Here’s why most of Tampa Bay’s new apartments are wood frame with smaller units (and higher rents)

As you drive around the Tampa Bay area, you’ve probably noticed the many new apartment buildings going up. You’ve probably noticed, too, that a lot look alike.

Four stories. Balconies. Signs that tout “luxury” living. And if you see them in an unfinished state, you’ll notice that all are made of what — at least to the untrained eye — appears to be flimsy wood.

“In Central Florida, almost 100 percent of apartments are frame construction,” said John H. Marling, a developer who recently finished the Lola Apartments in Riverview. “It isn’t necessarily bad, because if you treat it properly and handle it properly it can stand for 100 years.”

State fire codes and changing demographics have combined to create a landscape of attractive, if blocky-looking, apartment communities largely made of wood and capped at four stories. You’ll find them in Riverview and Ybor City, South Tampa and Largo. They’re faster and less expensive to build than concrete block apartments, and — barring an economic slump — they will continue to proliferate as more people become renters by choice or necessity.

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“The rental demand is sky high,” Marling said. “It has increased exponentially because of seniors who don’t want to bother with a house as well as young people that may have student debt and are renting for longer periods of time.”

In recent years, Tampa Bay has seen explosive growth in apartments. From 2014 through the end of last year, 7,513 units were built in Pinellas County, three times as many as in the preceding five years. According to the property appraiser’s office, another 2,085 units are projected to be finished this year.

In Hillsborough, 13,657 new apartments hit the market in the years from 2014 to 2018, more than twice as many as in the previous five years.

Except for a few buildings in downtown St. Petersburg and downtown Tampa, all of the new apartments are made of “stick-frame” wood construction. Developers say they have to build what the market can bear, and in most of Tampa Bay, they can’t charge rents high enough to justify the greater cost of masonry and concrete block construction.

“Wood in this market is still the most efficient way to develop rental product,” says Steve McConihay, who has built 10 apartment communities in the Tampa Bay area. “In the type of product we’re doing, wood represents about 15 percent of total construction costs. If you go with a concrete building, it will be about 25 to 30 percent of costs.”

One reason for the difference: Laborers can continue working in one part of a stick-frame project while another is being inspected. In a tall masonry building, everything comes to a halt as concrete is poured floor by floor. As McConihay said, “it’s pretty hard to pour only half a floor.”

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Charleston Apartments developer Steve McConihay and property manager Tina Ayala, pose outside the new four-story apartments in Largo. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)

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McConihay’s year-old Charleston on 66 is fairly typical of the four-story apartment communities sprouting up. On 66th Street just south of Ulmerton Road, it has one- to three-bedroom apartments that rent from $1,300 to $2,000. That’s about 30 percent less than for new apartments in downtown St. Petersburg and reflects the fact that residents can’t easily walk to scores of shops, restaurants and other urban-core amenities.

But the Charleston on 66 has its own attractions: a dog-washing station with free shampoo, a commercial-grade car wash, a fitness center, a media room with complimentary popcorn and a large pool deck with covered areas for small get-togethers. All apartments have granite counters, stainless steel appliances and washers and dryers. In the mailroom, there’s an Amazon Hub with lockers for storing deliveries until tenants can pick them up.

Some of Tampa Bay’s older wood-frame apartments have been the scene of deadly fires. Newer ones like the Charleston are made of stronger, engineered wood products. The Florida Fire Prevention Code limits stick-frame construction to four stories and requires sprinklers, fire alarms and self-closing doors in corridors and individual units.

For decades, many wood apartments were garden-style with just one story. Then came the development of a smoother, quieter, less expensive type of elevator.

“That probably changed the profile of apartments in the Tampa Bay area more than any other building material because it allows us to start doing four-story buildings,” McConihay said. “You don’t have to have an elevator, but would you want to walk up and down four stories?”

A pool is one of the amenities at the new four-story Charleston Apartments in Largo. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)

In building the Charleston with 258 units, McConihay took a lesson from a new 463-unit apartment community he had acquired in Brandon a few years earlier. Projects that size can take up to 24 months to lease, and a certain number of tenants typically move out when their one-year lease is up.

“In Brandon, I was competing against my own property because people were moving out before it was filling up,” he said. “So we figure that now 250 to 260 units is a pretty good sweet spot.” Since the housing crash, lenders also have been more wary of financing gargantuan projects, he said.

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Miami-based Related Group uses both masonry and wood-frame construction in the Tampa Bay area. In downtown St. Petersburg, it is nearing completion of ICON St. Petersburg, a 15-story building with rents ranging from $1,925 to $3,460. Because of ICON’s height, it had to be masonry.

The 15-story Icon Central Luxury Apartments at the corner of of Dr. MLK King Jr. St N and Central Ave in St. Petersburg on May 29. (DIRK SHADD | Times)

In Tampa, Related’s new four-story Town Westshore near Gandy and West Shore Boulevards is stick-frame. Rents there go from $1,095 to $2,735 due to its “surban” location — not completely urban, not completely suburban.

“What we can build is tied to rents that the market demands,” said Arturo Pena, Related’s vice president of development.

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One aspect that many new projects have in common, whether masonry or stick frame, is that apartments are smaller than they used to be.

“Ten years ago, if you had less than 2,000 square feet for a three-bedroom, people would say, ‘you’re out of your mind,’ ” Pena said. “Now it’s not uncommon at all to be 1,300 square feet.”

The shrinkage in apartment size has coincided with the phenomenal growth of the self-storage industry. There are so many storage facilities in the Tampa Bay area today that people who used to keep everything at home can now store infrequently used items a short drive away. With much of the clutter gone, they need less living space.

“That’s why we focus on creating spectacular amenities areas,” Pena said. “Even if someone is living in a studio, they can hold a great dinner party in the club room or on the pool deck.”

In this image from Google Earth the Lola Apartments in Riverview are seen in this undated image. (Courtesy of Google Earth)

Though Tampa Bay’s apartment boom appears to be going full steam, developers say one key factor could slow it down.

“The challenge you’re seeing throughout Florida is that there is a tremendous labor shortage,” said Marling of the Lola apartments in Riverview. Whereas there used to be as many as 140 workers on a job, he said, now there might be 80 or so.

“The average count used to be 135 to 140 people,” he said. “That’s been cut by 45 percent.”

“It’s a huge issue,” agreed McConihay of the Charleston apartments. “Most of the developers I know are not meeting their timelines for delivery of product, not due to material shortages but to labor shortages. It extended the time by 30 percent on my last two projects.”

The Allure apartments in Pinellas Park. [SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN | Times]

A major reason for the shortage is that many workers left the construction field after the housing crash and never returned. And young people today are eschewing construction work; between 2005 and 2016, the share of workers under 24 dropped 30 percent nationally, one study found.

“It’s great everyone goes to college,” Pena said, “but to continue as a successful economy we’re going to need plumbing and mechanical jobs.”

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