Today’s Development Trends: Living ‘Large’ in Student Housing

Like other industries, COVID was an accelerator for certain trends within student housing. These include a focus on health and wellness, a premium on personal space/privacy, and an increased reliance on technology. Though many developments halted during the pandemic, construction activity has ramped back up, and many developers have made it clear that their biggest projects are still to come. 

More space is, after all, what will be needed to accommodate these preferences. 

A Grande Lifestyle

Developers are thinking “big,” and that applies to more than just their ideas. It includes their amenities as well. 

“At Core Spaces, we’re focused on creating communities and lifestyles that help residents become their best selves,” says President Dan Goldberg. “From curated resident programming to a resident app and concierge-style services, all of our offerings are geared toward building communities that focus on hospitality and put people in the middle of it all.”

And students certainly want to be in the middle of it all.

“Students want more study and meeting spaces in common areas, including dedicated spaces for small or large group projects, rooms with technology for virtual interviews and quiet study areas,” Goldberg continues. “There’s also rising demand for outdoor amenity spaces. Students want to have the option to socialize outside, whether it be rooftop pools, patios for grilling, or yard games.”

Core Spaces intends to offer these types of amenities as it builds one of the nation’s largest off-campus student development projects near Clemson University in South Carolina. The vertically integrated residential real estate developer, owner, and operator has partnered with Tom Winkopp Development to create a 140-acre student village on the site of The Pier, an existing 1,400-bed student housing development in Seneca, South Carolina. 

The walkable village will expand the bed count to 4,000. It will also include state-of-the-art athletic and fitness facilities, pools, outdoor grills, student clubhouses, beachfront access and waterfront trails along Lake Hartwell.

The development will reimagine the student village experience by creating clusters of single-family neighborhoods with nine-bedroom homes that have their own organic community feel. 

The student village is part of a larger master-planned, mixed-use project on a 325-acre site that will be developed by Tom Winkopp Development and partners over the next three to five years. The first 900 new beds will deliver in 2024, making this one of the largest privately owned student housing projects in the country.

“What excites us about this project is that we have the opportunity to turn this into an extension of the campus,” Goldberg says. 

Clemson seems to be a popular spot for big thinkers, as Fountain Residential Partners is hard at work on another community that touts “student living on Lake Hartwell.” The 633-bed Dockside is using its location to its full advantage, appealing to outdoor enthusiasts and, really, anyone who enjoys having fun when it opens later this year. 

“We are building my favorite project I have ever been associated with right now in Clemson,” says President and CEO Brent Little. “It is a beautiful five-acre site sitting on Lake Hartwell, with fantastic amenities and 21,000 square feet of retail and restaurants. We have four major pieces of public art, a 12-slip dock for boaters to pull in and get food and drink, a brewery, pizza, tacos, dog grooming, HotWorx [an infrared sauna workout program], murals, a public space with a splashpad and bandstand for live music — I could go on and on.”

As could the amenity list. Add resort-style pool with cabanas, lakefront boardwalk, kayak and paddleboard storage and rentals, coffee bar, state-of-the-art fitness center and yoga studio, outdoor kitchen and grills, tanning beds, game room, dog park…and the list does, indeed, go on and on. 

Even without a lakefront location or offerings that rival your best vacation destinations, Little believes a few very well done amenity spaces can go a long way.

“A beautiful and functional clubhouse, a fitness center to rival any gym membership facility and a truly resort-level pool area are the three major facilities of note,” he says…before adding, “In addition, the expansion and multiplication of study spaces. We used to have a few nooks in the clubhouse with a printer carousel in the corner. Now we build a full WeWork-type facility with a coffee bar, high-tops with connections, soft seat areas, meeting rooms with video screens and white boards, art rooms, music rooms and workspaces for incubators. And these spaces may be located throughout the property, as opposed to in a singular location.”

Naturally, all these amenities require space, though Lisa Hale-Meindl, senior director of real estate operations at Greystar, notes that the reverse can be advantageous, too. That more space can lead to better amenities (rather than needing space to accommodate planned amenities). This has played out in one of Greystar’s latest developments, the 1,448-bed Union on 24th in the West Campus submarket at the University of Texas at Austin. 

“This project is one of the largest we have developed,” she says. “The scope of the building allowed us to be very creative with amenity spaces and provide them on each floor.”  

Union on 24th will feature outdoor fitness stations, gathering space, a pet park, fire pits, a yoga studio and various types of study spaces sprinkled throughout the building. The community is slated for completion in fall 2024. 

Ken Carl, senior managing director and head of student housing at Kayne Anderson Real Estate, notes that these grandiose amenities aren’t lost on on-campus student housing operators. Though budgets may differ, Carl has witnessed many take a page out of their off-campus brethren’s book. 

“We are seeing many similarities between on- and off-campus developments,” he says. 

This includes prioritizing resident privacy, wellness and academic performance. Many new on-campus developments also contain study and collaboration spaces, as well as indoor and outdoor community areas to support physical and mental health.  

“We’re noticing that new on-campus dorms are starting to put a larger emphasis on amenities, finishes and student experiences,” adds Goldberg. “Some of this change is likely due to the impacts of COVID — and how greatly social experiences were missed during the pandemic — but they can also be tracked back to the impact of the PBSH [purpose-built student housing] industry.”

Carl hopes this trend continues.

“Let’s acknowledge and applaud the many universities around the country that have applied the lessons learned in off-campus development over the years to help improve the on-campus experience,” he suggests. “The de-densification and renewal of residence halls with an emphasis on community, engagement and wellness helps enrich the student experience.”

Privacy, Please

De-densification may mean going smaller, but if a student population shrinks, students actually get bigger spaces. Yes, a 250-square-foot room will still be a 250-square-foot room regardless of how many people live in it, but it’s a whole lot more space when you have that cube all to yourself. 

Which brings us to our next trend…

“We are seeing more single-occupancy units in off-campus projects…and an increase in single-occupancy units for new on-campus developments as campuses look to provide more options to address students’ changing needs, as well as provide options for upper-division students to remain on-campus,” says Hale-Meindl.

This is one trend that started before the pandemic but picked up speed over the past two-plus years, adds Ned Williams, senior vice president of Michaels Student Living.

“Most students these days are coming from homes where they had their own bedroom, and increasingly do not want to share space with another student, even for a year,” he says. 

Williams thinks we may also see more single-occupancy rooms on campus as older dorms are remodeled. 

“When schools renovate, they consider a number of factors,” he explains. “The goal is to get a better space than they had before, so if moving walls and reconfiguring units is an option, they will do it. Does that mean turning doubles into singles? It can, and that is certainly the trend.”

Stephen Bus, managing partner at Up Campus Student Living, is also witnessing this as schools build new housing. 

“We have seen many universities decommission old ‘dorm-style’ buildings and build new residence halls with bed-bath parity and private bedrooms that really reflect what the private market has been doing for years,” he says.

As nice as it is to have your own room, Williams sees one problem with this model — and it isn’t loneliness.

“What cannot be ignored is the pro forma impacts of a single- versus double-occupancy unit,” he says. “As a developer, I would love to build all double-occupancy units. They obviously make the project far more likely to pencil financially with the increased revenue. But that is not what students want, and occupancy has been trending the other way for years.”

Unfortunately, some markets just can’t accommodate for de-densification on account of the fact that they’re so…dense. 

“Bed-bath parity will remain the norm for most markets, but marketplaces with the highest rent levels, by necessity, will continue to deploy shared baths and shared bedrooms as a way to reduce rent cost per bed to an affordable level for those more urbanized markets,” says Little.

Williams counts Northern California and large urban centers in the Northeast as a few markets where double occupancy is more of a necessity due to scarcity and housing costs for students.

Hale-Meindl empathizes with the current housing dilemma: do students pay more to have a room all to themselves, or do they split the space — and the cost?

“It is a delicate balance between wanting privacy and needing affordability,” she says. 

This is where diversification can pay off, Goldberg adds. 

“Core Spaces properties contain some of the highest variety of unit types, including different types of efficient single-occupancy units,” he says. “Our philosophy has always been to offer a wide range of room types to have broad appeal.”

David Pierce, principal at Parallel, is doing the same. He cites two of his recent projects as proof that what works for one project, market or school may not work for another. 

“We have two projects currently under development that approach the next generation in two ways we see trending,” he says. “One of the properties highlights larger unit types with four to six bedrooms, is highly amenitized and close to the nightlife action. Those fundamentals remain, as they have for many years.  The other is on a quieter, pedestrian-friendly corner, and offers more lower-occupancy unit types and private study options. Both still offer high-end amenities and lifestyle options.”

The first project mentioned is the 802-bed Rev, which will offer studio to six-bedroom units when it opens in summer 2023. The second is the 750-bed 401 First Street that will mostly offer studio, one- and two-bedroom units. It is expected to open in summer 2024. Both communities will serve students at Texas A&M University at College Station. 

Having it All

A mix of unit types and price points is necessary in today’s environment because the price of just about everything has gone up – a trend higher education has been leading for quite a while. 

This sometimes means students — and operators — have to prioritize, no matter how big their desires are.

“The cost of a college education is skyrocketing, and very few students have the financial ability to live in a building with luxury/hotel amenities, coffee shops, lazy rivers and the gaming walls,” Williams asserts. 

“I have seen numerous market studies that asked students if they wanted those amenities, and would they be willing to pay more for them? The answers are always, ‘it would be neat, but I’d rather pay less in rent.’”

Bus believes developers can achieve a happy medium, mostly by emphasizing a community’s location. 

“We’re still seeing a push for more ‘affordable luxury,’ so infill, high-rise, pedestrian-to-campus projects appeal to a broader resident rent profile,” he notes.

This can also help the bottom line, with the logic being to spend more money upfront on land/location, then let the neighborhood provide the bulk of amenities. Ultimately, students who values their time, sleep and social life will appreciate and gravitate towards convenience.

“Proximity to campus and technological integrations should be the biggest drivers, with amenities and security following,” Pierce says. 

Still what appeals to one student won’t necessarily appeal to another. So student housing developers continue to try to be all things to all students. 

“Drivers for student housing will be anything and everything,” says Jared Hutter, principal and co-founder of Aptitude Development. “We have to remember that each renter makes a decision for their own personal reason, whether it be price, privacy, amenities, location or where their friends are living. Additionally, in our business we have to remember that the team needs to sell every unit twice. First, the student needs to be excited, but the parents need to sign off as well, and what’s important to parents may be different than the student’s desires. In the end, it will be the sum of the parts and not one single item that fills up the building.”

Carl agrees…though that doesn’t mean student housing developers will quit thinking big any time soon.

“Kayne prides itself on supporting developers that strive to push the limits of what the student housing industry can achieve,” he says. “The standard continues to elevate each year. Differentiated products with thoughtful designs, curated brand identities and a focus on individual success are more likely to thrive now and into the future.”

Nellie Day

This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Student Housing Business magazine.