The COVID-19 pandemic is still dramatically impacting our world. The number of new cases in the US is rapidly growing and is showing no signs of slowing down. I’m Charlie Hallene, Summer Intern at Nine Four Ventures and I’m also a rising Junior at the University of Arizona. With the school year just around the corner, one might ask how all this will affect student housing? A large school like mine with students from all over the country (and the world) poses a large risk for a COVID outbreak. Many colleges are scheduled to return as normal, but what does that look like and how will students adapt?
Living on campus typically consists of living in a dorm. Dorms at the University of Arizona typically have units that house 2-4 students and include communal bathrooms where residents share showers, sinks, and toilets. In addition, there are often lounges and game rooms in most of them. Dorm-life is an important aspect of the college experience as, many students meet their best friends in these confines and, as a result, student housing also plays a critical role for universities. On campus housing is typically the largest source of auxiliary revenue for a university and accounts for between 5-15% of most college’s annual operating revenue. At Arizona, the vast majority of freshmen choose to live on campus, but in the midst of the pandemic, this could be changing.
CDC and WHO guidelines suggest maintaining a safe social distance from one another, but this naturally flies in the face of traditional on campus student living. Students still need to touch the same doorknobs and elevator buttons to access entrances and exits to dorms, hallways, and individual suites. To make matters worse, elevators are the primary method to travel to/from different floors and many times are crowded which makes it challenging to stay properly socially distanced. Bathrooms, communal lounges and study areas are other potential breeding grounds for COVID-19 transmission.
To better understand the comfort level of the student body returning to on campus housing this Fall, I surveyed some of my friends and their responses were clear. Everyone is happy to return but there are major concerns about the natural density of on campus housing. As a result, most students are looking for less dense off campus housing arrangements. In response to the pandemic, my guess is that communal group areas will be closed in order to minimize contact. Still though, the risk remains with the shared bathroom space. It is likely that universities will switch to single-occupancy rooms as well.
COVID also creates an opportunity for technology to be integrated into student housing. If students need to live in close proximity this creates an issue on the surfaces that they need to touch while accessing their rooms (doors, locks, etc.). It is likely that we’ll see touchless entry systems integrated on campus. Companies like SmartRent, with their cloud-based access systems, could possibly be integrated for dorm use. Automatic doors and automatic light switches could help prevent germs from spreading on key touch areas. Most colleges are calling for extreme cleaning procedures and limited density in dorms. With limited capacity in dorms, colleges might also need to invest in more housing or maybe renovate other buildings to fill the need. The largest dorm at University of Arizona has roughly 360 units. If the cost of a touchless-entry system is $200, that is about a $72,000 investment for Arizona to retrofit this dorm. That number is excluding installation costs as well. Combine that with the 25 other dorms at Arizona, and the cost of making a campus touchless is quite high. All of this combined with lower enrollment and less people living on campus is more than just a hunk of change out of their budget.
Only time will tell how campuses react. Students will definitely want some sort of system in place in order to feel safer living together. Implementing new technologies will likely be quite costly for universities but tech is no longer an option, it’s a requirement. It may be just as high as it was before, but CRE landlords are finally realizing the relative impact outweighs initial investment in time and cost.