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What Student Housing Has In Common With Retail During The Pandemic

Much like the retail industry, the coronavirus pandemic’s main effect on student housing was to accelerate already-emergent trends in concerning ways.

Hub U Seattle

After years of developers shrinking unit sizes and increasing common space, tactics that have boosted margins, student demand had already begun to shift toward larger living rooms and decentralized community spaces, American Campus Communities Vice President of Public-Private Partnerships Jason Taylor said at Bisnow’s Annual Student Housing event hosted online in November.

“I know everyone here is taking a step back and saying, ‘We’re talking about the same things we’ve been talking about; it’s just more existential now,’” Taylor said.

Few parts of the student housing equation are better examples of an existential issue than ground-floor retail. Quick-service restaurants have done fairly well in adapting to new restrictions, but large, central dining areas and oversized campus bookstores are out of vogue in favor of maker spaces or other outlets for entrepreneurship.

“We’ve been focused on experience per square foot and placemaking, and since we’re a research-heavy institution, we’ve converted lots of areas with large conference rooms into thinking spaces where people can develop real ideas out of them,” said Thomas Jefferson University Enterprise Vice President Dominique Casimir, who leads the school’s real estate decisions.

As a business that caters to a population subset with fluid wants and needs through the years, adapting is nothing new for student housing developers. But this latest wave of changes seems to cut into building owners’ bottom lines.

“These are all red flags in how to make the numbers work, especially with the movement to reduce student debt,” Servitas Vice President of Real Estate Development Angel Rivera said. “And contrary to what some think, the federal government is not going to wave a magic wand to make some of it go away.”

Clockwise from top left: Thomas Jefferson University's Dominique Casimir, DMG Investments' Jeffrey Amengual, Servitas' Angel Rivera, American Campus Communities' Jason Taylor, The Scion Group's Ray Tennison and Aptitude Development's Jared Hutter

Further compounding the issue is the cost of construction, which has continued to rise through the year’s travails, Aptitude Development co-founder and principal Jared Hutter said. For the large subset of colleges and universities that have seen losses in enrollment but still feel the need to keep developing in order to stay competitive, the feeling is similar. The only solution any panelist could see for the current bind is to join forces.

“We need to look at public-private partnerships more because we cannot do this all on our own balance sheet and expect students to pick up the rest of the tab,” Casimir said. “We need to think about partnerships differently from how we ever have before so we can revitalize our spaces without carrying it all on our balance sheet.”

Unlike the retail sector, student housing’s survival doesn’t necessarily hinge on adapting to the recent change in demands. Though campuses have varied wildly in their success at controlling the spread of the coronavirus, even schools that have been forced to move all their classes online have seen that students want to remain close to the schools to which they still pay tuition, panelists agreed.

A greater source of peril in the sector could be the struggles of the schools themselves that were already experiencing some financial distress, as the pandemic has expanded the gap between the haves and have-nots, The Scion Group Senior Director of Advisory Services Ray Tennison said. Situations like that remind student housing owners that they are primarily riding another organization’s coattails.

“We pick universities for the value of the education beyond tuition for credits,” Hutter said. “We play a very small role in the university experience compared to the school, and that shouldn’t and won’t change. So we complement that as best we can, and in choosing what universities we look near, that’s what we focus on.”