How property managers can pivot off-campus student housing amid the pandemic

Laurie Mega
Laurie Mega | 7 min. read

Published on August 13, 2020

As the fall semester approaches and the COVID-19 crisis shows no signs of abating, college students across the country are beginning to find out exactly what their college experience will look like this year. Some colleges are opening up their dorms, but doing so at limited capacities. Others are choosing to end the semester on campus after the Thanksgiving break, switching to remote classes for the rest of the semester.

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Still others are shifting most, if not all, of their coursework online entirely, eliminating the need for students to come back to campus at all.

It remains to be seen exactly how college housing will be affected this coming year. On one hand, colleges moving classes online means fewer students moving in. On the other, many colleges are having to reduce capacity in traditional dorms, forcing them to rent out large blocks of college housing and even hotel rooms to accommodate students who would normally be housed on campus.

Add to the mix the changes property managers will have to make to off-campus housing to meet CDC guidelines, and you have a situation that could prove challenging for owners and property managers alike.

But the forecast isn’t all doom and gloom. There will be opportunities to reduce financial loss and even market to new audiences. In this article, we’ll explore how property managers can work with colleges to meet students’ housing needs and even market to new audiences to fill properties that could be left vacant by students who choose to stay home.

How Will COVID-19 Affect College Housing?

When students were sent home in March, college housing was only slightly affected. According to an S&P Global survey, American Campus Communities, Inc., one of the largest managers of student housing in the country, reported an occupancy rate of 97 percent.

Most likely, that’s because students were already committed to their housing, essentially stuck until their leases were up.

Income, however, was affected to a degree as some students lost their jobs and eviction moratoria went into effect.

According to the S&P Global survey, hostel-style off-campus housing stands to lose the most this academic year, simply because of their business model and distancing best practices. If property managers want to keep their properties open, they will have to reduce the number of beds to keep students at a safe social distance. So, properties that charge per bed will see a reduction in their revenue.

Properties that don’t have a master agreement with a college also stand to lose a significant amount of money. Although, the fact that colleges have to reduce the number of on-campus beds gives property managers the opportunity to pivot their business model and sign a master lease with a college looking to accommodate the students they can no longer fit on campus.

And all properties of course have to reforecast revenue streams from social events and other amenities, such as study spaces, game rooms, and cafés.

The Silver Lining

Before the pandemic struck, on-campus housing was crowded, with students sharing rooms and common areas. Now that all has to change. Colleges are reducing the number of students per room, often turning spaces that once held two or three students into single-occupancy rooms.

That leaves them with a not-so-small problem. They now have to find a place for the students who no longer fit, but were guaranteed housing.

Some colleges, particularly those in urban areas, are even taking advantage of empty hotels. Emerson College in Boston is renting nine of the 11 floors at the nearby W Hotel for the 2020/2021 year.

Others are turning to off-campus housing, with colleges that once required students to live on campus now making a special exception for the coming academic year.

So, while some students may be staying home this year, there is still a need to find beds for those who are moving back to campus.

This is where a master agreement could work to everyone’s benefit. Colleges get the housing they need to accommodate their students and property managers don’t have to worry about broken leases or empty beds if the pandemic forces another shutdown.

How Will Off-Campus Housing Change Amid COVID-19?

While colleges and universities are performing a major overhaul to on-campus dorms and apartments, property managers of off-campus units are doing the same.

Redesigning Living Spaces

In July, the Minnesota Department of Health issued a pamphlet titled “Guidance for Mitigating COVID-19 at Higher Education Institutions.” While it’s aimed at colleges and universities in the state, it contains guidance on housing and common areas that property managers around the country will find useful, too.

The guidelines include the following suggestions:

  • Reduce the number of beds per room to make it easier to maintain social distancing.
  • Place barriers between bathroom sinks, gym showers, and other areas that can’t be 6 feet apart.
  • Restrict the number of people in common areas in accordance with state mandates.
  • Space furniture out in common areas to maintain social distancing.
  • Close common areas where social distancing is not possible.
  • Create an isolation room for students who show symptoms of or test positive for COVID-19.
  • Work with local colleges to trace and prevent the spread of the coronavirus among their students.

Reducing the number of beds, of course, is a difficult decision, and one that an owner will have to reconcile with their finances.

Maintaining Common Areas

The Minnesota Department of Health, as an example, does not recommend colleges close common areas entirely, figuring that students will simply congregate in other unmonitored areas. And that’s something property managers may want to consider, as well.

To keep gathering in common areas in check, use a scheduling app where students make reservations for gyms, pools, lounges, study rooms, and other common areas. You may even want to consider a surveillance system to make sure students are abiding by the rules.

In addition, property managers should also consider hiring a sanitizing service that can deep clean common areas regularly. In between cleanings, make wipes and other sanitizing products available to residents and staff. Place signage up to remind residents and staff to maintain social distancing, wipe off used surfaces, and follow capacity limits, as well.

Create guidelines and procedures for your residents to follow and communicate them using a resident portal, so that everyone is on the same page.

Large events in common areas, of course, will have to be cancelled. But that doesn’t mean there’s not an opportunity for your residents to socialize. Online games, competitions, and interest groups are replacing in-person gatherings in many areas.

Pro tip: Since students will be spending more time online, consider upgrading your Wi-Fi capabilities.

Update HVAC Systems

Property managers will want to review and possibly upgrade their HVAC systems. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has provided guidance on air filtration systems for university resident halls that include using portable HEPA filtration systems and replacing HVAC filters with MERV 13 or higher.

Reduce Contact Through a Resident Center

Through a resident center, students can sign their leases, pay rent, request maintenance, and get in touch with you if they have questions. In many cases, it eliminates the need for students to come in contact with your staff.

Also, use it to create message boards to share and discuss important information, such as cleaning schedules, keyless entry or other tech updates—or, simply, safety reminders. Students can ask questions or add comments directly in the message board.

Additionally, a property management platform will improve often-time-consuming processes like application processing, lease-signing, and rental deposits, as well. That can help you focus more on your properties and less on administrative tasks.

What If the Students Just Aren’t Returning?

Even after pivoting to meet social distancing requirements and filling the shifting needs of colleges and universities, some owners and property managers may find that the students just aren’t returning. While 76 percent of students surveyed in a College Reaction/Axios poll said they wished to return to school, in some cases, schools just aren’t letting them.

If that’s the case, it’s time to consider attracting other populations to your properties.

If your properties are in or near an urban area, for example, you may be able to pivot in the short term and meet the needs of the micro-apartment and communal living trends that have seen rapid growth in recent years.

Many twenty- to thirty-year-old professionals who want to live in a vibrant urban area are willing to trade space for location. In 2013, Smithsonian Magazine declared micro-apartments the housing trend of the future. Work with owners to see if this is something they would consider to recoup their losses—even if it’s just for the time being during the pandemic.

It remains to be seen exactly how this will shake out for student housing, and it really depends on what the schools in a property’s area has planned for the academic year. Therefore, it would behoove property managers to remain in contact with local colleges and universities and work with them to solve their housing needs.

If the students aren’t returning, consider plans that would fill units with populations other than students.

Bottom line: Property managers should prepare for students’ return, but may want to make a contingency plan or two.


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Laurie Mega

Laurie Mega has planned, written, and edited content on a variety of subjects. Her work has been published by, The Economist, Philips Lifeline, and FamilyEducation, among others. She lives in the Greater Boston Area with her husband and two boys.

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