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Off-campus student housing operators busy preparing for schools to reopen

The coronavirus pandemic has put higher-education leaders in the difficult job of deciding when to reopen their schools and how to go about doing it while ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all stakeholders in the campus community. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, as of July 13, 56 percent of the 1,155 colleges it tracks are planning for in-person classes, 29 percent are proposing a hybrid model, 4.1 percent are considering a range of scenarios, and 1.6 percent are still waiting to decide.

Real estate companies that own and operate student housing are following school announcements closely as their own plans to welcome students back to campus move forward. As schools look at their on-campus housing and begin the process of de-densifying it, off-campus housing is being considered as the way this goal can be achieved. Dormitories that last year might have had two to four, or even more students in a room, will be scaled back to accommodate one or two. With this displacement, schools are turning to private student housing providers and seeking master leases to accommodate the displaced students. While this may be “a nightmare for on-campus housing,” said Bill Levy, CPM®, of BMOC, Inc., of Madison, WI, “it’s one of the best things that ever happened for off-campus housing.”

This was echoed during a recent IREM® webinar that featured Nicole Beach and Keith Thompson of The Scion Group, headquartered in Chicago, with 55,000 beds across 27 states. Although they said the company did see a steep decline in leasing velocity at the end of March and April, as schools began announcing plans to reopen, velocity increased and in June was performing at 120 percent over the prior year. They noted that others in the industry were seeing the same thing and were receiving inquiries about housing options for returning students that on-campus housing can’t provide in the new socially distanced environment.

This is not to say that student housing will look the same.  Reception areas will have plexi-glass dividers, work orders requested and processed online, common areas sanitized and disinfected frequently, and signs urging students to practice good hygiene will be seen throughout the facility, according to Levy. The same holds true at The Scion Group, where residents will be requested to wear masks, temperature screenings will be conducted for employees, increased cleaning protocols will be put in place, and guest and amenity policies will be modified to accommodate social distancing. In all cases, state and local guidelines, as well as CDC guidance, will be followed.

Levy, whose company has housing primarily in the Midwest, also pointed out that many students stayed in off-campus apartments even when schools closed in the spring. There were a number of reasons for this, including:

  • Students didn’t want to return to cities where the risk of infection was greater
  • To make sure they had high-speed internet connections to enable them to complete their classes online
  • Moving back home would have put a hardship on their families
  • The apartment lease had not expired

What this meant is that BMOC’s apartments had already been modified to incorporate COVID-related responses.

One thing is certain: The situation continues to be dynamic and things could change suddenly. This is why frequent and open communication with students is key. Nothing is worse than uncertainty, particularly when it comes to where people live, and creating peace of mind for student residents and their parents is paramount. As schools start to reopen for in-person instruction, The Scion Group has started to reach out to schools to keep them informed of new protocols being implemented, and has prepared responses for speedy response and consistency when situations arise.

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