Manhattan rental market plunges, leaving 15,000 empty apartments

A man enters a building with rental apartments available on August 19, 2020 in New York City. Exodus out of New York has leaded the city into a highest number of retails and apartments left to rent after the Coronavirus pandemic.

Eduardo MunozAlvarez | VIEW press | Corbis News | Getty Images

The number of empty rental apartments in Manhattan nearly tripled compared with last year, as more New Yorkers fled the city and prices declined.

There were more than 15,000 empty rental apartments in Manhattan in August, up from 5,600 a year ago, according to a report from Douglas Elliman and Miller Samuel. The inventory of empty units is the largest ever recorded since data started being collected 14 years ago, the report said. 

Analysts say the rental market is the best barometer of overall strength in Manhattan’s real estate market, since rentals account for 75% of apartments and that market reacts more quickly to demand changing than the sales market.

Experts say the migration from the city to the suburbs during the Covid-19 crisis has been fueled in large part by Manhattan renters leaving the city.

“The rental market is weak and getting weaker,” said Jonathan Miller, CEO of Miller Samuel. “The first-time buyers in outlying areas are largely coming from the Manhattan rental market.”

Hopes for a rebound in the fall or the end of 2020 look increasingly unlikely. Although rental prices have come down — median rental prices fell 4% in August — the discounts are not steep enough yet to lure new renters back to the city. The average rental price for a two-bedroom in Manhattan is still $4,756 a month.

The fall is generally a slow period in the Manhattan rental market, especially before an election, Miller said.

Landlords are offering ever-larger incentives to try to entice renters, with the largest share of landlords offering concessions in history. On average, landlords were offering 1.9 months of free rent to new renters in August. The weakest segment of the rental market is the lower end, for one bedrooms and studios, partly a result of the pandemic’s greater impact on lower earners.

Average rental prices for studios fell 9%, to $2,574, while the average for one-bedroom apartments fell 5% to $3,445. 

The big question for the Manhattan economy and beyond is how far will the economic ripples from the weak rental market spread. While big landlords like REITs and real estate companies have access to capital, smaller mom and pop landlords with just one or two buildings may have trouble paying their mortgages and property taxes, which could later hit banks and lenders, as well as New York’s tax revenue.

“Where you are already seeing stress on landlords is on the low end of the price spectrum,” Miller said. “You’re clearly seeing weakness in the smaller end of the rental market.” 

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