Student Housing Operations During COVID-19: Q&A
Brian Pearl talks about his 886-unit development in Miami and the measures necessary to ensure students’ safe return to school.
Construction is underway on The One at University City, a 1,244-bed student housing community located across the street from the Florida International University campus in Miami. The developer behind the off-campus property, Global City Development, partnered with RER Ventures and Podium Developments to offer 886 units to students in need of housing. There is a need for student accommodation now more than ever, as a result of the inability to share rooms due to social distancing rules.
Brian Pearl,a principal at Global City Development, discusses the company’s $231 million financial bond issued by University Bridge in 2018, which, at that time, represented the largest financing of its kind for an off-campus student housing building in the U.S. He also talks about students’ return to school and what that means for student housing properties.
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Your company is using a $231 million bond issuance by University Bridge to develop The One. Tell us more about this financing package and what it means for an off-campus community.
Pearl: The bond issuance is a total win-win scenario, in that it provides us with the necessary resources to develop the community, while providing the university with short-, mid- and long-term benefits. These include everything from scholarships and support for veterans programs, to, of course, the university ultimately taking control of the building.
What type of safety and health measures do you intend to implement at The One at University City to guarantee students’ protection?
Pearl: Landmark Properties is supporting us with The One. They have a robust program that is giving us the foundation for our evolving plan. It includes information about everything from limiting access to community amenities, as dictated by local authorities, to remaining operational to ensure that leaseholders can self-isolate or shelter in place, as directed by the authorities.
The way The One has been constructed also allows for social distancing in common areas, and we will be working closely with the university to stay in lockstep with their guidelines. The building itself is scheduled to open in a few days, and we are ready.
Has the health crisis pushed you to implement more technology at your properties?
Pearl: Technology is an ever-increasing necessity for students, and of course the advent of COVID-19 has made a significant amount of the learning process virtual. The One, by design, already had the most up-to-date technology available. The building is nothing short of a tech hub, providing 1-gigabyte speed internet access. Students will feel very comfortable with the level of technology at their disposal.
How do you expect things to unfold once students return to school this fall?
Pearl: That is a complete work in progress, especially being in Miami-Dade. We very much look forward to beginning to welcome students later this week. Everyone will of course be informed of the latest safety measures as part of the move-in process. As noted, we continue in lockstep with the university, which has been wonderful to work with. We are mutually committed to providing the most positive experiences for students.
How have the COVID-19-induced uncertainties affected student housing development across Miami?
Pearl: As you are aware, the goal of Florida’s public universities is to open within specific safety parameters. We have been in contact with the students, and they are excited to begin the fall semester in person. We have had relatively few cancellations—only a handful. We will begin a phased move-in process and continue to monitor the situation on a literal moment-by-moment basis, as the situation is simply that fluid.
How has the pandemic impacted your business?
Pearl: The One is ostensibly completed, and we were able to continue to finalize construction as the industry was deemed essential. We are also well-capitalized and are very confident that, while COVID-19 will be the health-care crisis of a lifetime, we will eventually move past it as vaccines and other treatments are developed. This is a horrible moment in time, but we do see it as a moment in time. We are bullish on the long-term success of student housing, particularly in situations such as FIU where there is such a compelling need.
Have pre-pandemic student housing trends changed in the wake of the health crisis?
Pearl: The demand for student housing has not changed because of the pandemic. What has changed of course is the ongoing process of whether students will be physically in school or attend remotely, or some combination thereof. So, what is different is that we are at the mercy of whether a school is physically open or not, and that varies dramatically throughout the nation. As it relates to Florida, and FIU in particular, we are preparing to open and continue to move forward.
What are your predictions and expectations for the sector?
Pearl: COVID-19 has impacted access but not need. The need for student housing throughout the nation is nothing short of compelling. In some universities, due to the inability to share rooms during the pandemic, the demand for off-campus housing has temporarily increased, even above its already high level. As we move past COVID-19, we will continue to see a robust need for housing. We are certainly extremely bullish on the industry and are even now confidentially evaluating a select number of opportunities.