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Census rental data is surprising

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Last summer Nancy and Charlie Peters scoured the local rental market, eager to return to the community that was their home for nearly 20 years. But a three-bedroom rental house with a yard eluded them — only one came up for rent that summer and was quickly taken — so the Peters gave up their hope for garden space and arranged a one-year lease on a home for sale.

“It was hard to accept at first but we made it work for us,” Nancy Peters said last week. “If we didn’t really know how wonderful Yellow Springs is, I could see being discouraged and just giving up.”

Tales of a tight rental market abound in Yellow Springs, in contrast to the latest U.S. Census data reporting 52 unoccupied rentals and a 7.9 percent rental vacancy rate in the village. Others say that local rentals are cheap and available, as long as expectations are reasonable, and that many multi-family apartments here continue to be below capacity.

Unoccupied rental units sharply increased in the village in the last decade, to 52 in 2010, compared to 21 in 1990 and 29 in 2000, according to Census figures. The local rental vacancy rate nearly doubled over the decade, but remains lower than county, state and national averages.

Local landlord Bob Baldwin, who rents 23 apartments and seven houses in the village, questioned the high vacancy rate reported by the Census. Baldwin said his units fill up as soon as they become available and he currently has no vacancies. Local rental options, especially houses suitable for families, are scarce and expensive, he added.

“I don’t know where that figure came from, but it’s just totally in error,” Baldwin said. “More people want to live here than can.”

Because a new apartment complex hasn’t been built in more than 30 years, rental prices remain high as demand exceeds housing supply, Baldwin said. Orlando Brown built his 16-unit apartment at Lawson Place in 1963 and in 1966 the 50-unit Hawthorne Place on West North College Street opened. In the 1970s, the 24-unit Twin Coach Apartments was completed on Union Street, and Greene Metropolitan Housing Authority built additional units at Lawson Place and on Corry Street for low-income residents.

Census figures confirm that few rentals have been added in recent years. Village rentals dropped to 598 in 2010 from a peak of 657 in 1980. As a share of total housing, rentals fell from 41.8 percent in 1970 to 33.1 today, tracking a national trend of increased home ownership. But in contrast to state and national figures, the number of rental units has stagnated in the village, down 3 percent since 1970, while owner-occupied housing grew 34 percent over the same time period. About 31 percent of the village’s population, or 1,098 people, live in rentals, down from 1,231 in 1990.

The aging of Yellow Springs’ rental stock has additional consequences as few have the amenities that prospective renters desire, such as washer and dryer hook-ups, according to Dunphy Real Estate rental manager Theresa Dunphy.

“The big thing is much of the rental housing stock in town was built in the ‘60s or ‘20s, so they aren’t as current as you would like,” Dunphy said. Dunphy said she has had few vacancies in recent years — “when one thing opens up, another closes” — and that it has been difficult to meet the needs of families wanting to rent a house with at least three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The Peters, for one, can testify to the difficulties. Dunphy said the local market could bear another dozen such homes.

The low occupancy per rental unit in the village may confirm the scarcity of larger rentals. The number of persons per rental unit averaged just 1.83 in 2010, lower than county (2.20), state (2.24) and national (2.44) averages.

At the privately-owned apartment complex at Lawson Place, most tenants are older and middle-aged singles, said owner Orlando Brown. The apartment has had a 90-percent occupancy rate for the last several years and is currently completely full. Despite being at capacity, Brown said he believes there are a sufficient number of other rentals available in town.

But Dunphy said that there isn’t much spare capacity. Even though the loss of Antioch College students initially meant fewer renters, others have quickly filled her vacancies, including those attending or teaching at nearby universities and, more recently, those relocated to Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

“Now with Antioch coming back in, I think we will see a shortage,” Dunphy said.

Village Planner Ed Amrhein was also skeptical of the high vacant rate reported by the Census. He said the village could use many more rental units, especially new studio apartments and senior housing. About 30 local seniors put their names on a list to express interest in the Friends Care Community senior apartment complex, which was cancelled last year.

“I wish there was a greater diversity of the kinds of rentals we have other than the few apartment complexes,” Amrhein said.

But village resident Chris Till, who rented at least eight different properties in 12 years, said he never had difficulty finding low-cost rentals in town and that rental expectations are too high.

“I’ve always lived at the cheapest places in town,” Till said. “I’m an expert in affordable housing.”

Till rented rooms in villagers’ houses between $100 and $150 per month when he first arrived in Yellow Springs because that was all he could afford as a musician and carpenter. He moved through several houses and apartments before coming to what he said is the best rental in town — the rooms above Downing’s Hardware Store. Those 200-square-foot apartments, located in a pre-Civil War building, lacked kitchens and had a shared bathroom, but the low rent allowed Till to save money to go to law school and eventually buy a house.

Five years ago, Till bought a 1,160-square-foot house on West Center College Street for about $110,000 and rented it out until this week, when he and his wife, Whitney, finally moved in.

“There’s no shortcut to buying a house — I saved the money,” Till said.

Till also lived at the Hawthorn Apartments, which he found affordable at $495 for a 750-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment. Yet those apartments, also available with two-bedrooms, have been about 30 percent empty for the last three to five years, Till reported.

Rental prices here may not be as inflated as local housing prices, which have risen dramatically since 1990 to an average of $197,887 in 2009, compared to $123,273 in the Dayton region. The largest number of Yellow Springs renters paid between $300 and $499 for rent and utilities in 2000. The village’s median rent was $506, lower than the county’s median of $587 and $515 across the state (2010 figures are not yet available).

The medium range cost of a two-bedroom rental in Yellow Springs is $572 to $839 compared to $402–$546 in Xenia/Spring Valley, $440–$608 in Fairborn and $523–$707 in Beavercreek/Bellbrook, not including utilities, according to a 2009–2010 Greene Metropolitan Housing Authority survey. Though three-bedroom apartment rents remain higher than most neighboring communities, they are on par with rents in Beavercreek and Bellbrook.

While many families still want to rent houses, to Till, apartments are the most affordable and environmentally-friendly type of housing since utilities cost less and land space is preserved.

“The answer for affordable housing is not 1,500-square-foot castles built on green space,” he said.

Dunphy said she still rents to many families, despite few available rental houses.

“They find places, they live with it,” Dunphy said. “I rent to a lot of people with kids and it’s not like they can’t come here — if anything they have to put up with a different standard.”

The Peters eventually sacrificed space to return to Yellow Springs and this month will close on a new home on Spillan Road. Like the Tills, they rented before buying a house, which is a common way for people to get accustomed to the community and its housing options. According to Dunphy, her average renter stays between 12 and 15 months before either purchasing a home in town or leaving the community.

One reason for an inaccurate Census vacancy rate is reporting error. Dunphy said that Census representatives had difficulty contacting many of her tenants and that she couldn’t provide them with her tenant’s confidential information.

Ellen Wilson in the U.S. Census Bureau’s housing division said that the Census relies solely on its interviewers for vacancy information. One reason they could over-report vacancies is that houses with a “for sale or rent” sign are reported as vacant rentals, she said. Therefore, the rise in foreclosures nationwide could have contributed to a higher vacancy rate. The local homeowner vacancy rate, for houses vacant but not for rent, was just 2.1 percent, comparatively.

Robert Bernstein of the U.S. Census Bureau said they have been surprised by the dramatic rise in vacancies in the U.S.

“Other than to say rental units are more volatile than owned units, we don’t have a good explanation for the relatively high vacancy rate across the country,” Berstein said.

Visit to join a growing discussion on the Census data.


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