While 2020 threw a deluge of uncertainty onto the student housing market, things are beginning to look up for student housing in 2021. As vaccinations increase and communities across North America are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, we’re glad to report that student living communities have something to be optimistic about in the coming months.
Wondering what the market trends signal for student housing in 2021? We’ve rounded up current insights on leasing, demand, and new development that can help you make informed decisions going into 2021 and 2022.
Student Housing Leasing and Demand:
With universities announcing movement toward in-person semesters in the fall, student housing communities are seeing an overall increase in applications. That means that for most, it’s a good time to resume or increase marketing efforts to drive more leases. After all, as schools announce in-person classes, there is a direct correlation in leasing numbers. And some schools have also changed freshman living requirements due to the pandemic, so in many cases, there’s a larger pool of students looking to live off-campus.
Even when campuses are staying remote, there’s plenty of hope for student housing communities. Communities located near campuses that have gone remote have only seen about a 10% dip in leases on average, likely because many students want to stay on campus and have a student experience as close to normal as possible.
However, the numbers also vary based on the size of the school. Markets with larger schools expect to exceed leases from last year, although smaller schools in smaller markets could be impacted more heavily in lease declines.
Overall, market leasing is behind, but leasing incentives can help achieve a stable leasing percentage. Make sure you clearly display special rates on your website so that more prospects are motivated to reach out for a tour or application start. It’s also smart to use Google My Business posts and digital ad campaigns to highlight your special rates.
Student Housing Development:
While rebrands were common in 2020, new developments were down, not surprisingly. The good news is that investment demand is still there and has actually increased due to pent-up demand. Investor involvement has also been a common cause of rebrands as interested investors are more selective about finding the right partner in the right market, resulting in more investor relationships that are more…well…invested.
Some new developments are now working to stay ahead of anticipated changes to on-campus housing inspired by the pandemic, which could bring on-campus housing design more in line with off-campus student apartments. For example, some campuses are working to offer more “private” housing options like townhomes or cottages, which would avoid the downsides of the communal bathrooms and kitchens that are common in dorm-style living.
High-quality assets have had luck in finding stable lenders, but overall lenders are being more selective, although capital is plentiful. Still, student housing is more attractive post-pandemic because of the low volatility cash flow nature of the business and consistent sustainability in revenue.
Insights from the Multi-Family Market: Investor POV
Unsurprisingly, multi-family sales volume was down 28% in 2020 vs. 2019, but there was significant rebound in Q4. Overall, multifamily was comparatively one of the least-impacted sectors. Although apartment vacancy did rise during the pandemic, CBRE expects a full recovery by early 2022 with affordable housing as one of the star verticals. CBRE Research also expects to see multifamily investment volume rebound with 33% growth.
The seasonal nature of student leasing means this rebound could be delayed for student housing communities, but overall we can expect a similar timeline for things returning to normal for student housing communities. Offering more flexible lease terms could help student housing properties see this rebound sooner, as lingering hesitancy among students in spring and summer of 2021 could fade away by winter and we could see an influx of students looking to move into an off-campus apartment for the Spring 2022 semester.
Trends To Watch:
New developments and established communities alike should be anticipating changes in the wants and needs among student renters. We expect to see a preference for large units and outdoor amenities, for example, which could make now a good time to implement renovations and upgrades, especially while vacancy remains higher.
Some investors who had been pursuing commercial assets (e.g. office, hospitality, and retail assets) are now looking to deploy equity in apartments; increased demand has created lower yield requirements and increased valuations.
Finally, it goes without saying that amid an economic recession, student renters will be looking for affordable housing—a trend that may prove to be at odds with the desire for larger units. Highlighting the affordability of smaller units could therefore be a promising way of overcoming the preference for more spacious units. Again, offering special rates and advertising “starting at” prices will be a strong tactic for the upcoming leasing seasons.
While many student housing brands have already weathered the immediate impact of COVID-19, the future of student housing in 2021 and beyond remains uncertain. We can anticipate that there will be long-term changes to the student housing landscape, but just how will COVID-19 change student housing next? Will any student housing trends return to a pre-COVID state once wide-spread vaccination and herd immunity is achieved? What new trends will emerge even as the virus’s immediate impact wanes?
Today we’re exploring those questions and making predictions for what’s next for existing communities and new student housing developments across the US.
Fewer Students Will Attend Universities
Since university enrollment was already falling before COVID-19, we can expect that the uncertainty introduced by 2020’s pandemic will only accelerate that trend. The effect will likely be even more pronounced among international students, for whom the pandemic threw into sharp relief the challenges of attending a university that’s far from home. Those challenges were further complicated by the Trump administration bringing anti-immigrant sentiment and the difficulty of getting a visa to new levels. While the Biden administration will likely reverse that trend somewhat, things still won’t be easy for international students. While many student living communities go out of their way to court international students, international students have seen how uncertain their ability to attend school in the US can be, and may respond by choosing to attend university outside of the US.
With both domestic and foreign young people less likely to enroll in American universities, student living communities will find it more difficult to maintain high occupancy rates under their current models. However, other factors may off-set that trend somewhat.
Those Who Do Attend May Opt for Off-Campus Housing
Because many universities did not accommodate students in on-campus housing during the pandemic for health and safety reasons, on-campus housing may no longer seem like a safe option for today’s undergraduate students. This means that those who do attend traditional universities may opt to live in private or university-private partnered housing communities.
Off-Campus student housing communities can take advantage of this with messaging that calls attention to the benefits of housing that is independent of university safety guidelines while also keeping them away from crowded campuses when the need arises.
Demand For Shorter, More Flexible Lease Terms Will Rise
his time of uncertainty has left many renters, students included, looking for added flexibility in their housing contracts. While many student housing communities have traditionally stuck to a 12-month lease term without the option to sublet, the student housing market may need to offer more flexible lease contracts to overcome concerns in this area.
Similarly, demand for by-the-bed leasing will also rise, but the impact of this shift will be less drastic on the market, since many student living properties already offer this payment model.
“All-Inclusive,” “Private,” and “Spacious” Will Be Big Selling Points
With the pandemic forcing students to adjust to a new student lifestyle that confines them to their apartment, we can expect to see a wave of students looking for more spacious accommodations. Likewise, a post-pandemic student will value the privacy offered by private bed and bathrooms, so students may opt to avoid shared bedrooms. Bed-bath parity will also be desired, to cut down on germ spread.
Communities that provide ample room for students to live in will be desirable—fully-equipped kitchens, in-unit washer and dryer, and spacious bedrooms will be essential—while dorm-like accommodations that offer cramped quarters without a full appliance package will be less popular.
Finally, high-speed internet included in rent will continue to rise as a major selling point, and students will likely avoid student housing that doesn’t offer high-speed internet options.
Communities without these features may be forced to renovate or risk losing out on a shrinking student renter pool.
Health-Promoting Amenities Will Come Into Vogue
As they look for new ways to entice a smaller, more hesitant renter pool, student housing communities will turn to new and upgraded amenities to generate excitement and assuage health concerns. We expect to see enhanced air purification systems, package lockers, food delivery lockers, keyless entry, and added sanitation measures become common among new developments, while existing communities may launch a wave of renovations as they work to adapt to changing sensibilities.
Similarly, we will likely see a rise in green/sustainable amenities as climate concerns coincide with a focus on health and safety. This trend had already begun before the pandemic and will likely continue as Gen Z’s already climate-conscious students have even more reason to prioritize a lifestyle that feels clean, green, and healthy for both themselves and the environment.
“Luxury” Student Living Will Rebrand
With frugally-minded Gen Z, the term “luxury” can ring a little tactless, especially as the world anticipates an economic recession that will further stratify the haves from the have-nots. While some student communities may lean into their luxury status, hoping to attract wealthy student renters, many will need to rebrand in order to appeal to a broader audience of Gen Z students looking for affordable, practical, inclusive apartment communities.
Some Student Living Properties Will Make The Shift to Multi-Family or a Blended Model
With university enrollment rates continuing to drop and virtual classes becoming more common even before COVID-19 radically altered the higher learning landscape, purpose-built student housing developments are bound to slow in 2021. Not only that, but a wave of existing student housing communities have begun making the switch to multi-family, adopting a hybrid marketing approach that targets both university students and non-student renters in order to fill vacancies.
We expect this trend to continue, prompting a wave of rebrands, website updates, digital ad campaign refreshes, and more as student housing communities work to shed their associations with the student lifestyle in order to appeal to a wider variety of prospects.