While students may have moved past COVID-19, housing operators still take precautions

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This story is the second in a series looking at how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed student housing operations. Click here for the first article.

For student housing operators, things appear to be returning to normal after two years of pandemic-driven adjustments. 

This return to normalcy is showing up in record-high leasing numbers. Instead of logging into class remotely from a laptop in their parents’ houses, college students are back in class and filling up off-campus apartments.

“Our leasing trends and occupancies support the return to historical seasons with average occupancies rebounding to 95%-plus, along with rent growth of 5%-plus, mirroring prior years,” said Stacey Lecocke, executive vice president for Houston-based manager Asset Living, which manages at schools like the University of Miami and Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

Health and supply chain concerns

Despite these robust numbers, the world around college campuses is not the same as it was in 2019. The effects of the pandemic, such as supply chain and health issues, are still plaguing student operators.

“I’m a firm believer that there is no normal after COVID — we’re all navigating what our new day-to-day is within the industry,” said Aryne Bailey, vice president of student housing for Houston-based student housing owner and developer The Dinerstein Cos., which has properties at schools like the College of Charleston in South Carolina and The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Yes, students are almost fully back to in-person learning and education, but we know there are residual effects of life in a post-COVID world.”

Student housing operators are still investing time and money to ensure their properties are safe.

“Cleanliness and sanitation of common spaces continue to be a top focus and resident events continue to be planned so they adhere to local health recommendations,” Bailey said.

And delays in getting maintenance items, which became a problem during the pandemic, still linger, according to Jennifer Messina, vice president of marketing for Austin, Texas-based student housing operator San Miguel Management, which manages at The University of Texas.

People stand beside a giant "Welcome Aspire Students signs"

On-site staff at Dinerstein Cos.’ Aspire College Station welcome students back.

Permission granted by Dinerstein Cos.

Brent Little, president and CEO of Dallas-based student housing developer Fountain Residential Partners, doesn’t think these problems are going away anytime soon. 

“The supply chain issues are here to stay and the new normal,” he said. “We will be ordering all furniture, fixtures and equipment earlier next year and storing them if necessary. We rented furnishings in some locations until the custom items arrive to replace them.”

But even with these issues, student housing companies say they’re on firmer footing than last year.

“We have found our new normal after COVID,” Mandy Elmore, senior vice president of operations at Atlanta-based student operator PeakMade Real Estate, which has properties at the University of Arizona and the University of Kansas.

The impacts of the pandemic weren’t all bad, she said, because in some ways it made companies better operators. 

“While the pandemic did have an adverse effect on a lot of aspects in businesses and everyone’s life, it did give us a chance to reevaluate the manner in which we operate our business and find operational efficiencies to better serve our residents and focus on the overall customer experience,” Elmore said.

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