Multifamily Buildings Getting Bigger, Middle of the Market is Missing: Census Bureau

Last year, developers in the U.S. completed 211,000 new housing units in buildings of 50 units or more, the biggest number on record. The total number of new apartments constructed didn’t come close to setting any records, though.

These numbers are from Characteristics of New Housing, an annual Census Bureau data release that is so chock-full of interesting information (for example: 88% of apartments completed in 2018 had in-unit laundry facilities) that I briefly contemplated interrupting my vacation to write about it when it came out two weeks ago. I resisted then, but now I’m back at my desk and the new numbers don’t seem to have gotten much attention. They should!

Characteristics of New Housing data go back to 1971 at the earliest, but other, less-detailed census data from before the 1970s indicate that those 211,000 new units in 50-plus-unit apartment buildings in 2018 almost certainly represent an all-time annual high. The construction of multifamily housing in the U.S. used to be skewed much more toward smaller structures. In the 1920s, for example, more than a million new housing units were constructed in two-unit buildings. From 1999 to 2018 — twice as long a period — only 83,000 such units were built. As recently as the mid-1980s, more than one-quarter of all new housing units constructed in the U.S. were in buildings of two to 19 units. In 2018, that share was just 4%, a new low.

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