How Student Housing Operators Should Get Ready for the New School Year
DTN Management’s Colin Cronin outlines the key points to consider as students return to campus.
Although pandemic-induced uncertainties have not fully dissipated yet, student housing operators are getting ready for a busy fall. After quickly adapting to changes—from new ways of leasing to reformed design trends—they are now preparing to welcome students for the new academic year.
Multi-Housing News reached out to DTN Management Co. Chief Operating Officer Colin Cronin to find out how student housing operators are adjusting and bracing for the return to a sense of normalcy, with the new norms and rules in place. Based in Lansing, Mich., DTN manages student housing communities near Michigan State University, Lansing Community College and Cooley Law School.
How is the student housing sector currently holding up in Lansing?
Cronin: The student housing sector in East Lansing continues to strengthen as the enrollment at Michigan State University continues to climb year-over-year. However, with recent student development projects near campus and Michigan State requiring sophomores to live on campus starting in the fall of 2020, there is uncertainty as to how the supply and demand for student housing will be affected in the near term. But overall, Michigan State is a strong research-based Big 10 university that is very attractive for U.S. and international students.
How has the health crisis impacted DTN Management’s student housing portfolio and operations?
Cronin: We braced for uncertainty in light of the university canceling classes. Fortunately, we found that students were excited to come back to campus even with classes being primarily online. Additionally, we experienced a surge of new renters at the end of the leasing season, when the university closed the dorms for fall 2020.
Overall, 2020 turned out to be a great year for off-campus housing at Michigan State University. Our team and residents have been wonderful and understanding, given the pandemic protocols and amenity closures.
Operationally, COVID-19 brought into even sharper focus our efforts to approach and interact with our customers in a way that meets their comfort level. All our leasing, maintenance and resident services were configured to work with each individual customer in a manner in which they were comfortable working with our staff throughout the ever-changing pandemic.
How have your marketing and management strategies changed over the past year?
Cronin: Without interacting in person with prospective and existing residents, and adjusting to a percentage of our prospective resident pool being out of the market, we had to make major changes to our leasing platform. We immediately implemented remote video tours, using online platforms. This worked well for those out of the market and when we were required to be closed. We also leveraged our web presence by enhancing our online experience to better serve remote users. On top of these changes, we focused on both paid search and social media to gain additional market share online.
What can you tell us about leasing activity throughout your portfolio?
Cronin: Michigan State University has historically been an early leasing market. As a result of the pandemic and the uncertainty relating to in-person classes for 2021-2022, we have seen this leasing season extend well into the summer. Our leasing pace has been consistent since May and we are averaging 30 percent more rentals weekly than our historical averages.
We are expecting this trend to continue due to new requirements that sophomores live on campus. And while we believe this was a one-year change due to many not being on campus, our historically popular communities closest to campus and downtown are behind historical leasing trends. We believe this relates to renters not being able to experience these locations remotely and therefore not being able to assign a value that many others have historically.
What is your main priority when it comes to welcoming students to your communities this fall?
Cronin: We want to welcome students back with the excitement and energy DTN is known for. We’re celebrating students returning with faster service, customized move-in plans and grander welcome receptions for parents and students. Throughout the East Lansing community, the general feeling is that students are excited to get back to campus, participate in social activities, attend sporting events, and largely want to return to normal, pre-pandemic activities.
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Due to the pandemic, some common-area amenities were restricted or closed. Will students have full access to your amenity packages when they return?
Cronin: We look forward to our students returning to the full DTN experience. Our amenities are open without restrictions and we plan on returning to regular resident events in the fall. We will continue to monitor the wants and needs of our students and make adjustments as required.
We believe our students are looking forward to enjoying our amenities with roommates and other members of the community, and plan to facilitate with caution and in compliance with local, state and federal guidelines. Through the pandemic, we made modifications to our amenities to allow for individual and small group usage. Essentially, we set out to create more flexible environments, understanding that not everyone may be comfortable interacting in large groups. Additionally, we are now able to offer smaller spaces for studying/remote work.
What are some of the features you have implemented in your communities to ensure a safe and healthy environment?
Cronin: Features include the flexible spaces noted above, open leasing environments so that groups are not confined into small spaces, and purifier systems with a 99.4 percent pathogen elimination rate in all of our leasing centers, fitness areas and clubhouses.
What do you think are the most essential things student housing managers should have in their toolboxes right now?
Cronin: Great question! Speaking from the standpoint of the pandemic, we need to remain vigilant and understand that every prospective resident has a different expectation for interactions. We are focused on accommodating the needs and comfort of each person we interact with.
What are some of the main trends shaping the student housing industry?
Cronin: After the pandemic, we believe that renters will put greater emphasis on space, technology and study spaces. After a year of being confined to small spaces, renters will be eager to have more personal space and likely fewer roommates. While this won’t likely be a permanent change due to the make-up of existing student housing stock, two bedrooms will likely be a premium for the foreseeable future. In addition, providers should be prepared to support remote schoolwork and study through technology and study spaces.
Our trends in the Midwest are shifting from local legislation regulating our leasing season and university decisions to require two-year dorm residency. The trend we see is a changing market we need to be adaptable to.
Do you have any predictions for the student housing sector going forward?
Cronin: I believe the student housing market around Michigan State will remain strong. MSU is well known and positioned to continue to attract students both nationally and internationally. MSU’s clearly articulated goals of gradually increasing freshmen enrollment and working to keep sophomores on campus will shift the demographic of off-campus renters to mainly juniors, seniors and grad students, so the amenities and programming of the off-campus housing will need to adjust to meet the needs of a slightly older renter.
In the end, location and housing style will win out. Most college students like to experience multiple environments through their college years, moving from dorms to apartments and houses for different experiences. There is no one perfect housing style for students; change is the constant, but location to campus or their research class centers and great customer service will always be drivers of demand for off-campus housing.