Daily Press Article on Residential Vacancies Based on Bogus Data

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The Santa Monica Daily Press recently published an article by its editor Matthew Hall that had an eye-catching claim of an 8% vacancy rate in Santa Monica in the headline.

Hall presents the information as though he did research that used apartmentlist.com as his primary source, but did not link to any sources or otherwise specify how to find the data he said he was citing. Attempting to find these sources myself, I found two noteworthy things.

First, a Google News search for apartmentlist.com turned up local news stories from around the country that, like the SMDP article, follow similar formats of just regurgitating numbers provided to them by apartmentlist.com. Examples of these similar stories include ones from Midland, TX, Columbus, OH, and Boise, ID. Apartmentlist.com also has a team of media-friendly spokespeople and pre-made graphics ready to appear on local television or radio shows to share their data.

Second, Hall understates the extent to which apartmentlist.com data is skewed toward large multi-family buildings. In his words, “the listing is weighted toward larger multi-unit properties which they said increased their confidence in the larger trends but creates the possibility that properties with a handful of units might have different trends.” But from apartmentlist.com’s own statement on their methodology, “our sample of properties is heavily skewed toward large multi-family apartment complexes, generally containing 50 units or more per property.” 

For comparison, according to the latest American Community Survey data from the Census Bureau, approximately 72% of housing in Santa Monica is in buildings containing fewer than 20 units. Further skewing the sample in their dataset, apartmentlist.com’s business model is to charge landlords approximately $450 every time a lease is signed through their platform; so not only is the data heavily skewed toward properties containing at least 50 units, it’s heavily skewed toward properties containing at least 50 units where the landlord is willing to pay to use apartmentlist.com’s services.

So in short, the original SMDP article purports that Matthew Hall did research on Santa Monica’s vacancy rate and found that the vacancy rate for the entire city is 8%. But based on my own research, the article was actually just regurgitating a press release based on an unrepresentative sample of an already unrepresentative slice of Santa Monica’s housing market.

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