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The State of Student Housing

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As the new academic year begins, what are the key trends – both locally and abroad – in the student housing space?

APARTMENTS ARE BECOMING MORE EXPENSIVE

South Africa has a student housing crisis, and before we even consider sexy global trends like communal lounges and fibre connectivity, we have to address the elephant in the room. It’s impossible to get a precise figure, but the national student housing deficit sits somewhere between 200,000 (a figure put forward by the Department of Higher Education in 2016) and 750,000. That’s as many as three-quarters of a million students who’ll register for tertiary studies in 2019, but won’t have accommodation for the year. It’s not so much a case of the elephant in the room, then, as it is the elephant sleeping on a mate’s couch. As demand skyrockets, the costs for student housing will – as the first-year Economics class will surely tell you – naturally also increase.

STUDENT DIGS ARE GETTING AN UPGRADE

While student housing used to have a reputation of Spartan dorm rooms and bunk beds, varsity housing is becoming significantly more comfortable and more high-tech. Globally, this trend is driven in part by the perceived rising costs of student fees (students – or their parents – are paying more, so they expect to get more), and in part by the economies of scale that make utilities like fibre internet connections more readily available. And – face it – if you’re going to pay a small fortune for a student flat, you’ll insist that your landlord at least installs fibre-based internet.

SAY GOODBYE TO GENDERED DORMS

As international big businesses experiment with gender-neutral workplace restrooms, the global world of academia (and its associated student living arrangements) is now also exploring the implications of gender fluidity. Or, to put it simply: ‘The exclusive male and female dorm communities
are becoming scarce.’ That’s according to Jason Wills, Senior Vice President at American Campus Communities. In a recent opinion piece published by the United States’ National Apartment Association, Wills wrote: ‘Students and universities now expect gender inclusivity. This means co-ed residential floors, units and sometimes even bathrooms, which are designed as fully secured toilet and shower areas with communal vanity spaces. At today’s universities, especially in urban markets, there are many options to accommodate various levels of privacy expectations.’ While non-gendered spaces contribute to breaking the patterns that perpetuate gender stereotypes, it may take a while for us to catch up with the rest of the world. With
our unacceptably high level of gender-based and sexual violence, many women – and their parents – may prefer the safety of single-sex residences, in the same way that some women who travel for business choose women-only floors in hotels. There’s no easy answer to this one.

EMBRACE A SENSE OF COMMUNITY

Today’s young people – and, more to the point, today’s students – don’t see their student housing as simply a place to sleep between their days on campus. Their lives are about community and connectedness, and their living arrangements reflect that. International trends continue to move towards accommodation that provides common areas like lounges and meeting rooms, where students can gather together and interact. And while the
South African market may not yet be accustomed to communal bathrooms, studying and socialising remain equally important factors to local students.

GREEN LIVING IS NON-NEGOTIABLE

Today’s students grew up in an environment where sustainable living is the baseline, and where everyone recycles paper, watches their water consumption, saves the rain forests, and is generally careful with their energy use. It follows, then, that energy efficiency is a dominant trend in student housing – and (housing shortage notwithstanding) the more attractive residential units are those that enable efficient and sustainable living.

IT’S ALL ABOUT CONNECTIVITY

Today’s varsity students, who have grown up as digital natives, demand an always-on home environment. Wi-Fi and fast fibre internet are, as you’d expect (and as alluded to earlier), in increasingly high demand. Johan Kruger, CEO of fibre company Safricom, confirms that this is very much the case in his market of Potchefstroom – home to North West University and its campus of 52,000-odd students. ‘We’ve already done builds and installations for about 5,000 student apartments in Potch so far,’ he says, ‘and we’re scheduled to do another 5,000. On average you’ll get about two students per apartment. Some have four, while others are single-tenant bachelor apartments.’ All of those 20,000-odd students, Kruger says, will have the option of high-speed fibre.

DON’T BOTHER ABOUT THE TV ANTENNA

Kruger says that when Safricom do their fibre installations, they deliver FTTH (fibre to the home) and DStv satellite television connectivity on the same line. ‘We recently did a new student housing complex here in Potchefstroom,’ he says. ‘That complex has 92 units, and of those, 60 took fibre connections while only three took DStv.’ It may be anecdotal, and it may be a small sample size … but it reflects national trends. As Kruger explains it: ‘A lot of those students can legally use their parents’ online DStv accounts to watch live TV via fibre if they want to.’

PROXIMITY IS A PRIORITY

A recent trend in US student housing has focused on pedestrian-accessible locations that are either on campus or as close to it as possible. ‘I feel that most developers would rather do a 250- to 300-bed project right on top of campus than 500-plus beds even a half mile off,’ one developer told commercial real estate news site Rejournal. This is pretty much the case in South Africa as well – particularly as most students do not own cars, and public transport is pretty dismal.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Students, universities and the learning culture in South Africa are vibrantly changing concepts, and savvy developers and investors need to keep abreast of changing norms, fashions and, yes, even fads.

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