Report: Unprecedented Growth of Multi-Family Housing is a Driving Force in Development Activity in NYC Suburbs

Real Estate In-Depth | December 8, 2020

HARRISON—A report released on Dec. 8 by locally-based brokerage firm RM Friedland shows that over the past decade, multi-family development in the northern suburbs of Westchester and Fairfield counties has grown at an unprecedented rate.

That upward trend is expected to continue due to the pandemic-driven migration from Manhattan, RM Friedland states in the report.

The study examined 7,464 development site sales which took place in Westchester, Putnam and Fairfield counties as well as the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, from 2010 until the third quarter of 2020. The development sites spanned all product types including multifamily, commercial and industrial.

“An important trend that emerges from our report is the critical role that the explosive growth in multi-family development plays in the Westchester-Fairfield real estate markets. With the ongoing migration from New York City, we anticipate multi-family development in the suburbs will reach a high in the next two years,” said Sarah Jones-Maturo, president of RM Friedland.

Westchester and Putnam Counties

Westchester’s growth in the last 10 years has been characterized by a boom in Transit Oriented Development of multi-family apartment buildings near mass transit in Westchester’s urban centers of Yonkers, White Plains and New Rochelle. Meanwhile, obsolete office parks along the I-287 corridor are being transformed and reborn into vibrant mixed-use communities that include retail, hospitality and luxury residential rental units in Harrison and White Plains. Additionally, the report notes that long abandoned waterfront properties along the Hudson River are being converted to mixed-use communities in Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow and to a lesser extent in some of the other Rivertowns.

“Coming out of the great recession, local municipal governments that had previously looked unfavorably on high density, vertical development began to accept that it was needed to prop up municipal finances and keep the housing stock affordable for future generations,” said John Barrett, Westchester/Putnam specialist and senior vice president and managing director of the investment sales division of RM Friedland.

Barrett also noted that some cities have adopted a form-based zoning that allows the process of redevelopment to move at a quicker pace. Sales volume of development sites in Westchester County in the third quarter of 2020 totaled $1.8 million. The 10-year sales peak for the county was $114 million in the first quarter of 2017. There is typically an 18-24-month lag from the sale of a development property to delivery of new construction residential units. Due to the effects of the Covid-19 outbreak, this year the lag time could reach 30 months.

Meanwhile in neighboring Putnam County, development activity continues at a relatively low velocity. “Putnam’s distance from Manhattan and relatively limited mass transit infrastructure did not make it a prime target for developers. Putnam also has a lack of municipal water and sewer systems which contributes to lower levels of interest from developers outside the region,” said Barrett. However, that picture may change soon with the recent growth in remote work which makes residential development in Putnam increasingly more popular. Sales volume of development sites in Putnam County in the third quarter of 2020 totaled $3.5 million. The 10-year sales peak for the county was $5.4 million in the second quarter of 2018.

Fairfield County

Fairfield County’s commercial investment sales market has experienced a divergence in trends in the last five to 10 years. While pricing in multi-family, senior living, mixed use, and industrial has increased, the retail and office market sales trended lower.

“Two key factors are driving the high demand for new development in Fairfield County. One is an increasing and underserved aging population has caused a demand for more senior living facilities. Second, the increasing population in New York City and ensuing shortage of affordable housing has developed into an influx of demand for multifamily particularly in lower Fairfield County,” said Alison Luisi, Fairfield County specialist and vice president and associate broker of RM Friedland.

Luisi noted that the most sought out area is currently lower Fairfield County along the I-95 and Merritt Parkway corridors. “The towns with the highest barrier to entry and most favorable demographics call for the highest price per unit for new development. These towns are Greenwich, New Canaan, Darien, and Westport. The most development has been seen in towns that allow for higher density such as Stamford, Norwalk, and Shelton,” she said.

Development of multi-family and senior housing is priced out by the number of units a town will approve on a certain amount of land. The highest and best use in the last five years continues to be multi-family with numbers ranging for new development in lower Fairfield County of $50,000-$100,000 per unit, middle Fairfield County $35,000-$65,000 and upper Fairfield County $20,000-$50,000. Senior housing calls for a slightly lower price point, but is much more favorable when obtaining town approvals due to little or no impact on school districts and traffic.

The “de-densification” out of New York City into the suburbs due to the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for multi-family development in Fairfield County which benefits from lower taxes relative to Westchester County and the quality of Fairfield County’s school districts. Sales volume of development sites in Fairfield County in the third quarter of 2020 totaled $11 million. The 10-year sales peak for the county was $50 million in the fourth quarter of 2010.

In other highlights of the special report: 

Bronx pricing and volume has followed shaky yet steady upward trajectory. The Bronx has seen some of the most dramatic fluctuation in values over the past few quarters. Sales volume of development sites in the third quarter of 2020 totaled $187 million. The 10-year sales peak was $231 million in the third quarter of 2018.

Manhattan sales have followed more cyclical patterns and have been most affected by the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act (HSTPA) and COVID-19. The inability to get major tax abatements below 96th St and the current exodus of prospective tenants for free market units has made it very difficult to underwrite at the discounted rent projections and hence justify the significantly higher per square foot values, the report stated. Sales volume of development sites in the third quarter of 2020 totaled $39.8 million. The 10-year sales peak was $2.2 billion in the fourth quarter of 2019.

Queens has seen a healthy increase in both volume of projects and price in the past decade. Multi-family development demand led the way. Sales volume of development sites in the third quarter of 2020 totaled $21 million. The 10-year sales peak was $435 million in the second quarter of 2015.

Brooklyn’s building boom peaked somewhere between 2017 and 2019. Although average asking prices are “hanging on” to the metrics of previous years an analysis shows a steep decline in both pricing and sales volume in 2020. Sales volume of development sites in the third quarter of 2020 totaled $38 million. The 10-year sales peak was $804 million in the fourth quarter of 2016.

NY Urban Markets at a Glance PDF