When the news of the coronavirus disease first began slowly whispering its way through the country in early 2020, the idea of a full-blown, global pandemic was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind — especially in the off-campus student housing sector, or the housing market in general. Now, nine months into 2020 and just weeks — or months depending on where you live in the U.S. — post-lock-down and that far-fetched concept of a global pandemic has become a very sobering reality.
Schools, colleges and universities shut down well before the official end of the school year in March and April of 2020 and many establishments are only offering virtual classes this fall. With the outlook for fall continuing to be subject to change, the fate of the off-campus student housing sector is wildly unpredictable.
Many experts anticipated a steep drop-off in the need for student housing in college and university towns. That anticipated drop-off, however, didn’t happen. Not exactly, anyway. With about 66 percent of U.S. colleges resuming a portion of their on-campus classes this fall, off-campus student housing is actually seeing a boost.
That point leaves many asking the question, why? There are several factors, but much of this boost in the off-campus housing market could derive from the effects of COVID-19 itself. Many students are looking for larger, private spaces that are less communal in nature, granting them the chance to social distance more effectively. The traditional residence hall experience that most college students engage in does not grant them the opportunity for social distancing.
In order to meet safety guidelines in the era of COVID-19, many colleges and universities will need to either move students off-campus or renovate existing residence halls in order to provide optimal space for social distancing. Personally speaking, our own Auden Living properties saw a dramatic increase in pre-leasing for the fall semester and COVID-19 played a part in that demand.
Just because there’s a rise in demand for off-campus student housing for the upcoming academic year — and possibly beyond — doesn’t mean that students, owners, operators and developers won’t need to adapt to a new normal. In fact, in the wake of COVID-19, a slew of new, unique challenges will need to be overcome — especially as it pertains to the responsibility of developers, landlords and others associated with real estate.
Preparing for the New Normal
What exactly does a ‘new normal’ look like within the off-campus student housing sector? And, more importantly, what can we anticipate arising as critical demands or trends within this market? One thing we know for sure is that the days of cramming as many undergraduates as possible into a single space with shared accommodations are largely over.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of personal space. Moving forward, bed-to-bath parity is going to be of the utmost importance for student accommodations. Outdoor space is also becoming an increasingly hot commodity. A safe, well-maintained outdoor space is a must for students seeking off-campus living arrangements with so much still shut down.
Communication and energy response plans are critical for student housing communities and transparency with residents about those plans will be of the highest demand. At Auden Properties, for example, we have updated our COVID e-blasts to reflect the latest information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) combined with local and state government news to help inform our residents at every turn.
Residents in off-campus student housing will also seek out readily available personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies. Establishments that provide these resources and go the extra mile for students are likely to be positively received. Auden Properties has provided thousands of free masks and cleaning supplies to students — many of which were unavailable in retail stores — in order to help keep them safe during these chaotic and trying times.
Safe amenities available by reservation, weekly staff meetings to review safety guidelines and firm adherence to best practices are all key players in creating an in-demand, safe off-campus housing environment for students amidst the global pandemic.
Whether an off-campus housing option is brand new or has been open for several years, the need for ensuring a safe, ideal living situation for students is very, very real. It’s up to developers and real estate professionals to do more than just capitalize on the increased demand for off-campus housing. It’s crucial to understand the new challenges that have emerged due to COVID-19 while continuing to provide real-time, safe solutions for students seeking secure housing in 2020.
Although the pandemic is far from over — and hopefully dealing with similar conditions will never become normal — we need to begin thinking about how to prevent and avoid future incidents where the entire global community is forced to lock-down. Clearly a universal approach is necessary. It is time for our leaders to place petty politics aside and find a path that recognizes our common cause: maintaining a healthy global society. When we achieve that goal, we will avoid the horrific losses suffered during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
— Jeff Amengual is COO of DMG, a company which owns $600 million in properties supporting a number of schools across the country