisconsin bought 15% of transacted houses and sold 9%.

The behavior of Milwaukee’s out-of-state, private-equity backed landlords gives some insight into this change. After several years of rapid acquisitions, VineBrook Homes and SFR3 have both switched to selling Milwaukee houses. Transaction records show that VineBrook sold 20 houses during April, May, and June of this year. SFR3 sold 18, and neither company purchased any.

Data collected through mid-May showed that VineBrook was generally losing money on sales in 2023, while SFR3 was selling houses for far more than they originally paid. The rest of the 2nd quarter did not alter that finding.

I was able to make direct comparisons between the original purchase and final sale prices in 17 VineBrook transactions during April, May, and June. Records show that the company sold the houses for $1,267,500 collectively, after buying them for $1,326,140. That is a loss of $58,640, or 4.4%, not including any other expenses beyond the purchase price.

I likewise identified comparable acquisition records for 16 of SFR3’s 2023 second quarter sales. Collectively, SFR3 sold these houses for $2,671,800 after buying them for $1,274,009—a profit of $1,397,791, or 101% before additional expenses.

Flippers remained active in the market. The most prolific, Rentalvest LLC, bought 17 houses and sold 12, according to state transaction records. California-based Ace Property Acquisitions LLC bought 15 and sold 16. Smart Home Solutions LLC bought 9 and sold 10.

After several years of rapid owner-occupancy growth, homebuyer activity has cooled, but the trend remains positive. Through the first half of the year, parcel records indicate that the city has enjoyed a net increase of slightly more than 200 owner-occupiers.

A note on data

The statistics in this article are derived from a custom dataset matching state transaction records with city parcel data. Due to delays in the reporting process, the 2023 statistics are preliminary, and the final totals will likely be slightly higher than at present. About 1.5% of transactions could not be matched and are not included in this analysis.

Continue ReadingMilwaukee home sales volume follows to lowest in years, prices are trailing inflation

Two of Milwaukee’s corporate landlords are selling houses. One is making huge profits while the other is losing money.

Three large, private equity-backed corporate landlords operate in Milwaukee’s house rental market. All three began buying lots of Milwaukee houses in 2018 or 2019, and they ended 2022 owning just shy of 1,500 homes in total. The largest, VineBrook Homes, bought over 450 houses in Milwaukee last year, according to city parcel records.

But all three companies mostly ceased buying houses by late 2022, and in fact, two of the three have spent early 2023 selling houses. One of the companies, SFR3, has made double the money it spent to buy those properties. The other company, VineBrook, has actually lost money on these transactions. The third company, Highgrove Holdings, ended its buying spree months before the other two, and likewise hasn’t sold anything recently.

The different trajectories of these three companies give clues to their financial health, business strategy, and potential consequences they may have on Milwaukee neighborhoods.

In some ways SFR3 and VineBrook follow similar business models. Both are private companies which raise money by selling securities to qualified investors. Over the past few years, each has bought thousands of cheap houses across cities in the midwest and south.

In Milwaukee, each focuses on single family homes usually worth around $100,000. They mainly buy homes on the north side of the city–either north of Capitol Drive or west of 35th Street. VineBrook is much larger. At the end of 2022, they owned about 950 houses in Milwaukee and 27,000 across the country. SFR3 owned about 240 in Milwaukee, while their website claims “thousands of single-family rentals” in total. Neither are primarily flippers; instead, they follow a buy-to-rent business model.

Before 2023, I can find no records of VineBrook selling a single house in Milwaukee. SFR3 was more willing to flip their recent acquisitions, selling 14 in 2021 and 45 in 2022. Through mid-May 2023, SFR3 has recorded 25 more house sales and VineBrook 13.

I was able to directly compare the sale price with the purchase price in 23 of SFR3’s sales this year. They paid $2,084,630 for those 23 properties, owned them for an average of 67 weeks, and sold them for $4,218,000–a profit rate of 102%. Twenty of the houses were sold to an owner-occupier, according to transaction returns filed with the Wisconsin Department of Revenue.

Direct comparisons were possible for 11 of VineBrook’s 2023 sales, all of which took place between March 16th and May 12th. VineBrook paid $966,112 for these 11 properties, owned them for an average of 103 weeks, and sold them for $909,500–a loss of 6%. They only sold one of these properties to an owner-occupier.

SFR3 made a profit in each comparable home sale–not counting any rehab expenses. Their biggest gain came on a house they bought on the 1500 block of N. 57th Street, in the Washington Heights neighborhood. They paid $153,000 in November 2021 and sold it for $331,000 in February 2023.

VineBrook lost money in 6 sales and sold for more than they spent in 5. Their biggest gain was just $15,000. They paid $85,000 in June 2021 for a house on the 2900 block of N. 46th St, and they sold it for $100,000 in May 2023.

Their worst loss came just a few blocks away, on the 2300 block of N. 47th. That house was purchased out of foreclosure by an owner-occupier for $33,000 in December 2019. Then, that buyer sold to VineBrook for $109,000 in December 2020. VineBrook sold it to another owner-occupier for $50,000 in April 2023. This appears to be the rare instance where two owner-occupiers made out well at the expense of a private equity firm.

Why is SFR3 so much better at selling for a profit than VineBrook? It appears that SFR3 is both a savvier buyer and a more patient seller than its larger rival. Take those 23 SFR3 sale comparisons from this year. When SFR3 bought them, they paid just 89% of the then-assessed value of the properties. When they sold, they received 162% of the current assessed value. (Assessed values are based on property sales in the previous year or two.)

By comparison, VineBrook originally payed 115% of the assessed value of the houses it went on to sell in 2023. When it sold them, it received just 83% of the current assessed value.

SFR3 made shrewder purchases to begin with, but it also made more money by selling to owner-occupiers who are willing to pay top dollar. VineBrook apparently overpaid for houses to begin with, and it also appears to be selling hastily, usually to other landlords.

VineBrook’s troubles extend far beyond Milwaukee. In January, they forfeited $41 million in initial deposits after terminating purchase agreements to buy about 2,900 more houses (not in Wisconsin). This contributed to their $92.4 million net loss in the first quarter of 2023. By comparison, VineBrook reported a net loss of $2.7 million in the first quarter of 2022. VineBrook also faces challenges from rising interest rates. As of March 31, the company’s total debt was $2.6 billion, of which $1.9 billion was in floating interest rate loans.

In an April 2023 letter to shareholders, VineBrook’s CFO described their intention to “opportunistically pursue dispositions that offer the ability to recycle capital into accretive opportunities and reduce our exposure to sub-scale markets. In addition to using net proceeds from sales to further fund our revitalization program, we intend to use the remaining net proceeds to de-lever the Company, improving our balance sheet and the strength of the Company.”

In plain English, the company intends to spend 2023 selling houses in order to pay off debt.

Highgrove Holdings and SFR3 aren’t required to make the same kinds of detailed financial disclosures, so we have less insight into the health of their balance sheets. Still, the fact that SFR3 only sells their homes for substantial profits, while Highgrove has sold nothing at all, suggests that they don’t currently face the same financial crunch as VineBrook.

As Milwaukee’s home rental market grows more consolidated, we may see more situations where large landlords facing financial difficulties seek to offload many properties at once. VineBrook’s current willingness to sell their houses at relatively cheap prices has mainly just benefited other landlords. The house on 47th Street described above is the exceptional case in which VineBrook’s struggles actually benefited a local homeowner.

Continue ReadingTwo of Milwaukee’s corporate landlords are selling houses. One is making huge profits while the other is losing money.