Bryan Jones isn’t picky.
When the New York native arrived in Greater Akron in late spring, he was open to renting any apartment that cost between $600 and $900 per month as long as it put him somewhere between his strength coaching job in Bath Township and his doctoral study of exercise physiology at Kent State University.
Jones initially thought he’d have lots of options. He found scores of local listings on websites like apartments.com and Zillow.
“But it turned out that a lot of those places that said they had places available online didn’t in reality have any apartments available,” he said. “A lot of times, no one would even call me back.”
Jones and renters across Greater Akron say they’re having a tough time finding a place to live.
Rents are rising, they face competition from other hopeful tenants — many with excellent credit ratings and good jobs — and it sometimes feels like there are not enough solid rentals to go around.
Greater Akron landlords and property managers say they have never seen a rental market like this.
“It’s almost like a couple extra thousand families moved into the area and everyone is scrambling for housing at once,” said John Chlebina, president of Commonwealth Properties in Bath, which manages more than 200 single-family homes in the area, along with scores of other rentals.
What’s happening is complicated.
As we continue to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, there are constraints in the whole market, from wood needed to build new homes and apartments to aging housing that doesn’t necessarily fit modern wants and needs, said Amanda Weinstein, who teaches economics at the University of Akron.
“When you have such a hot house market, some people are going to tap out and decide not to buy,” she said. “They may say I’ll rent for the next year instead.”
That is stretching a market that was already under pressure, she said.
She said many older people no longer want to own a home they have to care for.
And younger people — who wait much longer to marry than their parents and grandparents did — don’t necessarily dream of buying a suburban house with an acre yard to tend.
‘I’m not even putting up a sign,’ rental owner says
Russ Iona was trimming the hedges outside a rental he owns on Hillside Terrace in Akron’s Goodyear Heights neighborhood when a car pulled up.
“Is that unit vacant?” a couple in the car asked.
Iona said it was, but he still needed to do some painting and fix the drywall before it would be ready.
OK, the hopeful tenants told Iona, but wondered if they could go ahead and fill out an application.
Iona, who works for Ruoff Mortgage in Tallmadge, has had a side business buying and renting multiple properties in Greater Akron since the 1970s and said he has never seen a market like this.
“I’m not using classified ads, I’m not using Craigslist. I’m not even putting up a sign,” Iona said. “When people see me outside working on a house, they stop, they say when will it be available and they have the money.”
Others who are leaving properties already have friends lined up who want to rent properties after they leave, Iona said.
His incoming tenants, he said, are all different.
A couple in their 30s wanted the Hillside Avenue home. A 20-year-old man took the rental his friend was leaving on Chester Avenue in Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood. And the daughter of a retired couple he connected with through his church was anxious to move her parents into a single-story rental Iona owns in Stow.
“It’s all over the place,” Iona said, “but all of them told me three things I love to hear: We have the money. We can afford it. And we want it now.”
Booming demand for rental units
Greater Akron’s rental market was stable during the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s latest report in August 2019.
The vacancy rate — which included all of Summit and Portage counties — for all rentals hovered at 6%, down from nearly 10% nine years earlier.
The improvement was due in part to an increasing number of renter households, which grew by about 950 per year since 2010 in Greater Akron, outpacing the number of new rental units added, the report said.
Greater Akron’s market would need to add 1,050 more rental units by 2022 to keep up with demand, the report said.
How the pandemic may have impacted that forecast is unclear.
Nationwide, single-family rental prices have risen as people re-evaluated their living spaces, according to the rental performance tracking company Stessa. The biggest trend was people looking for stand-alone rental properties with more space in less dense neighborhoods.
And metropolitan areas, where living costs averaged 7 to 10% below the national average, saw rents increased the most. That includes places like Memphis, Tucson and Akron.
In Greater Akron, where the cost of living is about 10% lower than the U.S. average, median rent in March 2021 was $960, up 6.1% from 12 months earlier, Stessa said.
Some local landlords like Iona told the Akron Beacon Journal that they haven’t raised rates recently.
Others, however, said they have boosted rent 15% this year over last when a rental hits the market because they have no trouble finding tenants.
Frustrating, fruitless searches for some
Alex Wilson, her boyfriend, Dalton Lott, and 3-year-old black Labrador Cash began looking for an apartment just before Wilson graduated from Kent State University in May with a degree in criminal justice.
She is commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, but it could be a year before she begins active duty. Lott works for a surveying company in Fairlawn.
The couple want a one-bedroom apartment in Tallmadge, Stow or Cuyahoga Falls that costs $900 per month or less, including utilities.
After contacting about 15 places, Wilson said she was frustrated.
“Most called back and said they didn’t have anything available, or wouldn’t have anything until sometime between September and November,” Wilson said.
Last year, when she and a roommate rented a two-bedroom townhouse in Kent, they had no problem finding a place, she said.
“I think during the pandemic everything was open,” Wilson said. “But the market is just crazy now. There’s nothing available and prices are going up.”
The same townhouse she rented for $745 a month in Kent last year is now advertised for $765, she said.
Hoping to increase their chances for landing a rental now, Wilson and Lott are now considering studio apartments and leaving Cash with Wilson’s parents in Tennessee.
“It stinks, but it is what it is,” she said.
Cuyahoga Falls watches vacancies evaporate
Cuyahoga Falls Mayor Mayor Don Walters said he’s watched the real estate and rental disruption play out in his city this year.
“Pretend you own 10 rentals. You’ve had them for a lot of years and most of your tenants are either on month-to-month or their leases are coming up,” Walters said. “You’ve probably never had a better time to cash out and get out of the rental business.”
The values of houses have risen so much, Walters said he doesn’t think rent increases can keep up.
And when the rentals sell — often within days — it’s not property investors buying them. It’s people who plan to live in the former rentals themselves.
That’s pushing many longtime renters into the market looking for other places to live, he said.
Walters reached out to local realtors hoping someone tracked data on rentals reverting to owner-occupied structures, but couldn’t find that information.
“To be honest, there’s nothing wrong with rentals. It fills a need and we have pretty responsive landlords,” he said.
Walters said Cuyahoga Falls’ larger apartment buildings are full, too.
French Mill apartments off State and West Bath roads — with a wine and whiskey bar and a yoga studio within a stroll — opened Phase I about five years ago and just finished Phase II, Walters said.
People who have tried to rent those units in recent months have told the Beacon Journal there’s a waiting list until November to get in. No one from French Mill returned a reporter’s call, but apartments.com said rents there varied from $960 to $1,310 per month.
“We’ve been through so much in the past two years with COVID and we’re still trying to get a grasp on what’s normal,” Walters said. “Is it normal to work from home? Is it normal for someone to leave Manhattan for a more affordable life here?”
Cuyahoga Falls is nearly built out, he said, but there are some factories that could be redeveloped, along with smaller parcels of land.
“There’s not a lot of room left,” Walters said, “but there is opportunity.”
‘Vertical country club’ takes shape in downtown Akron
One place there are rentals available is The 159 Main in downtown Akron.
Developer Tom Rybak bought the 11-story structure for $2 million in 2016 and has spent about $30 million turning the 110-year-old former Law Building into luxury apartments.
Rybak started leasing studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments in May. As of July 2, Rybak said the 11-story building was at about 30% occupancy.
“We’re marketing to people who are either relocating to Akron or other people who maybe had moved to Cleveland because they couldn’t find what they were looking for here,” Rybak said.
The pet-friendly apartments — priced between $1,150 and $2,500 per month — are infused with technology and European flair. The building has its own theater room, pet washing room and “work from home” offices and conference rooms.
“The building was designed as a vertical country club,” Rybak said.
He said he wasn’t sure how well Akron would receive that type of apartment building.
“But Akron is opening up to us. We still have to educate local people,” said Rybak, who expects full occupancy in December.
Suzie Graham, president and CEO of Downtown Akron Partnership, said a downtown Akron redevelopment plan in 2018 recommended building 1,200 new apartment units over the next 10 years.
By April, 223 were complete and 374 in the works, putting downtown more than halfway toward that goal, she said.
Overall, downtown rental occupancy is at 90% and climbing, she said.
“You see people are on scooters, people walking their dogs,” she said. “COVID threw a monkey wrench in there, but we’re getting there.”
Century-old Highland Square building attracts investors
COVID also delayed another major apartment acquisition in Akron’s nearby Highland Square, where realtors say investors — both local and out-of-state — appear increasingly interested in investing in the neighborhood.
Bath-based Green Harvest Capital (GHC) closed on the 78-unit Twin Oaks Crossing across from Portage Country Club in late 2020.
“Our strategy is to acquire older buildings — 1920’s to 1980’s construction — with good bones,” Michael Smith managing partner of GHC, said in a prepared statement. “These properties often need attention — after years of deferred maintenance and wear/tear. Twin Oaks definitely fits this criteria.”
Smith later said during an interview that his company is bullish on Highland Square because it’s a walkable, hip neighborhood that he compares to Cleveland’s Shaker Square, where GHC also owns property.
In Akron, Highland Square is also at a more affordable price point, Smith said, renting for close to $1 per foot compared to $1.75-$2.25 per foot in downtown Akron.
Many young adults in the area earn about $50,000 a year and Highland Square fits their needs, Smith said.
GHC is still assessing whether Twin Oaks — which turned 100 last year — can be air-conditioned. But the company has already invested in security, lighting up the exterior of the property and installing multiple security cameras that are always recording.
At Twin Oaks — which has apartments ranging from studios to four bedrooms — one-bedrooms are the most in demand, Smith said.
It’s a new trend as we emerge from the pandemic, Smith said. People no longer want a roommate, and they are looking for a place they can telecommute.
“Twin Oaks has a ton of nooks and crannies perfect for a home office,” Smith said.
Moving day arrives
Bryan Jones last week said he wasted about $200 in application fees for apartments that wouldn’t be available for months.
But Jones, who will split his time between work in Bath and school in Kent, finally landed a third-floor, one-bedroom apartment in a small building in Cuyahoga Falls for $795 a month.
Jones, a New York native, is thrilled to be moving out of the motel in Copley, which cost about $1,500 a month.
“When I first got there, there was a guy standing outside with an ankle bracelet, the kind they put on you when you get out of jail,” Jones said.
The Cuyahoga Falls apartment was available July 3, but Jones had to delay moving in until Wednesday because, in this hot housing market, he also discovered there’s an apparent shortage of rental trucks.
Jones said he hopes to stay here four to six years while he until he finishes his Ph.D.
“For how frustrating this has all been,” Jones said, “I actually ended up with a pretty sweet deal.”
Beacon Journal reporter Amanda Garrett can be reached by email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @agarrettABJ.