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COVID-19 Crisis Brings Student Housing Industry Closer Together, Say Operators at NMHC-InterFace Event

Author John C. Maxwell coined the phrase “Teamwork makes the dream work,” and student housing operators are experiencing that truism firsthand as they deal with the nightmare scenario of the pandemic and its ripple effects.

Closed campuses, virtual learning, COVID-19 outbreak concerns and an uncertain leasing season next spring are all challenges that property managers are tackling in real time. Ironically, industry professionals say that the pandemic may actually be a net positive in the long run as it has forged colleagues closer to one another.

Demi Sterling-Kinney, vice president of operations at Aspen Heights Partners, a student housing owner and operator based in Austin, said that she met with her property managers more during the pandemic than she would in a normal year.

“I feel like the shakeup was good; It was painful in the moment, but overnight it seemed like we were at war and we were all coming at it together,” said Sterling-Kinney. “It felt like everyone came together to be one team.”

Sterling-Kinney’s comments were made during the Leasing & Marketing Spotlight panel at the 2020 NMHC/InterFace Student Housing Conference, a joint production between the National Multifamily Housing Council, France Media’s InterFace Conference Group and Student Housing Business. The virtual event was held Oct. 19-21.

The heightened level of collaboration and transparency is not isolated at just the corporate level for student housing owners and operators, said panelists. Rob Dinwiddie, senior vice president of marketing and management services for Landmark Properties Inc., said that the peer-to-peer communication has improved dramatically across the entire student housing management network.

“Not only did all of our organizations have to increase transparency when it came to communication within our teams, but we really saw unparalleled communication across the industry,” said Dinwiddie, who moderated the discussion held Tuesday, Oct. 20.

Weekly calls
In March, veteran student housing executives Christine Richards, formerly with Greystar, and Miles Orth of Campus Apartments LLC formulated the Student Housing Industry Weekly Update calls, which are accessible for operators around the country. The interactive conference calls are held weekly or bi-weekly depending on circumstances, and Dinwiddie said it’s been very beneficial to have a “weekly cadence” to help keep operators apprised of how different companies are approaching pain points ranging from campus reopenings, move-in policies, package management and rent collections.

Jennifer Cassidy, senior vice president of student operations at Cardinal Group Management, said that the weekly discussions have helped lead to better net operating income for her company’s portfolio.

The operators panel at the virtual NMHC/InterFace Student Housing conference included, from top left, Christian O’Lone of DMG Investments; Rob Dinwiddie of Landmark Properties (moderator); and Lindsay Brown of Campus Advantage. From bottom left, panelists included Jennifer Cassidy of Cardinal Group Management; Beth Pinder of CA Student Living; and Demi Sterling-Kinney of Aspen Heights Partners, who called in.

“The collaboration led to better collections,” said Cassidy. “The transparency led to better proactive decision making. There was no one group wanting to do something first, and it led us all to the best outcome for our residents and staff. As an industry, we did the best possible job we could keeping people safe and navigating an unprecedented turn.”

Beth Pinder, head of operations and property management at CA Student Living, said the weekly updates have fundamentally changed the student housing industry as it provides operators the opportunity to bounce ideas off one another and to present a united front for big-ticket items like lease cancellations and safety protocols.

“As an industry we were able to stand our ground on certain things that we might have been swayed to do [otherwise],” said Pinder. “It’s changed our industry and I hope it continues. It will make our industry so much stronger, and we’re better together.”

Important collaborations
Outside of their peer networks, panelists said the lines of communication are now wide open for student housing owners and operators to access industry advocates and organizations such as NMHC and the National Apartment Association, as well as legal experts around the country.

Government decisions regarding COVID-19 directly influence property managers’ ability to maneuver during the pandemic. Cassidy said that her firm had to leverage relationships with local attorneys in every market they’re in, which paid dividends when it came to helping their residents make decisions to lease.

“Every time [a government decision] came down, we were getting an influx of calls,” said Cassidy. “We’ve had local attorneys on speed dial because most legislation was handled differently at the state and municipal levels. Understanding what that meant for individual assets and being mindful of not putting out broad communication helped our managers navigate conversations.”

Additionally, Christian O’Lone, vice president of asset management at DMG Investments, cited constant communication with partner universities as being essential for operators. He said that being in tune with the schools and their decision-making processes has helped his firm be more proactive.

“It also lets us know where our residents and what they’re dealing with,” said O’Lone. “At the end of the day, we’re here for academic success. Having that [open] line of communication has been really helpful for us to build environments where our students can succeed.”

— John Nelson