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Universities Face Half-Empty Student Housing As Fall Semester Approaches

Fall is approaching, and universities around the country are mobilizing their resources to manage the return of students to campus during an active pandemic. Many will not return full time, opting instead for a hybrid of in-person and online learning.

For those that still want to live on campus, the student housing experience will be vastly different. Whether by choice or simply reflecting low demand, several universities are facing half-empty residence halls in the fall.

"It means a tremendous [amount] of creative planning, and it does mean budget cuts," University of Houston Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, Student Housing & Residential Life Don Yackley told Bisnow. "And I think the full scope of the impacts ... we're still exploring and trying to understand and plan for."

Cougar Village I at the University of Houston's main campus.

The University of Houston has eight student housing facilities that it owns and manages, along with two privately managed student housing properties in its portfolio.

With the addition this year of the newest student housing building on its main campus, The Quad, the University of Houston can accommodate nearly 8,400 students. During a normal semester, occupancy is typically around 98%. For fall 2020, the university is facing 53% occupancy.

Yackley said the low occupancy reflected students and parents opting out of on-campus living for the fall semester because most classes will be offered online, and also due to concerns about health and safety.

“Students and parents are telling us, with differing course options, and really, I think related to COVID concerns and not knowing what the future brings, [they] have opted to stay at home a little bit more this year,” Yackley said.

Because demand is so low, the University of Houston has not introduced actual occupancy limitations for fall. The style of housing on campus is less dense than at some universities, with most units offering suite-style private bedrooms and no triple or quad-style dorm rooms.

“There's a lot of personal private space built into our housing system. And that is true also with our apartments,” Yackley said.

Rice University announced last week that about 58% of on-campus undergraduate beds will be filled during the fall semester. Less than 40% of undergraduate students are expected to live on campus, and another 21% will not come to campus at all, instead studying in a completely remote format.

Texas Southern University has four student housing buildings. Three are on campus and are owned by the university, while the fourth, Urban Academic Village, is privately owned and operated. In normal times, the buildings can house a total of about 1,800 students, and occupancy is at 100%. 

When student housing reopens on Sept. 10, it will be at only about half of its typical occupancy. Texas Southern University Director of Residential Life & Housing Yvette Barker told Bisnow that the university has actively chosen to de-densify its housing.

“All of our apartments, we have de-densified, so instead of two to a room in the freshmen housing, there's one to a room. And then the apartments, there's two to an apartment. Each person has their own restroom,” Barker said.

Barker has heard similar concerns from students and parents about the fall semester and noted that the parents of freshmen have been particularly worried about sending their children to live on campus.

“I'm not comfortable, we're hearing from some of the students, freshmen, you know, I'm not comfortable right now. Can I defer my admissions until spring? There's quite a few that are afraid,” Barker said.

University of Houston's Don Yackley

While low occupancy may be good for health, it isn’t so great for profits. Yackley said that in the student housing department at the University of Houston, he’s been forced to implement budget cuts, hold off on hiring staff and delay a number of capital improvement projects.

“We're being pretty aggressive with scrutinizing any spending right now,” Yackley said.

The university had a refresh planned this year for its University Lofts student housing, which has been placed on hold. There were also plans to upgrade the locks in three student housing facilities, a $5M project that has also been delayed. 

“There's numerous other projects like that, that we have to pause on, and focus on what is mission-critical at the moment,” Yackley added.

Prior to the pandemic, the University of Houston had a student housing master plan that stretched out seven or eight years into the future, and included things like a potential renovation or rebuild of the Moody Towers student housing facility, as well as a renovation of the Bayou Oaks facility.

“Of course, with COVID and the impacts we've been discussing, we're going to have to reassess that plan over the next year or two and see if that plan still makes sense with how things go,” Yackley said.

Barker said that at Texas Southern University, they were also feeling the financial impact, but that the university had deliberately chosen to limit occupancy to protect its students.

“Yes, it's a big budget shortfall, but our president, his concern is the health and safety of our youth. So he felt that if we de-densify, you know, that would help … with the spread of the virus,” Barker said.

One of the biggest changes moving forward will be how to program events and activities, which is typically a big part of residential life, and part of what students pay for.

“In terms of the actual living, because you're an apartment and you're not in a community quarters, I don't think it's going to affect that part of it. I think more so, just the programming aspect of it will definitely be affected,” Barker said.

Rice University

Yackley said there has been significant interest in the University of Houston’s student housing for the spring semester of 2021, suggesting that students are still keen for a traditional college experience.

“They're hoping that it might be safer and potentially more courses will be able to be held in person. I'm projecting maybe, but everybody's hoping there will be some improvements in the pandemic,” Yackley said.

Despite that optimism, both Yackley and Barker are still making plans for student housing to endure the possibility of pandemic conditions lasting beyond the fall semester, even stretching as far as the middle of next year.

“We're preparing for the year. We're preparing for the academic year,” Barker said. 

Texas Southern University is following guidelines from the state of Texas, as well as city of Houston officials. From a health and sanitation perspective, the university is also following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Yackley said that the University of Houston is trying to plan for the possibility of a robust return of students on campus in the spring, as well as the prospect of low occupancy for a full year.

“I don't know that anything is ever going to be exactly normal again. But I think we in housing have to sort of prepare for both of those options,” Yackley said.