Reaction of multifamily capitalization rates to natural disasters, The

reaction of multifamily capitalization rates to natural disasters, The

Bleich, Donald

Abstract This study analyzes the effect of the Northridge Earthquake on capitalization rates in the multifamily building market in Los Angeles, California. The results indicate that the Northridge Earthquake had a negative impact and overall capitalization rates rose. This negative effect, however, was not uniform over the entire Los Angeles area. During the first year the impact was correlated with distance to the epicenter and proximity to areas with high concentrations of damage. This negative effect, however, proved to be a temporary phenomenon. By the third year after the earthquake, the negative effects of the earthquake were not significant.


On January 17, 1994, an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.8 rocked Los Angeles, California. Although Los Angeles is known for its seismic activity and earthquakes are expected, the amount of damage done by this earthquake was unprecedented. Although nearly identical in magnitude to the 1971 San Fernando Earthquake, the Northridge1 Earthquake was much more damaging for two reasons: its location directly beneath the San Fernando Valley, in the city of Los Angeles, and the quake’s thrust-fault (up-down vs. rolling) slippage, which literally threw many homes and buildings off their foundations. The Northridge Earthquake caused an estimated $20 billion worth of damages. In the City of Los Angeles, over 65,000 housing units were destroyed or sustained major damage and over 19,000 apartment units were ordered vacated by the Department of Building and Safety of the Los Angeles Housing Department.2 The purpose of this study is to examine the impact of the earthquake on the overall capitalization rates of multifamily apartment buildings.

This study presents a theoretical framework for analyzing the effects of a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, on real estate markets. Related research is discussed, along with the theoretical framework, hypotheses, explanation of the data and a description of the model. A discussion of the results precedes the conclusion.

The results indicate that overall capitalization rates rose for multifamily properties that were closer to the epicenter and were adjacent to areas with the highest concentrations of damage. However, this negative impact was temporary and disappeared by the third year following the earthquake.

Review of Related Research

Murdoch, Singh and Thayer (1993) studied the effect of the 1989 Loma Prieta (San Francisco) Earthquake on single-family residence prices in the San Francisco Bay area. The results indicate that the earthquake caused an area wide reduction in property values of approximately 2%. In addition, individuals considered soil type and location in a special studies zone (SSZ)3 in their housing purchases, yielding a measurable declining price gradient.

Brunette (1995) studied the impact of natural disasters on commercial real estate returns, as measured by the Russell-NCREIF Property Index (RNPI). The three disasters used in his study were the San Francisco Bay Area Earthquake in October 1989, Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, and the Los Angeles Earthquake in January 1994. The results were ambiguous because of small sample sizes and the influence of overall regional economics. However, it was recommended that real estate portfolios be diversified across geographic areas to minimize the risk of a particular disaster.

Skantz and Strickland (1987) studied the effects of a flood in the Houston, Texas area in 1979. Data from two years before to two years after the flood, showed no decline in flooded area home prices immediately after the flood. They explain that this is consistent with the availability of extremely low-cost flood insurance that allows homeowners to avoid flood risk at virtually no cost. When the flood insurance rates increased substantially one year later, there were significant price declines. Their conclusion was that the market reaction was consistent with rational and efficient markets.

Weaver (1990) surveyed 100 major corporate real estate investors after the Loma Prieta Earthquake that occurred on October 17, 1989. Of the eighty-seven who responded, less than half planned to formally reconsider their investment policies as a result of the earthquake. In addition, only 13% to 18% of the respondents thought that a cutback in California real estate investments was likely. Weaver concludes that the market has discounted real estate values in the quake areas properly and/or the risk had been shifted to others via insurance or both the investment community and the local California business community simply have not properly identified the “true” risk. The first two conclusions are consistent with market efficiency.

Theoretical Framework & Hypotheses

In this study, geographical areas impacted by the Northridge Earthquake are designated as the “impact area.” It is assumed that these impacted areas will experience an increase in overall capitalization rates and, therefore, decreases in property values. Those areas that were not impacted by the earthquake will be referred to as the “no-impact area.” If it is assumed that there was no impact4 on the multifamily apartment building market, the Northridge Earthquake would be a “non-event.” The overall capitalization rates of multifamily apartment buildings in the impacted areas will remain the same relative to rates in the no-impact areas. This implication of equal overall capitalization rates is shown in Exhibit 1.

If on the other hand, the Northridge Earthquake was viewed as a negative influence on the multifamily apartment building market, an overall capitalization rate increase would be expected in the impact area relative to comparable apartment buildings in the no-impact area (see [Delta]R in Exhibit 2). Following the increase, however, the relative changes in the overall capitalization rates could not be predicted without additional analysis. Four hypothetical alternatives are illustrated in Exhibit 2.

If the impact was expected to be permanent and the initial increase was unbiased (accurate estimation), there would be no reason to expect subsequent changes in the overall capitalization rates in the impact area to differ from those in the comparable no-impact area (alternative 3). However, if the initial increase in overall capitalization rates were temporary and/or biased due to an overestimation of the impact of the earthquake, the rates in the impact area will decline relative to those in the no-impact area. If the impact is temporary, the rates will return to the level of the rates in the no-impact area (alternative 1) and Exhibit 1 would hold from then onwards. If the market’s reaction to the earthquake was biased (overestimated the impact) the rates in the impacted area will decline until they reach a level that is higher than the no-impact rates (alternative 2) but from that point on changes in the rates will be the same for both the impacted and no-impact areas.

Finally, if the initial rate increase was too small (either as a result of an underestimation of the impact or if knowledge gained after the earthquake indicates an additional negative impact), the overall capitalization rates in the impact area would increase over time relative to the rates in the no-impact area (alternative 4).

In order to test the impact of the Northridge Earthquake on property values, the “impact area” must be defined. Rather than make assumptions about the shape and magnitude of the impact, the impact area will be determined by the data. Four hypotheses concerning the impact area are tested. They are:

H^sub 1^: Northridge Only

The simplest reaction the market may take is to focus on the name of the earthquake. If the market places a stigma on the Northridge area only because of the name of the earthquake, only a negative impact for apartment buildings in the Northridge area would be expected. All other apartment buildings in Los Angeles County, including the neighboring community of Reseda,5 should experience no impact. The impact area is defined as apartment buildings with a Northridge mailing address.

H^sub 2^: San Fernando Valley Only

Northridge is located in the San Fernando Valley. The San Fernando Valley has gained an identity of its own and is often distinguished from the rest of Los Angeles. At the present time there is a movement to have the San Fernando Valley secede from Los Angeles and form its own separate and distinct city. The second hypothesis tests whether the market will associate the whole San Fernando Valley with high earthquake risk. Based on this assumption, the impact area will be defined as all apartment buildings located in the San Fernando Valley area. Apartment building values in the San Fernando Valley will be compared to comparable apartment buildings outside the San Fernando Valley.

H^sub 3^: Distance to Epicenter

Perhaps the market will discount apartment building values based on their distance from the epicenter. An additional variable that measures the distance from the epicenter will be included in the regression analysis and will be tested for significance.

H^sub 4^: Quantity of Damage in Area

Although the epicenter was in the Reseda-Northridge area of the San Fernando Valley, damage was spread throughout Los Angeles. Due to the layout of the earthquake faults and the types of soil, some areas far from the epicenter incurred more damage than areas close to the epicenter. The City of Los Angeles identified the seventeen hardest hit neighborhoods (comprising eighteen census tracts) and dubbed them “Ghost Towns.” As of December, 1994, there were a total of 1,030 apartment buildings in the Ghost Towns. Of these, twenty-nine were demolished and 301 were totally vacant. In addition to the immediate impact of the earthquake, the Ghost Towns attracted vandals and drug dealers whose trespassing activities caused additional damage. Surrounding residential neighborhoods were also affected by the Ghost Towns. Burglaries increased and retail businesses lost much of their customer base. To alleviate these effects, police and fire department personnel were pulled from their normal duties to monitor these areas and the city placed top priority on rebuilding the Ghost Towns.

The last test will examine whether the market distinguished based on the amount of damage that occurred in the apartment building area. The following variable will be used:

GHOST = Is the building located in the same map grid as a Ghost Town. (1 = yes, 0 = no)


The data used in this study consists of 2,940(6) apartment building sales in Los Angeles County that sold between January 17, 1993 and January 16, 1997. Therefore, the data consists of sales that occurred from one year before to three years after the Northridge Earthquake.

Exhibit 3 lists the average overall capitalization rates for fourteen areas in Los Angeles County over the four-year sample period. The first eight areas listed are unincorporated areas that are part of the City of Los Angeles. The last six areas are cities that are located within the boundaries of the City of Los Angeles but have their own government agencies, regulations and services. There is also a large disparity between their rent control laws and the laws of the City of Los Angeles.

The majority of the data were extracted from COMPS, Inc. Additional variables, including geographic location variables, were hand-coded and added to the data. An initial list of the variables is shown in Exhibit 4. Only those properties containing at least six units were used. Properties that were rehabs,7 had nonconforming uses,8 were legally condominiums, were more than 35% vacant at the time of sale or sold under conditions that violated the criteria for a market value transaction were excluded from the data set.

Description of Model

In order to determine the effect of the Northridge Earthquake on the overall capitalization rates of apartment buildings, the following general model was used:

Cap^sub i^ = [function of] (T^sub i^, P^sub ij^, L^sub ij^, A^sub ij^, C^sub ij^, Q^sub i^, (1)


Cap^sub i^ = Overall capitalization rate for the ith apartment building;

T^sub i^ = Time variable indicating date of sale;

P^sub ij^ = A set of j property characteristics for the ith apartment building;

L^sub ij^ = A set of j location variables for the ith apartment building; and

Q^sub i^ = A set of variables corresponding to the four impact area hypotheses.

The actual variables used in the analysis are shown in Exhibit 4. The variables are classified into five categories. The first category consists of a time variable that was used to allocate the sale to the appropriate year. The last category, earthquake variables, corresponds to the four hypotheses described above.

The location category includes six city variables. These six cities are located within the boundaries of the City of Los Angeles. However, due to differences in government services, zoning regulations, schools and rent control laws, their overall capitalization rates differ from adjacent areas that are governed by the City of Los Angeles.


In order to measure the impact of the Northridge Earthquake, the data were divided into four annual time periods. These time periods correspond to sales that occurred one year prior to the January 17, 1994 date of the earthquake and each of the three years following that date. For each year a stepwise linear regression was performed. Therefore, each regression represents one of the four years from one year before to three years after. The results of these four stepwise regressions are shown in Exhibit 5.

Model Year -1 estimates the overall capitalization rates for apartment buildings that sold between January 17, 1993 and January 16, 1994. As expected, none of the earthquake variables are significant. Those variables that are significant reflect the risk and/or monetary commitment associated with the transaction. Four of the cities-Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale and Santa Monica-had significant negative coefficients. These four cities are considered more desirable than the rest of Los Angeles County and apartment buildings in these areas tend to experience lower vacancy rates and sell at lower capitalization rates.

Model Year +1 uses apartment building sales that occurred up to one year after the earthquake. In addition to the variables that are significant in Model Year -1, two of the four earthquake variables and the percent downpayment variable are significant. As described earlier, during the first year after the earthquake, the Ghost Towns and the surrounding areas were characterized by high crime rates, including burglary and drug dealing. During the first year after the earthquake, the city placed top priority on rebuilding these ghost towns. The two earthquake variables selected were ghost and distance to the epicenter.

Model Year +2 was estimated using sales that occurred from one year to two years after the earthquake. Only one of the earthquake variables was selected. The variable selected was distance to the epicenter. During the second year, the two age variables are significant. In addition to the perceived frailty of older buildings, the building codes for apartment buildings have evolved. After each major earthquake, the building codes were made more stringent reflecting newer construction methods and post-earthquake research that disclosed design flaws that increased the likelihood of damage during an earthquake. The last major earthquake prior to the Northridge Earthquake was in 1971. The YB60 variable indicates that the building was built in the 1960s prior to the building code changes that occurred after the 1971 earthquake. Research conducted after the Northridge Earthquake indicated that buildings built during the 1960s were more susceptible to earthquakes like the Northridge Earthquake.

Model Year +3 utilized sales that occurred from two to three years after the earthquake. The significant change in this model is the absence of any earthquake variables. The age and city variables continued to be significant.


This study has examined the effect of an earthquake on apartment buildings’ overall capitalization rates.

The results indicate that the Northridge Earthquake, in Los Angeles, had a negative impact and overall capitalization rates rose. This negative effect, however, was not uniform over the entire Los Angeles area and proved to be a temporary phenomenon. Initially, the greatest increase in the overall capitalization rates was correlated with distance to the epicenter and close proximity to areas with the highest levels of damage (Ghost Towns). As the City of Los Angeles helped mitigate the adverse earthquake effects in the Ghost Towns, this effect was eliminated. By the third year after the earthquake, the negative effects of the earthquake were not significant. The only lingering effect appears to be the stigma that remained for older buildings that had architectural styles that proved to be less resistant to earthquakes and failed to comply with the new updated building codes.

In applying the lessons of this study to generalizations about the reaction of apartment building overall capitalization rates to natural disasters, it is important to distinguish between the characteristics of earthquakes and other natural disasters. Despite extensive ongoing research, the occurrence and location of an earthquake remains unpredictable. Recently the State of California has issued ratings for the propensity of areas to incur earthquake damage. The reliability of these ratings and the effects they will have on the multifamily apartment building market remains to be seen. Other natural disasters, such as floods, are more predictable and areas that are prone to flooding can be more easily identified.

From an investment strategy perspective, the occurrence of an earthquake can create investment opportunities. Care, however, should be taken to confirm that the increase in overall capitalization rates for any neighborhood is based primarily on stigma created by the earthquake and not on exposed weaknesses, such as the building construction or soil type prevalent in that area.


1 Northridge, located in the San Fernando Valley, is an area in the northern section of the City of Los Angeles.

2 Los Angeles Housing Department, Rebuilding Communities, January 1995.

3 The Alquist-Priolo SSZ Act, passed originally in 1972, defines SSZs as areas of elevated earthquake risk.

4 This can occur if the market totally ignores the earthquake, if the loss in value is already discounted in the existing prices or if the risks associated with earthquakes have been passed on to others via earthquake insurance.

5 Research conducted during the year after the earthquake identified the epicenter as actually being located just across the border in the community of Reseda. By that time, however, the earthquake was known as the Northridge Earthquake and there was no effort to change the name.

6 The original data set consisted of 4,142 sales. Of these, 693 were omitted because they violated one of the test criteria. Another 502 sales were eliminated due to missing or incomplete data.

7 A rehab is a building that incurred so much damage that it had to be virtually rebuilt. At the time of sale these buildings were totally vacant.

8 Those properties that were classified as having nonconforming uses included properties with units in multiple single-family residences and/or duplexes or apartment buildings with units that were altered to increase gross income but violate building and zoning codes.


Brunette, D., Natural Disasters and Commercial Real Estate Returns, Real Estate Finance, 1995, 11:4, 67-71.

Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, Northridge Housing Losses, A Study for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, 1995.

Los Angeles Housing Department (LAHD), Rebuilding Communities: Recovering from the Northridge Earthquake, January 17, 1994, City of Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, January, 1995.

Murdoch, J. C., H. Singh and M. Thayer, The Impact of Natural Hazards on Housing Values: The Loma Prieta Earthquake, Journal of the American Real Estate & Urban Economics Association, 1993, 21:2, 167-84.

Skantz, T. and T. H. Strickland, Housing Prices and a Flood Event: An Investigation of Market Efficiency, Journal of Real Estate Research, 1987, 2:2, 73-83.

Weaver, W. C., Earthquake Events and Real Estate Portfolios: A Survey Result, Journal of Real Estate Research, 1990, 5:2, 277-80.

Donald Bleich, California State University-Northridge, Northridge, CA 91330 or

Copyright American Real Estate Society Apr-Jun 2003

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved