Panelists at a ULI Boston event in April said that a newfound purpose for technology is emerging in multifamily segments—fostering a sense of community within the buildings and their surrounding neighborhoods.
The use of technology to attract and retain residents in Boston’s hyper-competitive luxury multifamily market was one of the main themes of the Urban Living panel discussion at the recent ULI Boston Spring Summit event (formerly known as Trends in Real Estate Forum).
Moderated by Ted Tye, managing partner at National Development, the panel included Sue Hawkes, managing director of the Collaborative Companies (TCC), a Boston-based residential real estate marketing firm specializing in luxury condominiums; Lauren Jezienicki, vice president of development for Bozzuto, a national luxury apartment owner/developer; and Chris Bledsoe, cofounder and chief executive officer of Ollie, a new co-living model with locations in New York and Pittsburgh, with Los Angeles, Boston, and Jersey City developments in the pipeline.
“The technology piece is really unbelievable in our business,” said Tye at the opening of the session. “I’ve never seen anything like it, and it’s moving at an incredible pace.” His firm, which develops, owns, and operates properties across the commercial real estate spectrum in Massachusetts, developed Ink Block, a multiphased, mixed-use residential complex comprising 315 luxury apartments, 77 high-end condominiums, a 206-key AC Hotel, and 85,000 square feet (7,900 sq m) of retail space (including a Whole Foods) in Boston’s revitalized South End. The final phase of the project is now being developed in partnership with Ollie. A 14-story residential development, dubbed “7INK by Ollie,” is set be delivered in 2020, and will be Boston’s first major co-living development.
The name Ollie is a play on “all-inclusive living,” and the firm’s buildings provide fully furnished studios and shared suites with hotel-style services, curated events, and a suite of additional amenities. “Co-living means different things to different groups, and I don’t think there’s an established definition at this point,” said Bledsoe. “For Ollie, co-living is strictly interpreted as communal living, and it’s the ‘living’ piece that is more interesting, because we’re really looking at how we can bring living outside the four walls [of the apartment]—both within and outside the building.”
Ollie marries the concepts of micro housing to communal living, bringing in community managers to activate the building’s common space with events like “Ollie Talks” (the company’s version of TED talks), rooftop gatherings catered by local chefs, and sunset yoga sessions. In addition, Ollie takes the communal living outside the building into the city (“the neighborhood itself is an amenity”) and beyond, creating activities such as hiking, tubing, and ski trips. All of the events are available for residents via the “Ollie Social” app ($256 per year), which organizes the group experiences. Ollie also has a roommate matching service (called Bedvetter), which combines an intelligent matching algorithm with an intuitive interface to determine optimal living partners.
The key to being able to provide the level of service (including weekly housekeeping) while controlling costs is by increasing density—either by shrinking the studios or increasing the number of bedrooms per unit. “If you give us space back, we will return lifestyle to you in ways that are more relevant,” explained Bledsoe.
One drawback to the model, however, is that it is “nearly impossible” to take existing assets and repurpose interior space to create additional bedrooms and amenity space, so Ollie’s brand of co-living is really only feasible with new construction. Like coworking, co-living has not achieved significant penetration in the market, Bledsoe acknowledged, and with a typical four-year product development cycle and additional time for the entitlement process, “it will take time, maybe another cycle, before we fully understand the depth of disruption that is occurring in the housing market.”
Community engagement is also becoming a differentiator for luxury apartment and condominium operators. National Development is now working with a startup from the Harvard Innovation Lab, Doorbell, a platform that not only allows tenants to connect with each other, but also employs community managers to activate existing common spaces with themed experiences designed to create community and to connect with the larger neighborhood.
Bozzuto is combining technology and service to engage residents and build community within its buildings, through events such as “Yappy Hour” (a weekly event that combines wine with dog owners and their dogs, as pet services become a greater piece of the amenity pie for multifamily operators). The firm is also “cobranding and connecting the residents to their neighborhood” by bringing local restaurants and retailers into the building for events, but also by engaging with the neighborhood on a more meaningful level, identifying group volunteering opportunities, and creating community fitness events. “So we’re trying to create a sense of community within the community, and we see that residents appreciate that—and they stay longer,” said Jezienicki.
And with units in the Boston market becoming smaller due to the exorbitant price per square foot (as much as $2,500 to $3,000 for condos in select neighborhoods, according to Hawkes), residents are demanding a more experiential living environment. Many of the buildings that she markets are now using concierge apps (such as Boston-based Hello Alfred) as a selling feature. Such concierge apps facilitate traditional concierge functions, as well as other apps that allow residents to plan social functions within the building and beyond. And although such technology now comes with a hefty price tag, she expects those costs to come down. “Right now it’s still expensive because it’s customized, but I fully believe that you’re going to see the technology pushed down to less expensive buildings. It’s the wave of the future,” she predicted.
Following the panel discussion, Tye said that multifamily operators are working to create small communities that people want to belong to as they move into new developments in urban areas. “They want to be part of a group, a community, a social network that enhances their living experience,” he asserted. “And we’re using technology in part to create that and to bring the group together.”