In these troubled times, higher education policies and procedures are subject to change at a moment’s notice, including the decision by universities to switch to 100 percent virtual learning. College students have responded to these uncertainties by delaying enrollment and housing plans for the fall semester.
In many markets, this has been a win for purpose-built off-campus student housing providers as well as hotels. Both offer students a more flexible lifestyle including the ability to pick their own roommates and the perks of curfew-free living.
At Yale, the number of students living off campus spiked this fall since the university announced its social distancing guidelines and restrictions in response to COVID-19. According to the Yale Daily News, in a typical year, 84 percent of undergraduate students live in on-campus housing, but this fall only 36 percent of on-campus housing capacity is filled. The approximately 79 percent increase in students living off-campus has created changes in demand for local apartment buildings.
Filling the void
Markets with cutting-edge purpose-built student housing apartments have been ideally equipped to respond to this increased demand, especially since they likely had vacancies created by the absence of first-year international students.
For example, Campus Apartments, which operates in 17 states, had a very good overall occupancy rate this semester—but the story is slightly different when it comes to drilling down to individual college towns. In markets like the University of California system schools—that decided very early on to be remote—off-campus properties are experiencing low occupancies, according to Miles Orth, III, executive vice president & chief operating officer at Campus Apartments.
However, depending on the products they have to offer, student housing operators faced with vacancies can pivot to focus on the conventional apartment marketplace. In Riverside, CA Campus Apartments has reached out to the general apartment market. “We migrated from a by-the-bed student platform to a by-the-unit conventional apartment platform,” Orth said. “When circumstances on the ground change, you find an alternate strategy.”
These measures have not been necessary in other regions where off-campus housing has enjoyed a surge in demand. In Raleigh, N.C., Coastal Carolina University and North Carolina State University decided in June to have students come back to campus. “… but they ended up having a spike in COVID-19 cases that exceeded their capacity for students to be in quarantine dorms that were available for students that tested positive,” Orth said. And because the universities exceeded that capacity, the campuses were shut down. But students needed a new place to live and off-campus housing quickly filled up.
Operating student housing apartments during the pandemic requires constant monitoring of what each local jurisdiction allows from day to day, including capacity restrictions for common areas. “We stay in close touch with the health departments online from our management systems in Philadelphia and our local general managers monitor the situation as well,” Orth said. “We let our residents know as soon as we hear about any change.”
Just as important is ensuring all of Campus Apartments’ frontline workers are protected. All residents—unless they are hanging out in their apartments—must wear masks at all times when they’re on the property. “If they’re in our hallway, in a stairwell, in an elevator, in our office, walking into the property or in the common area, they have to have a mask—period,” Orth noted.
Hotels helping out
Another trend to watch is hotels offering off-campus housing for students and university staff, especially in small college towns where non-university housing stock is limited.
When the University of Minnesota delayed opening first-year student dorms and instituted COVID-19 protocol for incoming students, the Graduate Hotel Minneapolis opened its rooms to students. The new program is called Graduate Cares. Students pay a flat rate of $1,500 a month for their room, Wi-Fi and cleaning.
Even before the pandemic, Extended Stay America worked with universities to house graduate and international students. “When the pandemic struck in March, we started receiving calls to house (other) students as they were closing the dorms immediately,” Joseph Novia, Vice President of field sales for Extended Stay America, told Multi-Housing News.
With many colleges and universities struggling to expand their room inventory with remaining compliant with social distancing—or provide housing alternatives for students with compromised immune systems—additional off-campus student housing has been crucial. “We also knew that many parents did not want to sign a traditional apartment lease knowing that any campus can close immediately if there was a surge of COVID-19 cases,” Novia added.
Extended Stay America is currently working with 25 colleges and universities to offer their students off-campus housing as a supplement to their own housing programs. Until there is a vaccine, students will require a variety of flexible housing solutions where they can be safely distanced without feeling disconnected from the student body.