It seems like every other block in Milwaukee has a new multi-story apartment building opening or land being cleared for that purpose. Our friends at JSOnline have a handy-dandy map of over 300 such ongoing projects in the area right here.
Due to our city’s former (yeah, I said it) Rust Belt status, most of this new development is replacing empty or blighted spaces, so from a high level standpoint all the buildings are positive infill. But the waters get a little muddier with last week’s release of estimated population figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
According to their study, the city of Milwaukee lost approximately 4,366 residents from 2015 to 2016. In a city with 595,047 people, that may not seem like many. But from a living situation view, that 4,366 people is roughly 1,100 less occupied homes or 11 less occupied apartment buildings.
So how do Milwaukee housing developers and residents explain these two competing ideas: there is demand for more apartments and homes in the city, but there are less residents to fill those spaces.
Point #1: The Census numbers could be deceptive
First, a true Census won’t be taken again until 2020, so these numbers are just estimates from the government. It’s probable they’re imprecise, but unlikely they’re incorrect. However, Milwaukee is a much larger city in population and physical size than any other in the state (by a large margin); meaning, while the overall city may have lost residents, it’s possible that the downtown area (where the majority of new residential building is taking place) actually increased its population. That neighborhood granularity is not available.
Counterpoint #1: The suburbs showed growth at the city’s expense
And not the Milwaukee County suburbs; I’m talking Iron Ring suburbs in surrounding counties. If those bedroom communities are making gains at the expense of the city, they’re not doing it because locals love high-rises and studio apartments in New Berlin.
Point #2: Rental vacancies in Milwaukee are below the national average
By a lot. Plus, apartments in Milwaukee, though they can certainly fetch stupid prices, are still affordable compared to national averages: $804/month for a 1 bedroom is unheard of in most major cities around the country.
Counterpoint #2: Developers are creating a development bubble
I can’t be the only resident who thinks Milwaukee probably doesn’t need another super high-priced new “mixed-used gluten-free apartment living-home”. Actually, I’m not: though some big-ticket projects (like The Couture) continue construction, many smaller developments have recently been shelved or scrapped completely.
Point #3: There are not enough houses available in the area for the demand
It’s both a buyer and a seller’s market at the moment, a rare occurrence where interest rates are obscenely-low, but so is inventory. With prices in desirable Milwaukee neighborhoods and towns hitting ridiculous levels, and Baby Boomers refusing to move out of their traditional starter homes, there are fewer options for new residents looking to buy. While they wait around for their chance at a home, they need more places to rent.
Counterpoint #3: Rental homes are an increasing reality
Rising prices and low inventory are also drawing more and more investors into the house-rental game, which competes tangentially with the apartment buildings going up nearby. Why rent a 1 bedroom apartment on KK if you can spend the same for a 3 bedroom duplex down the street?
There are about ten million other points/counterpoints to this argument, and no real answer at the moment. It’s possible the city is on a downward path to losing more and more residents and all the new apartment buildings around town will stand empty: a new blight on Milwaukee’s skyline. It’s also possible that Baby Boomers and Millennials will continue their influxes into the city, counteracting a blip in the Census estimates and filling every empty lot in town with a high-rise.
Milwaukee’s a city of contradictions, that’s not up for debate regardless of the population size.