'Just like home' for short-timers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The people who move into Gonzalo Jouan's apartments don't stay long. On average, they're out in four months. It's not a commentary on the quality. Short is the whole point. Baltimore has a quietly thriving temporary housing industry catering to consultants in town for projects, relocated employees and out-of-state families here for extended medical care. The industry has swelled in size along with the surge in downtown living options.

Jouan's Chase Street Properties LLC, which started as a side business with a handful of condos, has in the last few years ballooned to more than 80 units around the city's waterfront.

Jouan's competition, which includes at least three companies with housing internationally, have gobbled up space in many of the city's big new apartment and condo buildings.

"The market is incredible," said Jouan, who counts Johns Hopkins Hospital patients and Social Security Administration employees temporarily working at the Woodlawn headquarters among his most numerous clients.

The industry, often dubbed "corporate housing," serves those who need a place to stay for at least a month but not long enough to sign a traditional apartment lease. The units are furnished, stocked with pots and pans and have utilities already hooked up.

It's hardly cheap -- $3,000 to $3,500 a month is about average for a one-bedroom in Baltimore -- but the daily cost beats that of a hotel room, with a kitchen and extra space to boot. That $100- to $115-a-night range compares to an annual average of $160-a-night in a hotel downtown, according to the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

Corporate housing is also generally less pricey than extended-stay hotels, which come with additional services such as grocery shopping and daily housekeeping but are typically aimed at customers staying less than a month.

"Typically, it's less expensive for us to place somebody in a temporary living situation in a townhouse or a condo or an apartment and pay them a per diem for meals versus paying hotel costs and actual reimbursement for meals at a restaurant," said Bill McClure, director of human resources for Foundation Coal Corp. in Linthicum Heights, which regularly uses corporate housing.

Some providers own the units they're filling up with short-timers. Most rent en masse from apartment complex owners and then sublet.

Glenn Haussman, editor in chief of the online trade publication Hotel Interactive, calls the industry a largely overlooked niche -- growing, but with a lot of room to expand. Most hotels chains have not yet gotten into the game, as they did with time share, another lodging permutation, he said.

'Money to be made'

"There's money to be made," Haussman said.

Jouan, 42, who started his business nine years ago while working in the international division of Johns Hopkins Hospital, has come to the same conclusion about the growth potential. He started this year with 60 units and hopes to end it with 100, both owned and rented. That would put him on a par locally with big providers Marriott ExecuStay and Oakwood Worldwide, each of which has about 100 units in the Baltimore area -- though both also expect continued expansion here.

A few weeks ago, Jouan's partner, Lorraine Jacobs, swung by the Spinnaker Bay apartment complex in Harbor East to sign a lease for unit No. 82. Then it was up the elevator to say hello to Maryam Al Gyran and Mohammad Al Othman, Kuwaitis who brought 5-year-old daughter Asel Al Othman to Baltimore for back surgery at Johns Hopkins.

It's their second stay in this particular corporate apartment -- last time, they were here four months -- and they expect they'll need to keep coming back once a year.

"We have a kitchen here," Al Gyran said, sitting next to her daughter on the couch and explaining why she prefers the arrangement to a hotel. "You feel comfort, and ... it's like home."

After that, it was back to the lobby, where Jacobs and Jouan met a couple from Ireland to show the prospective customers a unit that would be available shortly.

"It's hard to get an apartment for three months, fully furnished," said Olivia McDonagh, 31, whose husband is in Baltimore on assignment for the software company that employs him. "In Ireland, you usually rent a furnished house. Here, it's completely different."

The options, though limited, are multiplying. Oakwood Worldwide, a longtime corporate housing provider with about 20,000 units worldwide, expanded its dwellings in Maryland by about 25 percent in the past year, said regional sales manager Kathy Brockway. Relocations are accelerating, she said.

Marriott International Inc., meanwhile, introduced ExecuStay ("Live Like a Local") in the Baltimore region at the beginning of 2004. Hotel guests wanted longer stays, said Cathy Bokman, area manager for ExecuStay.

'A lifestyle choice'

"Many of our guests are here on extended projects and go home on the weekend," said Bokman. "It's a lifestyle choice."

Extended-stay hotels are also popping up around the region, but Marriott doesn't believe the two are in direct competition. Last year it opened a Residence Inn, its extended-stay brand, in downtown Baltimore.

Patrick Miner, that hotel's general manager, sees average stays of 11 days or so. That gives him more flexibility than corporate-housing providers to take customers on short notice, he said, so he sometimes fills rooms with people waiting for a corporate-housing vacancy.

Though the city is seeing a boom in such housing, corporate units are sprinkled elsewhere in the region as well. Annapolis Accommodations Inc. does most of its business in Anne Arundel County. It neither owns nor rents but rather acts as a go-between for people who want housing and the owners of local investment properties.

"We have everything from an in-law apartment to a five-bedroom executive home," said Jane Ramsay, co-owner of the company.

Some customers stay for a surprisingly long time.

Consider Dave Blair, a specialty real estate lender who moved his operation to the region from Northern Virginia to escape the traffic. He's been using an Annapolis Accommodations single-family residence in Eastport as a home and an office for more than a year now. He thought he would be in the area only temporarily, but he's decided to stick around and doesn't want to buy a house just yet.

Dolores Wilson, president of J&S; Management Inc., a local provider with units in the city, Baltimore County and Columbia, has had customers on long-term assignments that kept getting extended, "as long as three and four years."

'A better way'

Jouan -- an Argentine native who speaks four languages -- has carved out a niche that includes a fair number of international clients. That's because he got the idea to try corporate housing while working with international patients at Johns Hopkins.

"Just trying to book places for people -- there were all kind of barriers," he said. "I grew fed up ... and said, 'You know what, there's got to be a better way.'"

Vicki Hardin, a travel coordinator who was Jouan's co-worker at the time, remembers the birth of the business.

"I was running out of apartments," said Hardin, now at Under Armour. "I said, 'I don't know what I'm going to do.' He said, 'Well, I have a chance ... at an auction down at the Belvedere.'"

Jouan picked up four two-bedroom units at the complex on Chase Street for $27,000 apiece. He and wife Susan Kenney renovated the condos themselves. She kept them clean. Four years ago, he left Hopkins to focus on the business full time.

Now Chase Street Properties has a shuttle to pick up guests from the airport and take them around town; wheelchairs and similar medical equipment on hand for patients; and a cluster of waterfront residences that rent for $2,500 a month to $14,000 a month (parking and cable included).

"We stay 97 percent full," said Jacobs, who joined the company three years ago. "If we have a place open more than two or three nights," she says a bit sheepishly, "we start to get upset."

jamie.smith.hopkins@baltsun.com

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