The COVID-19 crisis has shuttered colleges and universities since March, forcing students to return home and attend online classes for the remainder of the school year. According to a Moody’s Analytics report, the student housing sector was expected to see strong inventory growth through the fall of 2020, but stay-at-home orders delayed or halted construction in many states.
With an uncertain fall semester ahead, Multi-Housing News spoke to American Campus Communities’ Chief Marketing Officer Jason Wills about the sector’s current status and what changes the company plans to implement upon students’ return to school. He also gave his insights on what students prefer when it comes to housing.
How will student housing look once school starts?
Wills: Without a doubt, there will be new protocols for social distancing and sanitization. However, the high volume of applications and leases we are receiving signals that students will return to their college town this fall. All but three campuses where ACC has a presence have confirmed they will be operational and we expect that many will adopt a hybrid model, meaning there will be plenty of study and virtual instruction happening within student housing communities.
I do know that we have heard from many of our students who expect the college experience to be intact notwithstanding new policies, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regulations and social distancing. These students are saying that regardless of how their education will be delivered—online or in-person—they expect to experience it from their college town or city.
If the outbreak continues into the fall when the academic year should start, what solutions will ACC implement to minimize the coronavirus transmission?
Wills: In common spaces such as amenity and high-touch areas, we are performing a tough-point analysis on each development and exploring solutions such as nano-septic stickers with built-in sanitization technology, touchless plumbing fixtures and bathroom components, door foot-pulls, occupancy sensors and antimicrobial surfaces.
In terms of design changes, we are exploring modifications to amenity areas related to componentized furniture solutions that can be spaced out and re-configured during times of social distancing and smaller study rooms with occupancy limits to prevent large groups from congregating. We are also exploring flexible amenity options to allow for indoor/outdoor use that provides increased natural airflow and social distancing options through the furniture layout. These changes will be accompanied by policies, education and outreach to residents that promote an awareness of best practices and CDC standard guidelines.
Many colleges and universities announced they will continue with online classes through 2021. Tell us about your strategy for the start of the upcoming academic year in case students won’t be able to return to schools.
Wills: In reaching out to our partner universities, we know that many will be shrinking in-person class sizes and holding larger lecture hall classes online. Furthermore, alternating in-person lectures with online lectures are being incorporated into their operational plans.
Consistently, the feedback that we are hearing from our residents is that they want to remain in their student communities or that their student apartment is their only or best housing option. At universities planning for in-person classes, we are currently 83.1 percent preleased as compared to 83.8 percent in the prior year, while the remainder of our portfolio is 81 percent preleased as compared to 88.6 percent in the prior year.
If you were to convert double-occupancy shared bedrooms into singles as a social distancing measure, what impact would this have on rent costs? What about the overall impact on your business?
Wills: Obviously, reducing doubles to singles is financially unfavorable, but while de-densification is viable mitigation on the university campus and in public gathering spaces, it does not make sense for student housing units with in-unit bathrooms no more than it does for multifamily apartments or single-family homes. By living within the same unit or suite, those occupants will undoubtedly be touching doorknobs, surfaces, furniture and other items in the household. Student housemates are living together and exposed to each other regardless of whether they share bedrooms.
How will amenity trends change once the current health crisis passes?
Wills: Our current amenity offerings are designed to promote personal and academic success and we do not see those changing physically. While they will be used and operated differently in the future, they continue to be essential components of a well-rounded college experience. However, there will likely be operational updates and changes to furniture, fixtures and equipment solutions. These changes will help implement social distancing and they will provide reduced-touch options for amenities.
What are your expectations from the student housing sector in the 2020-2021 school year?
Wills: As universities plan for the fall 2020 homecoming of their students, we encourage private student housing owners and managers of both on- and off-campus student apartments to work together to support their institutions. We all share in serving the universities’ mission of providing communities conducive to academic achievement and success. If universities lack housing options during the pandemic, the student housing sector should utilize its inventory and resources to make sure the institution has ample options that they deem acceptable during this crisis.
Our plan for the fall is to provide thoughtful, healthy community spaces while promoting accountability and responsibility among students and staff. We are also having a third-party review of our sanitization protocols in light of the pandemic and CDC guidelines. We are developing enhanced policies and programs that promote informed, responsible behavior to students and staff. We also have a partnership with “The Hi, How Are You Project,” whose mission is to remove the stigma and shame around mental health so people will feel open to communicating.