Student Housing and The Impact of The COVID Crisis with Brian Nelson

Brian Nelson is the CEO of NB Private Capital which deploys much of its capital into student housing projects across the United States.
Brian Nelson is the CEO of NB Private Capital which deploys much of its capital into student housing projects across the United States. Throughout this interview, it is apparent that while the student housing market has experienced a 13% decline as a result of the pandemic, he has an optimistic outlook for the years to come. One of the biggest indicators of the market’s stability is that university policy has shifted away from foreign enrollment in the short term while having less of an impact on occupancy than many would have anticipated. The return of foreign student enrollment and admissions will, therefore, only lead to higher demand for living space on and near University campuses.

University housing is generally occupied by students and funded by their parents resulting in unusually high collection rates. For these reasons and more, Nelson is able to enjoy seeing that 85% of their portfolio remains occupied while experiencing a decrease of only 13% in collections despite school closures.

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Ryan Morfin:                    Welcome to NON-BETA ALPHA. I’m Ryan Morfin, and on today’s episode we have Brian Nelson talking to us about student housing and the impact of the COVID crisis. This is NON-BETA ALPHA.

Ryan Morfin:                    Brian, welcome to the show.

Brian Nelson:                   Thank you, Ryan. Really appreciate it. I’m thrilled to be here.

Ryan Morfin:                    Well, we appreciate you jumping on. I know it’s been a pretty volatile time. A lot of headlines, demand drivers changing in the industry, but some silver linings, I’m assuming, in the fact that students are probably less impacted by the virus than older demographics. Wanted to get some clarity for our viewers about what’s happening in the student housing industry and some of the things that we should expect in the months and maybe years ahead.

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah, it’s new territory for all of us. What we’ve always liked about the student housing category in particular is the stability of the universities. You look back at all the various crises we’ve overcome as a society, even dating back to the Civil War for some of these universities, they’ve overcome everything and they’ve been pillars of stability. And we look at them as some of the most stable institutions in the world. Our belief is, hey, if this is a non-commuter school and there’s only a finite amount of real estate or places for students to live, and students when they go to school inherently need a place to live, that’s a very stable market that tends to be less correlated to other activities, macro economic factors, macro events. And that’s what we like about student housing in the big picture.

                                           We’ve seen a little bit of an impact, not much, but a little bit of impact just this semester. That’s something we could dive into if you like, but for the most part, we’re pretty bullish on student housing in the long run and our ability to maintain sustainable occupancy levels of the property.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah. No, it’s a property type that’s well suited for this secular shift towards further education and the student loan, we’ll call it a supporting infrastructure, and the financial institutions lending a lot to students to go to school. That was a secular shift in the United States, and the trend was well underway prior to the exogenous shock of coronavirus. Can you maybe set the table for our viewers of what was happening Q4 and January, February of this year, before this impact of the global economy? What were the outlooks for student housing and what was your company doing? And then maybe we can jump into what happened right after the shock came.

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah. You know, the outlook for student housing is really, it’s been one of the strongest categories for investments. You’re seeing a lot of big REITs, a lot of international funds, a lot of what we call smart money or institutional money coming into student housing. And if you look back at 2013, 2014, we maybe had $3 to $4 billion in transactions last year. Four or five years later, we’re over $12, $13 billion in transactions. You’re talking about an industry that has quadrupled effectively just in sales volumes.

                                           And what’s driving that is the performance metrics. This is one of the few real estate categories where cap rates actually went down between 2008 and 2010. And that’s because more students during a recession or during times of economic uncertainty, more folks go back to school to advance their degrees and to improve their future career livelihood. And so what we see is that you look at college enrollment over the last 40 years, there is no correlation to economic cycles, real estate cycles, anything of that nature, just a consistent, steady incline. And a lot of the big smart money is picking up on that, and so they’re investing in droves in student housing.

                                           One of the bigger challenges is, how do we continue to acquire assets while we’re bidding against these folks who are willing to pay a really high premium? What you see in student housing, a lot of interest, a lot of bidding wars. It is definitely a sellers’ market, and we’re starting to see some delineations where you have certain properties within walking distance to campus are trading at a lower cap rate premium than properties that might be further away. Power Five schools, those types of schools, we’re getting a little bit better premium. You’re starting to see the money getting smarter and smarter, and it’s starting to buy different grades of student housing. What’s a higher quality asset versus what’s a lower quality? And that’s what we’re seeing. We’re just seeing a maturing of the market.

Ryan Morfin:                    No, and the higher transaction volumes mean that that’s a wider opportunity for exits as well. You guys have been doing a lot of development work, I think, as well prior to the crisis.

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah. All of the above. We want to have our hand in everything, and with development it’s very tricky, but if you could get your hands on an A-plus location and you could buy one of those old ugly properties, probably the stuff that you and I lived in when we went to school, and tear those down and build brand new modern facilities, you’re going to get a pretty good audience. Students love brand new. They love highly secure properties in particular. They like bed-to-bath parity, where a lot of the old properties you’d have four guys, maybe five guys sharing a unit and one or two bathrooms. So you could now build a four bedroom and have four bathrooms. But you build to suit what students are looking for today. And there’s a huge exit market if you build and execute really well.

                                           One of our strategies, too, is finding that secondary market, that university that maybe isn’t quite on the radar of the big institutions just yet, but we’re seeing fantastic market dynamics. Limited supply growth, maybe there are really high barriers to entry, but really solid, steady enrollment growth. And you could find properties that you could buy at a really high cap rate so you could cash flow really well, maintain stable occupancy, but hold in an environment where you have very favorable economics like that, and then sell four or five years down the road. You have some really good exits, because as these institutions get more and more familiar with student housing, they’re going to look beyond just the big brand name of the university and they’re going to start looking at the metrics that most real estate guys have been looking at for decades.

Ryan Morfin:                    And the demographic of the students. One of the great aspects of student housing is that the parents are co-signers for the lease and you have 12-month leases for the most part. Maybe talk about the credit arbitrage. You’re not getting a bunch of young people, but you’re getting their parents on the hook.

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah, and I think that’s one of the biggest underlying factors for why we’re seeing a lot of intellectual money coming into student housing. When you introduce student housing to a new investor or a new group, the first thing they think of is Animal House, the Belushi movie from the eighties, and the picture is all the students partying, tearing the property apart. And they also picture these 19, 20-year-old students not paying rent, don’t even know what FICO means. In reality, it’s way different. We require at almost every property a parental guarantee, and then we break the leases up by the bed. So if we have a four bedroom unit, we really have four individual leases for that unit guaranteed by mom and dad, typically affluent parents. I’d say most of our parents average a six-digit income, 700-plus credit score.

                                           So if you have, let’s say, a 300-bed unit, let’s say it’s 100 averaging three beds, instead of having 100 paying families who don’t own homes, like your typical multifamily, in this case for those 100 units, you would have 300 individual economic tenants from different areas of the country, different industries. So you’re well-diversified in your revenue source. But typically these are folks who own homes, and these are about as high of a caliber tenant as you can imagine in multifamily. And of course, they’re not going to pay rent, hurt their own FICO score, and give their son or daughter any type of reason to drop out of school or to struggle at school. So it makes a lot of sense why collections are atypically high for student housing.

Ryan Morfin:                    As the industry is maturing and you’re getting more capital flows in and it’s driving valuations up, we started to see the closures of schools, probably before states closed in February. Maybe you can talk a little bit about what’s happened in the last two months to your industry, and then what the performance has been like the last few weeks.

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah. Great question. And this is probably the most uncertain part for us. If you remember, the NCAA March Madness tournament was one of the first major events that just completely shut down. And what it started that were the conference tournaments, and the Ivy League tournament was canceled before anything else. It started a domino effect. But that’s essentially how the universities have been. I think universities have been a couple of weeks ahead of everybody shutting things down, but they could do that because they have Generation Z, very tech savvy. They knew they could finish coursework online. They could do meetings like this with teachers or assistant professors, and have students still could continue to work forward on their degree or completing certain classes, even if they’re in their apartment or even if they go back home. And so they knew there was an efficient way they could distance but still be productive.

                                           And so what we saw, that a lot of universities cut classes but continued to move forward with various, whatever the students were doing at the time. And then students rolled right into spring break, and what we didn’t know is after spring break, would students come back to their apartments or would they stay home and social distance or shelter in place with mom and dad? And if they stayed home, would they pay rent? A lot of that has played out, not quite all of it, but for the most part we’re north of 85% occupied physically by the students. We’re collecting about 87% of what we were in February. So we’ve had some pushback in rent, but for the most part, we’re collecting the vast majority of rent. And part of that’s the parental guarantees. Part of that’s just the logic.

                                           Think about your 18-to-25-year-old kid going home, hanging out with mom and dad, being in their room for a couple weeks. They get pretty tired quickly. And as you mentioned earlier, this is an age group that hasn’t been as impacted by the virus, and naive or not, that believe they’re somewhat indestructible. And so we’re seeing a lot of students just say, you know what, I’d rather be back in my apartment, around my friends. And if I’m going to be at home, I may as well be working on my degree, whether it’s going to summer school or getting more stuff done. If anything, during an uncertain economic time, go work on your degree or go back and get a graduate degree if you’ve graduated. So you’re seeing a lot of that.

                                           Universities are coming back and saying, hey, you know what? We’re expecting some of our largest admissions next year, some of our largest enrollments to date, for several reasons. We could talk about some of those too. But a lot of it is students wanting to come back because they are tired and they cannot take the shelters in place any longer. So for them to continue all summer, it’s not going to happen again in the fall. They’re pretty antsy.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah. One of the trends we’re going to start following is the political impact of a younger demographic upset about what’s happened to their economic prospects and how it’s impacted their college experience, versus the demographic that’s unfortunately a target. We’ve started to hear politicians start to pander to this younger demographic about the way this has been handled. It’s going to be an interesting political issue for November, but in the years to come, I think, too, as maybe there starts to become an age demographic partisan divide, if you will.

                                           You know, one of the things I’d love to ask you, so now that you’ve got students that are working remote and digital educational technology tools becoming the go-to solution for universities and families, what have you done to augment your operating strategy at the property level, whether it’s for infrastructure for digital or internet repeaters? How have you augmented your technology stack for these operations?

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah, great question. The first thing it starts with is wifi. If you know the students today, they stream everything. They spend a lot of time online. Some of it’s educational. It’s not all unproductive YouTube, TikTok videos, but if you’re a student housing operator and you’re behind the curve in wifi, and your students are having a hard time streaming and they’re complaining to their roommates, it catches up to you pretty quickly. If you’re the opposite and you make sure you have more than ample, by now it’s easy to get those types of resources. But if you are on that side, that’s one thing that’s really important.

                                           The second part is a lot of our units or a lot of our apartments, have study rooms, study areas. And it’s interesting, because now with social distancing, you want to be able to make sure students have the ability to get away from the roommates, study on their own, but still have the technology that they need. And so it’s just making sure that they have areas they can go where they can have the privacy that they need. Or if they’re working in groups or they need a setup like this, that we have advanced technology within those rooms. And that’s something, that we found technology to be a key differentiator for us in the types of target markets. There’s certain students we like to target, particularly those who really love school and are really focused on their schoolwork. Those tend to be excellent tenants. But you really want to do all that you can to advance or have some competitive advantages that are more conducive to their schoolwork.

Ryan Morfin:                    What percentage would you say of your tenants are either in place now or have returned, and what do you expect from the duration of their leases? What percentage do you think you’ll have in place at your facilities versus just kind of folding it up and working from home?

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah, great question. I think we’ll stay in the 70% to 80% range for the next couple of months while most students are still doing some coursework. Typically during the summer, we’re going to have anywhere from 30 to 40% occupancy. You mentioned earlier that not only do we have parental guarantees in our lease terms, but most of our lease terms are 12 months. So even if the students go home for the summer, we’re still collecting rent. And it makes it a lot easier for the student. They can just leave their stuff there. If they go back to school during the summer, they have a place, everything’s all set up.

                                           But it’s going to be a little bit different this year, because graduation ceremonies, things like that are still maybe planned for June or July or August. You see a lot of students still want to have their footprint, even though they might go home a little bit earlier or spend more time at home. We still expect that we’ll be 30 to maybe 50% occupied during the summer, with different students coming back once a month or every other month, just depending on what activities that they missed this semester but that they’ll be able to hit during the summer.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah, it’s interesting. You’re dealing with, we’ll call it a more fortunate clientele or kids who have the parents’ wherewithal to do the private pay student housing. What I’ve been hearing a lot, and I don’t know if you can add some additional validity to it, is folks that were in the public dorms for the school, when they got the notice, they had to basically pack their stuff up and get out pretty quickly. Were they going to self-storage or were they just moving all their footprint back home? That’s one of, I think, the perks that private student housing has over the dorms.

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah, I think you’re right. I think the students were for the most part packed home. I think they were pretty anxious to get home. Remember that most of the folks who live on campus are freshmen, and we love that the dorms handle the freshmen. That’s where your higher attrition rate is. They’re pretty anxious to get home. And then after about two or three weeks of being home, they’re ready to come back.

                                           Believe it or not, we actually picked up quite a bit of business from that exact scenario that you described. The dorms had to move students out, so the students wanted to have a place to live during the summer or at least a place to park their stuff. And so we probably, I’d say maybe 25% of our portfolio picked up anywhere from four to eight new leases just from that, dorm students wanting to stay near campus. Even if they just signed a summer contract, it was very beneficial for us. We actually had a couple of properties, or about 25% of our portfolio, so seven or eight properties, have actually increased occupancy over the last few weeks.

Ryan Morfin:                    It’s one of those trends that is kind of counterintuitive. You hear universities closing, students going home, but I think the cashflow stream is somewhat protected because the parents are on the hook. But how has the leasing environment been for the fall of 2020? What are the expectations you had, and how are the sales managers handling reaching out to students for coming back to school?

Brian Nelson:                   Great question. And if there’s anything that’s really changed, it’s leasing. If you picture student housing, probably the biggest downside of student housing is you picture the Raiders of the Lost Ark, where you have this door closing and either you get in or you don’t. And that door closing in student housing is when school begins, so the idea is you want to open that window as wide as possible and essentially lease all year round. So January, February, you’re leasing for the upcoming fall school year. And this really disrupts that, because fortunately for us, January, February, March were some of our best pre-leasing ever as a portfolio. So we got off to a great start, and then it stopped dead about mid-March, and not surprisingly. Students aren’t touring the properties. Whereas students have adjusted. They’re doing a lot more digital and making digital decisions.

                                           And anticipating that, we’ve always been really big on internet marketing, getting out, displaying your competitive advantages, make it easier for students to set up virtual tours or to talk to leasing staff at the property. So we’ve actually pre-leased pretty well despite the crisis. We’re not leasing nearly as well as we would have if we were doing physical tours. We’re doing better than most of the market, but we are going to look at what I believe might be a June, July, August decision timeframe, where more students are going to make their decision in that short window than ever, instead of having it drawn out over an eight- or nine-month period. So the idea is, how do you prepare for that? And we’re doing everything we can to have our properties 80, 90% leased before we even get to that.

                                           So if desperate competitors start throwing out concessions, we’re prepared for it. In talking to most of the big billion dollar property managers and publicly-traded property managers around the country, they’re going to resist the temptation to throw out a lot of concessions. They believe that in the tight market, students are going to be pretty crazy trying to get into the more attractive properties. So we actually think we’ll do pretty well, but we’d rather be more prepared for it just in case than not. But I do believe this lease-up is going to be one of the strangest we’ve seen in student housing, and those who have their stuff together, their ducks in a row are going to do very well. And those who are disorganized are going to struggle, in my opinion.

Ryan Morfin:                    Looking forward, what are some of the maybe new underwriting metrics? If you had a baseline for 2020 lease-up, are you estimating a 10% or 20% haircut to rate? And what is a new underwriting model for new properties you’re looking at? What occupancy is a reasonable expectation, versus what we had maybe in Q4 of ’19?

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah. Really hard to say. It goes down to the granular level. For example, we have a property at University of Colorado that pre-leased in February for the upcoming school year to 100%. We had a 10% rental rate target. It’s a very uber-affluent student base. We’ve done really well with that property. We have another property that was 100% leased at this time last year that’s 20% pre-leased. So we’re expecting, hey, you know what? We’re probably going to take a 20% haircut on that for rental rates. But we think overall we’ll probably be pretty close to where we were a year ago.

                                           And part of what’s driving that is new competition. We’re seeing a lot of the properties that were going to open and have this big grand opening and do a lot of tours over the summer or right now are delaying their openings. In many cases we’ll have fewer competitors to deal with, and that’s where I think we’ll be okay. We’ll have a few markets where we do really well raising rents. The differentiator is going to be more affluent students, and properties that are really well positioned that have a sustainable competitive advantage that really stands out, those are the properties where we think could afford a little bit more rental rate, but part of what’s driving that is a lot of the universities are talking about their highest enrollment classes ever. That usually means more freshmen, which means more dorms. It doesn’t quite hit us until another year. But that’s where we think where we start feeling the benefit from all of this is over the next two to three years.

Ryan Morfin:                    When do you think universities are going to start making announcements that they’ll be open in the fall or that they’re going to continue to do this no-touch learning?

Brian Nelson:                   It’ll be interesting to see. I think that’s a great question. You’ll see a domino effect where you’ll see a couple start coming out and then a few follow them. You could just imagine college football. You know, we have two properties under contract at Notre Dame and at Clemson. And you talk about the State of Indiana, the State of South Carolina, college football are two of the biggest drivers of those economies, so you better believe they’re going to do everything they can to open.

                                           Just yesterday, West Virginia University and University of Memphis, where we currently have properties, and last week Chico State, in the Cal State University system, have all come out and said, we’re opening for the fall. So we’re hearing it. We’re still hearing a couple of schools hesitant to make that announcement, but we’re starting to see it in some of the states that were less impacted. But I think President Trump’s announcement earlier this week, talking about reopening the economy, I think you’re going to start to see a little bit of a domino effect where maybe in about four to five weeks you’ll start seeing administrators come up with more concrete plans for the fall.

Ryan Morfin:                    Well, God knows America needs college football to be here in the fall. Otherwise, I think you’re going to start to see riots. You know, you seem to be pretty optimistic, and I think when you start to drill into the cashflows and the credit behind the cashflows, and the fact that there’s this secular shift towards more education in a service-based economy like the US, there’s macro fundamentals that are really supporting this property type through this downturn. So I guess, as an operator of a lot of these properties, what are any final messages you have for student housing investors for your outlook, and how should they be considering the asset class going forward?

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah. It’s just like any business. What most investors like about student housing is that if we execute well on the right student housing property, we could hit on benefits that a lot of investors are looking for today. Stable, consistent occupancy, resilient to recession or economic cycles, but good solid income, exceptional tax shelter benefits, on an asset class that tends to appreciate over time. But you look at just the demand for housing near universities that are non-commuter schools, it’s solid, it’s consistent. And so you’re essentially weighing in on the consistency of students wanting to get a degree at a major university, and I just don’t see that going away anytime soon.

Ryan Morfin:                    Do you see that there may be a shift towards harder travel entry, travel restrictions for foreign students, which has been a huge breadbasket of private pay full tuition payments for a lot of these universities, given the dynamic that may unfold, whether it’s out-of-state students or the foreign students and a local political element of fear of seeding new cases from people coming from abroad or outside of our local communities? Do you see some type of a future trend that may be dangerous to universities’ P&Ls?

Brian Nelson:                   Yeah, Ryan, I think that’s a great question. Absolutely. A couple of thoughts on that. One, I do think most universities will try to have some type of a testing requirement or testing mechanism before anybody shows up on campus in the fall and then again when they come back from winter break. What they’re going to try to do is mitigate any potential resurgence. And then maybe frequent testing. That’s something that’s real important to a lot of the administrators, and it makes sense, because the university, while it brings people together from all parts of the world, you have the ability to disperse really quickly. And that’s where a lot of the optimism comes from. Even if universities start in the fall and there’s a resurgence, they believe they could pivot and finish coursework online again and then wait it out a couple of weeks and then have some type of testing requirement.

                                           But they’re very concerned about the international contingency. I’ll say this about international students. If anything, the premium placed on a US education has increased over the last couple of years. And if you’re an international student, you’re worried about a pandemic or a resurgence, this is where you want to be. And so you’re actually seeing a huge surge in demand for US applications from international students, but what if they can’t get here?

                                           The pivot that a lot of the university admissions staff have gone to is they’ve started to accept more domestic applicants, even if they’ve lowered their typical entrance requirements. And that’s why they expect a big enrollment boom, if not this semester or next semester or next year, is they’re actually taking on more domestic students to replace the potential of fewer international students. But what if the international students were able to get in and the contingency plan is already in place? That’s where you start seeing a surge in enrollment. I believe it might be more difficult for more international students this coming fall, but starting in winter and next year, I think we’ll see a huge surge.

Ryan Morfin:                    Yeah. And it seems to me that… James Gorman at Morgan Stanley recently said Morgan Stanley is going to need a lot less office real estate going forward, because this remote posture is working for his 80,000 employees. Each of these universities is like a large multinational, and I’m wondering if some of the biggest competitive trends may be mobile online courses, the MOOCs, if those may become a threat. I personally think there’s no substitute for building a network and being on campus and in doing that, so there’ll probably be a premium, but do you think the mobile online coursework, it may become a bigger threat to the on-campus experience?

Brian Nelson:                   I don’t. I think a lot of people are talking about that, and it’s because we’re experiencing it here in almost every industry. But you’re right, you just can’t replace the brick and mortar experience. The way I put it, I have an 18-year-old son at home who’s graduating. I think he’s going to graduate high school. We don’t know how it’s going to play out. But I’m telling you, you don’t see affluent, particularly middle-class affluent, parents telling their 18- or 19-year-old son or daughter, hey, stick around, stay in your room, finish your degree online, get a degree at the University of Phoenix. It’s not happening. The students, they’re anxious to get out. They’re anxious to make their mark in the world, to be on their own. Mom and dad want them to have that experience.

                                           So I don’t expect it to replace it. If anything, I do think there are a few regional schools that might struggle with this, but the big schools, the big state schools with the big football and basketball experience and the Greek system and the networking and the job placement after, you’re going to have a hard time replacing that experience. I think you’re right, Ryan.

                                           And that’s why for us, there’s two things we look for in a university when we buy a property near, that a lot of people don’t really talk about. I look at the affordability of tuition. What is the in-state tuition? How does that compare to the starting salaries when folks graduate? We really want that return on investment there. Even if we hit the next recession, if you have a school that’s $8,000, $9,000 a year tuition, so students are graduating with maybe $40,000 debt just towards tuition, but they’re starting out at a $60,000 a year salary, that’s a fantastic ROI. So we’re looking for things like that, and we’re also looking for schools that have that big experience that you can’t replace online.

Ryan Morfin:                    Well, Brian, I really appreciate you joining us. It’s an asset class worth digging into, and it’s got some resilient elements that are defensive in nature. Even though this virus has thrown university on-campus life in a tailspin, it seems that collections are still there and the credit underwriting is still playing out. So we wish you and your colleagues the best, and we appreciate you joining the show.

Brian Nelson:                   Great. Thank you. We really appreciate the invite.

Ryan Morfin:                    Thank you. Thanks for listening to NON-BETA ALPHA. Before we go, please remember to subscribe and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or our YouTube channel. This is NON-BETA ALPHA, and now you know.

Speaker 2:                        (singing).

Announcer:                      This podcast is not an offer to buy nor a solicitation to sell a security. The video is an unscripted discussion pertaining to the investment goals, strategies, and targets of investing in student housing. As a reminder, there’s no guarantee that any offering will perform as targeted, and any investment involves the risk of loss of some or all principal invested. The video contains statements intended for educational and hypothetical purposes only, and is not to be construed as a promise of performance. Always speak to your tax and/or financial professional prior to investing. Securities offered through Emerson Equity LLC, member FINRA and SIPC. Emerson is not affiliated with any other entity referenced in this communication.


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