No one, including Auburn Mayor Ron Anders, can say for sure what the student housing market will look like this fall.
“We do know that, in the best of times, we have more student beds than we need,” Anders said. “Really, right now we are hoping that Auburn University comes back full in the fall, but this isn’t anything that’s in our control.”
The city of Auburn issued a moratorium on new student housing earlier this year, partly to gauge exactly how many student beds are available and partly to address residents’ concerns about students overrunning the city’s neighborhoods.
Task force assignment
COVID-19 would seem to make that glut of student housing worse, but the task force Anders formed hasn’t been able to fully investigate the issue since outbreak-related restrictions to public life were put into place last month. The mayor expects to extend that moratorium past its original end date of May 27 to let the task force finish its work.
Auburn Realty owner Ray Huff — a task force member who has been in property management, construction and sales for nearly four decades — said the situation has been manageable so far, but the uncertainty around when Auburn University will reopen and how many students will come back has him and the others playing an uncomfortable waiting game.
“There’s been some of (the students) who were putting themselves through school that either got laid off or lost their jobs. We’re working with the kids who can’t pay the rent on the first,” Huff said. “It really didn’t have any effect in March because most everybody has paid their March rent before it really got crazy, but we’re still seeing as we get into April that we’ve had several requests for delayed payment.
“If it lingers on another month, who knows? I think we can work through a month like this, but, shoot, if we go to two months there might be a lot more people and it might be a lot tougher.
“Obviously, the owners depend on their money, and we don’t get paid if we don’t collect any rent. It could have a snowball effect,” Huff noteded.
44,000 bedsThe city’s student housing task force has found 44,000 beds in the city designated for students — about 7,000 more than the city previously estimated — and only about 30,400 students.
Because of that abundance, Huff said local property managers knew that rents would hold steady for the 2020-21 year, or even drop a bit.
One mitigating factor for the student housing market will be Auburn University renting several hundred private beds for incoming freshmen this year.
Senior Vice President for Student Affairs Bobby Woodard got the go-ahead from the university’s board of trustees earlier this year to rent half of the large 160 Ross student development located at Ross Street and Glenn Avenue.
That move, which is expected to be revenue- neutral for the university, is part of the long-term plan to move students out of the aging Hill dorms and into new student housing near the center of campus. Auburn will rent half of 160 Ross this coming year then take over the rest of those apartments in 2021-22 while the Hill is being cleared and construction starts on the new campus dorms.
Huff said Auburn Realty manages about 1,200 student properties, and he estimated 60 percent of the students went home in the wake of the pandemic.
His company has been able to work with the tenants seeking delayed payment with no late fees thanks to patient property owners.
There has been positive feedback from students, faculty and administrators about AU’s online class setup since the COVID-19 breakout; however, Huff said that could lead to new problems down the road because students can take classes from anywhere in the country.
He didn’t say he thinks all Auburn students could go that way, but he did note that it could lead to fewer students hunting for local housing.
Hard to predict
One of Huff’s primary concerns now is bringing in new tenants for the 2020-21 school year.
Auburn Realty has rented about 70 to 75 percent of its units for the fall; however, the longer the pandemic goes on, the tougher it will be for Huff and other managers to market their available product.
“I think it’s going to come down to who can market the best via social media and via the internet with pictures, videos, etc. If it continues and we can’t show the units physically, that’s going to be a virtual rental battle I think,” Huff said. “I don’t know if it continues when the kids will come back. That’s the thing.”
Other realtors, who declined to comment on the record, cited that uncertainty and said they were waiting for a decision from Auburn University officials about reopening the campus.
Huff said the pandemic lasting into the summer could set up a situation like the one he faced years ago in Troy, when student would wait well into the summer before renting for the school year.
Huff and others would be stuck with only 60 percent of their properties rented with about 30 days to go before the start of the fall semester.
“(The Troy students) knew they had plenty of places they could live, and you’d be sweating it out. That could very well happen here if everybody shows up to rent,” he said. “The kids all know there’s plenty of places to live. They’ll find a place to live. I just think they may not find the exact place they want if they get it early.
“There’s plenty of good places to live. If they all show up at the last second, we’ll all have to be ready to handle that kind of rush.
“It’ll probably make the rest of my hair fall out.”