Re-Opening Student Housing Communities for the Fall Semester

Re-Opening Student Housing Communities for the Fall Semester

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Evaluating various types of student residential communities with regard to student preferences and their ability to control environment and sanitization.

Across the nation, universities are developing scenarios for welcoming students back in the fall and crafting the solutions and policies that support the new norm. The daunting challenge universities face is re-opening campuses bolstered by plans that reflect an understanding of how to minimize transmission and contain and respond to potential new infections, all while maintaining the academic and social heart of the college experience.

The coronavirus and its frighteningly efficient contagions directly challenged the core of active learning beyond the classroom, which is the intent of every university. Institutions of higher education across the country are most effective when facilitating social exchange, dialogue and learning beyond the classroom, promoting connectivity and cultural belonging. This is even more apparent in student housing communities, which are designed to promote these objectives. A well-designed student housing community will encourage and facilitate the invaluable mingling and discovery of people of differing cultures, belief systems, socio-economic backgrounds, values and perspectives.

At the same time, there must also be an acknowledgment that in the last 60 days students and parents have received a quarantine education on best practices to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 accompanied by their newly acquired household isolation and social distancing skills. As a result of the global pandemic, student and parent consumers have likely evolved their housing preferences with a newfound desire to control their environment and have personal confidence in the sanitization of their living, dining and bathroom environments to mitigate exposure to the coronavirus.

In March, as the pandemic mushroomed amid limited information and resources, many universities evacuated their campus and closed or urged the vacating of their student housing. In many cases, the universities made these on-campus housing decisions under duress as state and local officials were poised to issue shelter-in-place orders. As universities now look to reopen their campuses to in-person instruction, it is prudent to assess the different types of facilities as it relates to meeting students’ needs, preferences and concerns during this unique time of pandemic threat. In doing so, it is critical for universities to fully assess and understand all of the purpose-built student housing supply available to their students, both on and off campus. Additionally, colleges and universities should be aware how the various types of student communities are being perceived by students in meeting their desire to control their environment and have personal confidence in the sanitization of their living, dining and bathroom environments to mitigate exposure to the coronavirus.

American Campus Communities (ACC) is the world’s largest owner and manager of student housing with more than 135,000 student residents occupying a portfolio of 201 communities at more than 90 campuses across the nation. Our portfolio includes all student housing product types ranging from traditional residence halls with community bathrooms located on campus, to traditional residence halls with in-suite bathrooms located both on and off campus, to student apartments with in-unit bathrooms, in-unit kitchens and in-unit living rooms also located both on and off campus. ACC has evaluated all product types within its portfolio in response to the coronavirus to determine how each product type prohibits or facilitates implementing CDC guidelines and meets student and parent expectations related to isolating and mitigating the risk of exposure to larger groups. This paper will explore perceived student preferences during this time of pandemic, as well as operational support necessary to effectively operate each product type.

The Unit or Suite “Household”

The majority of ACC’s apartment or residence hall units are “households” of two to four students. The student household is akin to the family household in that the occupants are living together and exposed to each other regardless of whether they share bedrooms. By living within the same unit or suite, those occupants will undoubtedly be touching doorknobs, surfaces, furniture and other items in the household.

We believe it is possible through education and resources that unit occupants can control their environment and coordinate sanitization among their two-to four-person household. We also believe the only time that student housing “dedensification,” or converting double-occupancy shared bedrooms into singles, is effective is when it reduces the exposure to larger groups outside of the household. For example, in residence halls equipped with community bathrooms, converting double-occupancy suites to singles will reduce the number of people sharing the community bathroom by half, potentially making it easier to sanitize and maintain this highly vulnerable common area. While dedensification is certainly a viable solution for public university spaces, it is not necessary in the living unit, nor is It worth the loss of beds.

Student Housing Product Type Analysis

In light of CDC guidelines, we have categorized our portfolio into three product types and evaluated each at three objective levels:
1. The residents’ ability to personally control their environment and sanitization while performing basic living functions (socializing in the unit, meal preparation and dining, and bathroom use)
2. The extent to which the residents of a unit (two to four students) can choose to effectively isolate within the unit and mitigate their interaction with larger groups whose practices are beyond their knowledge or control
3. The spatial comfort during times of desired extended isolation

For the types of communities that didn’t easily facilitate accomplishing these objectives, we then explore the operational support requirement and strategies needed to maintain an acceptable level of confidence in mitigating the risk of exposure.

Category 1: Apartment-Style Student Housing

The first category is Apartment-Style student housing, which we define as living units that contain in-unit bathrooms (typically private or shared with only one other person), in-unit kitchens with full size refrigerators and complete cooking facilities (stove, oven, microwave, dishwasher, garbage disposal) and in-unit living room space. Within our portfolio of student housing apartments, the most predominant unit types are four-bedroom, four-bathroom units and four-bedroom, two-bathroom units, which offer four students private bedroom accommodations with either private bathrooms or only two students sharing a bathroom. The four occupants are able to control their unit environment and coordinate personal sanitization of the kitchen, living areas and bathrooms. They also can isolate for extended periods of time given that they have the ability to prepare their own meals and have living room space to socialize among themselves allowing them to be more comfortable during an extended period of isolation.

During the pandemic, all of the ACC student apartment communities have remained open and were defined as essential housing services by all governmental entities that issued shelter-in-place orders. We also saw more than 900 students, who vacated on-campus residence halls during the pandemic, lease our apartment accommodations during late March and early April. In addition, since March 16th, during one of the greatest periods of pandemic uncertainty, we executed nearly 5,000 student apartment leases for fall 2020 demonstrating the continued desirability for that product type among students and parents. It is worth noting that even shared bedrooms in apartments, in a hard-hit market like Seattle, continued to lease at pre-pandemic paces. It became abundantly clear to us that, apartment-style student housing is the most desirable product in our portfolio during a time of pandemic.

Category 2: In-Suite Bathroom Residence Halls

Our second category of student housing product within our portfolio are residence halls that feature in-suite bathrooms, typically shared by two to four students. These units typically have two bedrooms each with double occupancy accommodations that sandwich a bathroom shared by four suite occupants. Some versions of this unit have a private bathroom inset into the double-occupancy bedroom effectively becoming a private bath for those two roommates. In these in-suite bathroom units, the two to four occupants can control their unit environment and coordinate sanitization of the bathroom, as it is for the exclusive use of the two to four suite occupants.

These residence hall products typically do not have in-unit living rooms or kitchens. As such, residents are usually on a meal plan. Sometimes these units feature a small microfridge (combination mini refrigerator and microwave) so residents can prepare meals within in the unit. With this dining flexibility and in-suite bathrooms, this unit gives some ability for short-term isolation.

Students must, however, typically leave their unit and enter a large group environment two to three times a day for dining. For each meal service, they rely on the housing provider to implement social distancing seating and adjust service operations to mitigate touch contamination among diners. Self-service salad bars and buffet lines must be replaced with more operationally intensive servers and ongoing cleaning and sanitization procedures. Also, with the absence of living space in the unit, these accommodations are less than ideal for longer periods of self-isolation.

Category 3: Community Bath Residence Halls

Our third and final product category is the traditional residence hall with community bathrooms, usually defined as a series of double-occupancy accommodations with communal bathrooms located outside of the actual living unit shared by as many as a dozen to several dozen other floor residents. These residence halls also do not have living spaces or food preparation spaces in the unit but might feature a community lounge or even a shared kitchen area on each floor, also outside the unit. Similar to residence halls with in-bath suites, sometimes these units do offer microfridges.
These accommodations are undeniably the least desirable for social distancing and isolation, and offer the greatest challenge in mitigating the spread of coronavirus given the frequent need to use restroom facilities outside of your living unit and sharing these common restroom facilities with a large number of students outside of your unit household. Given the high number of users and frequency of use, these community restrooms are the most difficult to achieve ongoing sanitization and thus cause the greatest concern among students and parents. Students must leave their unit every time they use the bathroom and an additional three times per day to visit the dining facilities, as opposed to residence halls with in-suite bathrooms or student apartments.
In addition to the alteration of dining operations, sanitizing shared community bathrooms and the numerous common fixtures shared by dozens of users requires extensive effort by all residents using the shared facility. There are several ways to address the challenges posed by this product type: High levels of automation in sink and toilet fixtures, installation of antimicrobial surfaces, and/or extensive ongoing cleaning and sanitization by a full-time attendant. Also, to achieve social distancing with these bathrooms outside of the unit household, the number of users at any given time may need to be limited. It is in this situation, the dedensification from doubles to singles might be an effective strategy to reduce the total
number of users of a community bathroom. The specific challenges of residence halls with community bathrooms and the operational support necessary to keep them properly sanitized are the greatest operational challenges during this time of pandemic. Even with all these measures, the comfort of students and parents in sharing these community bathrooms makes them the least desirable product during a pandemic.


A Path Forward

ACC has been reaching out to its partner universities and professional associations to offer student housing assessments and market data. Given our national presence in more than 90 collegiate markets, we have extensive student housing inventory data for both on-campus housing and off-campus housing. We are providing each university we serve, on or off campus, with a complete market inventory outlining each of these three product categories so each university will have a comprehensive understanding of all the student housing available to serve their students in the fall of 2020.
As universities plan for the fall 2020 homecoming of their students, we encourage universities and private student housing owners and managers both on- and off-campus to work together to combine their inventories to make sure students have ample options that they deem acceptable during this crisis. We all share in serving the universities’ mission of providing communities conducive to academic achievement and success.
For universities whose campus occupancy needs are not appropriately being met by traditional residence halls with community bathrooms, we suggest you reach out to and embrace the adjacent off-campus student housing apartment communities that are better suited to mitigate the spread of the virus and give students a greater level of control over their environment and ability to provide their own sanitization. Regardless of being located on or off campus, at a time like this, everyone’s interests are aligned.

Student Housing Community Types in Light of CDC Guidelines

  Apartment-Style In-Suite Bath
Residence Hall
Community Bath
Residence Hall
Bathroom Configuration
Exclusive use by unit  occupants:
Typical users per bathroom:
Ongoing sanitization between users:

1 to 2
Easy (done by unit occupants)

1 to 4
Easy (done by unit occupants)

12 to 36
Difficult (requires attendant)
Kitchen/Living Configuration
Ability to control food prep and serving:
In-unit food preparation:
Community cafeteria meal plan required:
In-unit living space for unit occupants:


Potential with Microfridge
Potential with Microfridge
Not typically

Potential with Microfridge
Potential with Microfridge
Personal Control of Environment Sanitization Yes, in all areas of unit.

Apartments typically have 2 to 4 people that are self-contained in that unit and allows residents the ability to coordinate to achieve isolation and proper sanitization within the unit.
Yes, in all areas of unit.
In-Suite bath residence halls typically have 2 to 4 people that are self-contained in that unit and allows residents the ability to coordinate to achieve isolation and proper
sanitization within the unit.
Unit Occupants can
Isolate/Quarantine in Unit
Yes Yes No
Operational Support Required/Social Distancing CDC Guidelines None Dining Operations. Requires additional support to achieve social distancing and in food service operations to avoid cross-contamination. Dining Operations and Bathroom Use. Requires additional support to achieve social distancing and in food service operations to avoid cross-contamination. Community bath residence halls with bathrooms outside the unit do not offer the ability to sanitize bath facilities after each use without significant investment in operations & personnel.
Student Comfort/Preference
During Pandemic
Very High Preference

Purpose built student apartments represent the most desirable product with in-unit bathrooms, living rooms and full kitchens. This permits occupants to easily control and sanitize their overall environment. Unit configuration allows for the ability to isolate as much as they choose since they do not have to leave their units to eat, use the bathroom or enjoy their living space. Apartments require no additional operational resources to maintain.
High Preference

In-suite bathroom residence halls are
desirable in that occupants can control and sanitize their unit and bathroom. Microfridge options provides some dining flexibility. Students must however typically leave their unit and enter a large gathering group environment three times per day to dine, and rely upon the university to implement social distancing seating and adjust serving operations to ensure touch contaminations among hundreds of diners is mitigated.
Low Preference
Community bath residence halls are the least desirable products and the hardest to achieve control over your environment. Students must leave their unit every time they use the bathroom, and usually three
times per day to dine. In addition to the alteration of dining operations discussed with regard to In-Suite bathroom residence halls, sanitizing community bath fixtures reliably between so many common users can
only be achieved with a bathroom cleaning attendant.

This report is based on the latest available guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Department of Health and Human Services at the time of publication. It is intended as a sharing of analysis and potential solutions and should not be viewed as definitive source as information changes daily regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. The next installment in the ACC portfolio analysis series will examine residence halls with communal bathrooms and the actions necessary to evaluate and prepare them for occupancy in Fall 2020.

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