Student Housing Leasing: Lessons Learned

In the second day of the NMHC/InterFace Student Housing conference, industry professionals discussed the importance of communication and flexibility in weathering the coronavirus storm.

Christian O'Lone, Rob Dinwiddie, Lindsay Brown, Beth Pinder and Jennifer Cassidy

(Clockwise from top left) Christian O’Lone, Rob Dinwiddie, Lindsay Brown, Beth Pinder and Jennifer Cassidy

How do you lease beds with a closed leasing office or without students to talk to? This was the main concern of student housing owners and operators at the beginning of the pandemic, when everything closed and entire cities went into lockdown. The leasing process has come a long way since the end of the first quarter and specialists attending the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) and InterFace Student Housing conference talked about the lessons they’ve learned so far.  

READ ALSO: NMHC/InterFace Student Housing 2020: The Long Road to Recovery

On the second day of the event, in a panel moderated by Landmark Properties Senior Vice President of Marketing and Management Services Rob Dinwiddie, student housing industry players discussed how their companies adapted to daily changes and managed to overcome unprecedented situations.

Christian O’Lone, vice president of asset management at DMG Investments; Jennifer Cassidy, senior vice president of student housing operations at Cardinal Group Management; Campus Advantage’s Vice President of Leasing and Marketing Lindsay Brown; Demi Sterling-Kinney, vice president of operations at Aspen Heights Partners and Beth Pinder, head of operations property management at CA Student Living shared details from their experience. 

Communication, flexibility are key

Sterling-Kinney noted that “communicating with the rest of the student housing providers, sharing ideas, getting feedback from our individual markets,” has been extremely beneficial in the past seven months. Cassidy added that keeping an open communication between people, whether it was about electrostatic spraying or move-out policies, led to proactive decision making and a better outcome for both the staff and the residents.

All companies saw a drop in leases in late March and early April. One thing DMG Investments did was to set up a tracker with their partner universities in order to keep an open communication regarding classes that were held in person. “That was an effective force of filling those last-minute beds, especially later in the summer when the university started changing their game plan last minute … We were still able to have a good pipeline,” O’Lone stated.

This is an unprecedented situation, so flexibility—especially market-to-market flexibility—is paramount, Dinwiddie pointed out. Sterling-Kinney added that “knowing that whatever we do, it can change again tomorrow,” is key in keeping the business running.

Brown referred to the impact COVID-19 has had on construction sites. Usually, when a project is underway, that’s the time leaders can feel the energy of the place, connect with the people on-site and see the market. So, when everything stopped, “us, as leaders, we had to carry that energy even more to our teams in a virtual way.” Additionally, leaders had to show compassion and understanding to people in their individual situations, Cassidy stated.

Technology came in handy once again through Facetime, fully virtual tours, taking pictures of everything, all property inspections done through a digital manner etc. Furthermore, when restrictions were lifted, other people in the industry who were in the area of the project under construction were able to give a new set of eyes, Cassidy said.

The going-forward approach 

Looking back at how 2020 has unfolded so far and as leaders start planning for the 2021 leasing season, speakers at the NMHC panel all agreed that everything needs to be decided on a market-by-market basis. While some markets were hit hard by the coronavirus-induced crisis, others were as successful as before the pandemic. “What may have been more of a one-size-fits-all in the past, we’re tailoring very specific to the asset in the market that we operate in,” O’Lone mentioned.

Another interesting point to consider is the average market occupancy and enrollment changes, and whether students will opt to remain at their parents’ homes. “We’re monitoring this closely at a market level and we’ll pivot our strategy if we see a significant downturn in enrollment that could result in decreased demand for the future,” Cassidy noted. She concluded that it is important to understand these dynamics in each market and distinguish between what is a 2020 impact versus what could extend into 2021 or even further. 

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