STUDENTS’ PERSPECTIVES: Apprehension Towards Committing And Returning To Campus Housing Arrangements

Blog by Yardayna Ben-Simon, SFive Contributing Writer

COVID-19 has fostered uncertainty on all fronts. While property management companies may face revenue losses and disengaged consumers, students face uncertainty regarding the impending return to campus. Industry leaders have spoken about their COVID-19 experiences and struggles, but we have heard little from the student perspective. What was leaving campus like for them? Will they return to double-occupancy rooms, or prefer individual bed spaces? Are they hesitant to sign a new lease for the Fall?

The pandemic has touched everyone’s life in one way or another. For university students in particular, the journey has not been easy. COVID-19 has uprooted students from their normal spaces, their routines, their friends, and in many cases, their belongings. Government restrictions sent the majority of students back home but, not all of the population had an option.

Many students rely on their university and surrounding employers for income to ensure they can afford groceries, rent and other financial demands. Some students consider their off-campus housing to be their ‘home-base’, the only setting quiet enough to complete school assignments with the certainty of stable WiFi. Above all, off-campus housing communities provide students with a social outlet, a calm and comfortable space where students can collaborate with their peers in their apartments and utilize the building amenities.

As we head into the third month of quarantine, there are still so many “what if” scenarios for all students, regardless of their current home base. I spoke to three university students to gain some insight into the anxieties regarding returning to their off-campus housing.

“I’m definitely apprehensive about it,” says Gabirel Cohen, a freshman at the University of Maryland. “Going back to live at school could be totally safe or be putting us in jeopardy. Only time will tell.” Noa Okner, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, holds a different perspective. “I am extremely excited to go back to living off-campus. I love my apartment and my roommates and the routine I’ve created for myself. There is so much more freedom living with friends versus my family, and I can definitely say I miss it during this quarantine time.”

While there is a mixture of emotions regarding returning to off-campus housing arrangements, the students agree that they are ready to return to living with roommates, a pivotal part of the “college experience.” Mollie Flamholtz, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, is apprehensive about the prospect of living under a government-mandated stay-at-home order with three others in her apartment: “I’m not sure I would be able to handle being stuck in the small apartment with my roommates and not be able to go out and get space.”

Regarding building sanitation, Cohen and Okner agree that their respective housing communities should be strict about keeping the residences clean. “I think an emphasis on strong cleaning and disinfection both before we get there and during our stay in the apartments would both be helpful and necessary to reassure people about moving back,” says Cohen, after stating his apprehension towards returning to campus. “My apartment community could definitely be more sanitary,” adds Okner, who is very optimistic about returning to her off-campus housing community.

So the final question remains: Will these students sign a lease for the ‘20-’21 academic year? “The biggest thing that is holding me back from signing a new lease is the unknown,” comments Flamholtz. “I feel like I could always find a place to live last minute, but in the case where school happens online again next semester, I don’t want to be stuck with a lease when I won’t even be living there.” Cohen and Okner convey similar trepidation, though they have already signed leases for the next academic year. “I have already signed for a lease in an off-campus apartment. My only options are to remain at home or live in the apartment I have already signed. I do not see a scenario where I decommit from my current lease and sign a different one. At that point, I would stay home,” says Cohen who was looking forward to advancing from a confining freshman dorm room to a spacious off-campus housing community. Okner has also signed a lease but states that she would be hesitant to do so if her lease were still in the works.

If and when students do return to campus, there are many steps apartment communities can take to make their residents feel welcome, comfortable and healthy. Here are some actionable steps industry leaders can take to ensure the comfort and health of their residents:

  • Email your current and future residents as soon as you have solidified your building's new health and sanitation plan. Identify the cleaning procedures, protocols, and schedules that will be enacted moving forward. Be as specific as possible. Seeing a specific plan (who, what, when, where, why) vs. just encouraging words will help build your credibility.

  • Similar to what we do on move-in day, provide each apartment with a ‘welcome back package’. Upon the student's arrival (or re-arrival), provide disinfectants, hand sanitizers, and cleaning supplies for the apartment. If you have the funds or manpower, consider ordering or making branded masks.

  • More than ever, you need to be transparent with your residents. If you currently do not have a newsletter, consider adding one to your rotation. Receiving weekly or monthly emails that highlight health, sanitation/cleanliness, and wellness will be a new norm.

  • We suggest that you keep virtual events going after the quarantine is lifted. Although most residents will start making their way back to in-person events, you will have some residents who now prefer online environments. Get more creative with your offerings and ask for resident recommendations before you build your monthly marketing plans.

In a climate of isolation, students want to feel supported and uplifted upon their return to campus. If apartment communities convey an active presence in their residents’ lives, this can be achieved.

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