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Is the Urban Millennial Lifestyle Sustainable?

If you walk into any major urban center in America, you’re bound to find young people glued to their smartphones. But they’re not always just texting or checking up on social media they’re also taking advantage of a wide range of lifestyle apps, which offer everything from ride-sharing services to online shopping to rewards for engaging with local businesses. Most of these apps, which are generally available cheaply or for free, are created by businesses started in Silicon Valley, where implementing a unique idea and cultivating an audience is often considered more important than generating profits. These consumer tech companies are generally funded by wealthy investors looking to capitalize on the explosion of technology present in the everyday lives of millennials, effectively subsidizing the products in question and enabling an artificially low cost for the consumer. But the venture capitalists who make this app-centric lifestyle possible are effectively placing a bet on the long-term financial viability of the innovative businesses they invest in, with potentially disastrous consequences for everyone involved.

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Any number of examples of these apps, produced by businesses that are not currently making a profit and perhaps never will, come to mind. Casper, a mattress company that operates online and ships compressed mattresses directly to customers’ homes, is expected to lose money this year, as are the tremendously popular Uber and Lyft ride-sharing platforms. DoorDash, a service that delivers food from a variety of eateries, is not profitable, and neither is Seated, which gives discounts to restaurant-goers. Perhaps most notably, the platform WeWork, a business that rents out office and living space to small businesses, recently attempted to go public, a disastrous decision that resulted in financial turmoil for the company after potential investors raised concerns about the company’s path to profitability and its’ CEOs questionable antics, which included smoking marijuana on a private jet and serving tequila shots to employees after discussing layoffs. Amidst this controversy, Adam Neumann stepped down from his role of CEO of the company, and WeWork’s future remains unclear.

In general, companies such as these provide non-essential goods and services, offering their customers convenience for an affordable price rather than the necessities of life. This convenience is made possible by technology, as smartphones are always connected to the internet and provide companies with information such as a user’s location and other details that are used in innovative ways. Nevertheless, they are built upon attractive and enticing ideas, which capture the attention of investors who rely upon their trust that the companies’ ingenuity and creativity will eventually lead them to make a profit.

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Ironically, the most popular online businesses tend to be the least profitable, in what is likely to come as a surprise to their millions of daily users. The well-known Blue Apron, for instance, spends roughly $460 to recruit each of their customers, despite making only around $400 on each customer, as they are likely to cancel their subscriptions after only a few months. As a result, investors quickly realized that the meal-kit company had no viable path to profitability, and the company’s valuation dropped by over 95% since they went public. Because Blue Apron refuses to increase the price of their services, they are unable to demonstrate value to investors, leading to serious financial problems for the company. While Blue Apron may be considered an extreme example, the underlying business model, wherein companies supported by venture capitalists reduce their prices in order to generate an audience, is prevalent throughout entire industries.

The artificially low prices of these new businesses perhaps explains the extremely-connected and online relationship millennials have with tech-savvy startups. But, as companies like WeWork and Blue Apron fail spectacularly despite their large audiences, business leaders are starting to take note. One of the solutions to this inherently problematic business model is simply to raise prices for services in an attempt to generate profits for increasingly impatient investors. But competition is fierce, and millennials are a fickle demographic. Companies that raise prices of services, even if just to break even, risk alienating their base of consumers, who may be drawn to particular products or services for their low prices rather than for their practicality. For instance, if a company that lets customers rent bicycles with their phones raises their prices, consumers may realize that it becomes more economically viable for them to simply purchase their own form of transportation. As income inequality rises and wages remain stagnant, particularly among the millennial class of workers, companies are faced with the difficult choice between continuing to operate at a loss by benefiting from increasingly-wary investors, and raising prices for non-essential goods and services that their consumer base may increasingly be unable to afford.

Real Estate

How the Real Estate Landscape Will Change in 2020

A widely anticipated industry report, entitled Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2020, was just released by the Urban Land Institute and Pwc. According to the report, while real estate economists’ views on economic growth in the US are moderate, the real estate market should remain steady through 2021. The conclusions of the report are based on a survey conducted in August of 41 economists and analysts at 32 leading real estate organizations, who, despite warning signs of an impending recession and an escalation of the U.S.-China trade war, were generally optimistic about the future of real estate.

That being said, the report stresses the importance of adaptability to change and discipline as necessary factors for the industry to be able to remain strong in the face of a possible economic downturn and potential decreases in real estate demand over the next few years. Although blame for the last major recession was placed in part on the real estate industry for reckless lending practices and fraudulent activity, the report suggests that a future recession wouldn’t be the fault of the real estate industry. Over the past ten years the property sector has become disciplined, the report says, and any warning signs about an economic dip relate to factors that the real estate industry does not control.

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According to the report, a dynamic perspective on real estate and a rethinking of growth strategies are necessary for the real estate industry to thrive, and real estate prospects are highest in the cities of Austin, Raleigh, Nashville, and Boston. As housing needs for Millennials and Baby Boomers continue to change, multifamily and single-family housing will be in increased demand, and office spaces, hotels, and retail locations are likely to see a decline.

The report also observes the effects of the housing affordability crisis, which has the most impact in cities where the cost of living is high, including Washington, D.C., Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose. Affordability is a problem not only for low-income households, but for the middle class as well, a section of the population which is rapidly shrinking as greater numbers of people fall into economic uncertainty. The effects of this crisis mean that multi-family households and co-habitation arrangements are likely to increase in popularity, changing the market somewhat.

Additionally, the report talks about the effects of climate change on real estate, and specifically points to the impact of extreme heat in urban areas. Rises in temperatures mean that cooling apartment buildings will become more expensive, and the threat of wildfires, droughts, and air pollution pose economic problems. Climate change is not the only cause of rises in extreme heat, the report claims, as increased urban development also contributes to the problem. For handling the problem, the report recommends the use of light-colored building materials and smart use of direct cooling from shade.

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As a result of difficulties with affordability, co-living is on the rise, not only for younger generations but for older ones as well. Though the trend is caused in large part by worsening economic conditions for most people, the report highlights the social benefits of co-living, which helps to create a sense of community among people, particularly in an age where technology has the power to make people feel more isolated.

The report claims the lifestyle enjoyed by young people in cities is spreading to suburban areas, which increasingly feature nightlife opportunities, and incorporate transit access, walkability, and abundant options for retail, restaurants, and recreations. As Baby Boomers are expected to live longer and stay more active than previous generations have, the implications for housing are positive. And as communities increasingly recognize the threat posed by environmental damage, they are developing a commitment to environmental and social principles including sustainable engineering and design and socially conscious business practices. 

As the federal government fails to update the country’s infrastructure, some individual states have announced a commitment to doing so instead, making them a more attractive opportunity for the real estate industry and laying the foundation for economic growth. Finally, the report finds that technology is having a strong impact throughout all types of property, as consumers increasingly demand technological solutions for productivity and efficiency.