On the House: Upscale rentals priced for a 'lifetime experience'

Posted: May 11, 2014

Here's an exercise to get the brain cells working on a Sunday morning:

Can you remember your first apartment? What was the monthly rent? (Feel free to share, please.)

Today's question was inspired by a trip to Carl Dranoff's new SouthStar Lofts building at Broad and South Streets.

Understand that I've spent the last 25 years writing about changes in the for-sale and rental markets, so there are relatively few surprises left. I've watched as ads for apartments started to include microwaves, washers and dryers, and dishwashers, as landlords sought to lure higher-end tenants to older buildings and duplexes.

Charging stations for smart cars and facilities, including drains, for tenants to wash their vehicles on a parking level did throw me a bit, though. Dranoff, who experiments with amenities in his newer buildings and then introduces the better ideas into the older ones, was amused by my "What the hey . . .?" response.

In the 1970s and '80s, Dranoff was part of Steve Solms' Historic Landmarks for Living team, which converted factories and warehouses to loft apartments. "In those days, fitness centers were leftover spaces in basements that we couldn't figure out what to do with," he said. "Today, we have to redesign buildings around fitness centers."

A major feature of high-end rentals these days is the "club room." SouthStar's has an 80-inch screen surrounded by comfortable furniture and bar/food and computer areas.

"In the 1980s, we had these club rooms off to the side," Dranoff said.

Storage rooms are ample, secure and climate-controlled, designed, he said, to reduce clutter in each unit.

Every unit has a stacked washer and dryer, but there are commercial-size machines available free to tenants for doing bigger things. All for $1,600 to $3,400 a month.

Three days later I shared this with the person who rented a Pine Street apartment with me when we were first married in 1980. "I couldn't imagine spending that kind of money for something I didn't own," I said, hanging on to the American Dream even after what I've witnessed in the years since the housing bubble burst.

She didn't agree, believing that with all you get and where you are, SouthStar's rent was reasonable.

Our "first-married" apartment cost us $600 a month - we had an entire first floor, the basement, a courtyard, and a garage. We left when our accountant said we needed deductions, "so buy a house."

The difference between then and now, as Dranoff reminded me, is that when you and I rented after college or when we were first married, we knew we were "in transition" between youth and homeownership. We put up with places that were only slightly better than weathered college dorms to save money for a house.

"This is not transition," Dranoff said, "but a lifetime experience," meaning that among high-end renters young and old, this is where they will stay, so they might as well have climate-controlled storage and a club room.

Not every renter can afford such luxury, of course. The city is full of people barely making it, who spend, economist Kevin Gillen notes, 28 percent of their income on rent, compared with 18 percent historically.

City house prices are down 19 percent since the boom, while rents are up 10 percent, increasing the burden on low- and moderate-income people.

The people who can least afford it, of course.


aheavens@phillynews.com

215-854-2472 @alheavens

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