The Next Chapter For The United Group
The United Group of Companies builds its future off of a strong history and an all-in approach to student housing.
In 1972, Walter Uccellini started building affordable single-family homes with little more than a tool belt, a bank loan and his sights set on a better life. From a long line of men known for their mechanical abilities, including a father who built his own Ferris wheel in the front yard of his Long Island home with his brothers in the 1920s, Uccellini would one day use his construction expertise and hard work ethic to build a full-service real estate company. Today, the Troy, N.Y.-based The United Group of Companies, Inc., has more than 200 employees and owns and manages more than 5 million square feet of multi-family, office, senior and student housing communities. Walter Uccellini passed away in 2012, but the business and the relationships he built over his career soldier on. His son, Michael Uccellini, joined the firm in 1991, and as president and CEO of United Group, he is shepherding the company into its next phase, with student housing as a key component of that growth. The firm’s strategy is to develop off campus, and on campus for public and private universities. United is an investment developer that tends to build, own and hold. In coming years, the company will also be growing its management practices and portfolio.
The firm entered the student housing space in 2001 when it answered an RFP by SUNY (State University of New York) Albany. In April of that year, United Group was awarded developer of Empire Commons, a $62 million development with 1,196 beds that was complete in August 2002. This launched off-campus development at other SUNY schools as well as a targeted focus on partnering with New York-region community colleges to provide housing solutions.
United has divided the Northeast student housing market into three segments: public colleges and universities, community colleges and private colleges, with a modified approach to each. For community colleges, for instance, the United development team has honed a turnkey development model and focuses on the complex transition between commuter campus and residential campus. United has accomplished these goals at Niagara County Community College, Finger Lakes Community College and Schenectady County Community College (SCCC).
“We like to partner with the administration at the college or university to align our properties with the programming they offer,” Michael Uccellini says. “Each development is specifically designed to complement the educational experience, provide lifestyle programming and provide students with opportunities in the community.” United Group’s development near SCCC, the 264-bed College Suites at Washington Square, supports three of the college’s programs: music, aviation and culinary arts. United built into the project a flight simulator room, a full-demonstration kitchen and a soundproofed music room for music majors.
For the most part, United finances new construction at 75 percent from various regional and national banks and 25 percent from the company’s own capital and other private, third-party investors. United owns some of the beds it has developed on campuses. Others have been developed under tax-exempt financing, such as the creation of a single-purpose 501c3, with land leased from the university.
United is the largest developer in New York that is associated with SUNY schools, having developed some 3,300 beds for SUNY students over the years. College-provided housing at most SUNY institutions is generally less than 50 percent, according to United’s research, which translates to approximately 3,000 to 5,000 students living in some form of off-campus housing, which Uccellini says is generally in poor condition. “We saw this as an opportunity to provide students with a safe and maintained housing option, specifically designed with the amenities they are looking for.”
There are six College Suites properties in United Group’s current student housing portfolio.College Suites at City Station in Troy, N.Y., was tailored to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute graduate students and married undergraduate students. Other College Suites properties are located in New York, primarily in affiliation with SUNY schools, at Plattsburgh, Schenectady, Brockport, Cortland, Finger Lakes and Niagara. Two properties are currently in development, with 300 beds at Finger Lakes College Suites and 875 beds being delivered in College Suites at Davie, Fla., where there are some seven colleges, including Nova Southeastern University, a campus of Florida Atlantic University and Broward College. The project in Davie will combine retail with apartments.
In addition to branching out of the New York region, United is also planning to expand its management approach and reach. Earlier this year, United hired Jeff Arnold as COO. Uccellini says he looked for more than a year to find the right candidate to come in and run the management arm of the company, United Realty Management Corp., AMO®. Arnold has a strong pedigree in the purpose-built student housing sphere, as he was a founder at Innovative Student Housing (now Innovative Real Estate Companies). Arnold also worked for GMH, and in 2003, he became Asset Campus Housing’s first regional manager when that firm reached 1,000 beds. When Arnold left ACH in 2010, the portfolio had grown to 22,000 beds. Although Arnold will lead management of other product types, including market rate and senior housing, it’s his background as a national player in student housing — difficult to come by in New England and Upstate New York — that will most likely impact United Group’s management growth.
“Out of all the industry sectors, student housing is the most labor-intensive due to the leasing cycles,” Arnold says. “It may be the hardest element in commercial real estate. When your leasing cycle ends and the university’s academic year begins, it’s hard to change course for an entire 12 months.”
Arnold’s arrival follows a 2012 push from Uccellini to trademark and brand some of the company’s initiatives, such as “Live, Learn, Relax,” a management program that focuses on community, culture, personal wellness, professional development, social etiquette and entertainment, among other guiding principles. His goal was to streamline the program and create continuity and consistency from property manager to property manager.
“It’s about lifestyle and personal growth for our students, not just about providing shelter for them,” Uccellini says. “It’s very important for us to provide great programming within our student housing communities. We’re constantly evolving that and working to understand that better. In the graduate community, for example, we work with local CEOs to come in and network and interact with our grad students. We work with faculty at the schools. We bring in tutors. Of course, we also work hard on the relax component as well.”
United Group’s tagline, ‘the whole real estate story,’ is an apt summation of the company’s history as well as its approach to business. Walter Uccellini started his construction and real estate company around 1972. “He borrowed as much money as he could, bought a piece of land, and started building single family homes,” Uccellini says. The company began building affordable multifamily projects, many under the Section 8 program. It expanded to commercial office in the 1980s while still developing and owning multifamily. Michael Uccellini led the push into the senior housing sector around the late 1990s, while Walter Uccellini dipped his toe in the student space in the late 1980’s. “Walter was a little early to the program in that way,” Uccellini says. The focus going forward will be on development, a major and historical part of United Group’s story, and on entrepreneurial opportunities as well as a focus on management.
“We worked extremely well together,” Uccellini says of his father. “He and I are both very entrepreneurial, are problem-solvers and solution finders. Our company is known for its creative capabilities in financing and development. We both treat the people here like they’re our extended family. They really are our family. That’s the way it has been for decades, and that’s the way it is now.”
— Lynn Peisn