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Student housing ups the ante on amenities

Off-campus housing by CA Ventures is directly across the street from the University of Maryland.
Stephanie Dhue | CNBC
Off-campus housing by CA Ventures is directly across the street from the University of Maryland.

At Landmark apartments, just steps away from the main campus of the University of Maryland, upperclassman Jordan James and her mother Gia were unloading groceries into the stainless steel refrigerator in her two-bedroom unit.

The rest of the apartment, which came complete with a 50-inch flat-screen television, hardwood floors, en suite bathrooms and an in-unit washer/dryer would rival any luxury condo in any major city in America.

"I just like having my bedroom and then also a living area, which you don't get with dorms. You're all in one area, and you have to live in a tiny kind of box," reasoned Jordan. "And being close to like my chapter house and the shopping areas, and obviously, like, Chipotle."

This type of student living is fast becoming standard at large public universities across the country. Residential developers are pouring money into the sector, upping the ante on amenities and seeing occupancy rise. Approximately 47,700 new beds are expected to come to market in privately owned, student housing properties for the fall 2016 semester, with universities in the Southeast the primary target, according to Axiometrics, an apartment research firm.

"Privately owned student housing is quickly becoming an integral sector in real estate, and performance metrics demonstrate its strength," said Jay Denton, senior vice president of analytics at the firm. "Axiometrics forecasts rent growth to remain strong over the next five years and occupancy to stay above 95 percent, as enrollment continues to rise nationwide."

Enrollment is particularly strong at state universities, which are actively recruiting out-of-state students in order to meet higher costs and offset budget cuts. Those students are filling up off-campus housing at a fast clip, and the schools can't afford or even keep up with construction. That is why companies like Chicago-based CA Ventures, a residential real estate developer with student apartments in several states, are getting a fresh look from investors.

"The interest really started two or three years ago. A lot of the capital — institutional investors — needed to be educated on the space itself and what it meant to be in student housing. We had to do a lot of convincing that it wasn't all 'Animal House' structures, but actually really stable cash flow properties," said J.J. Smith, chief operating officer of CA Student Living. "Now that we have educated the institutional world, we're seeing a lot of capital interested in these properties."

Luxury student housing is really in its infancy, and developers like Smith see a long runway ahead. Markets can shift, year to year, as some campuses meet capacity, but there are always others lying in wait. Developers used to focus on more affordable, garden-style apartments farther from campus.

"More recently what we've seen is pedestrian-oriented infill walkable high-rise construction at major universities and those are becoming much more in favor from an institutional capital perspective. They're seen as more stable because they have the location more than anything else," said Smith.

And apparently parents are willing to pay the premium, which can be between 10 and 40 percent more than a university dormitory, depending on the meal plan.

"I think after living at home and having that certain lifestyle that they've become accustomed to, I think it would be difficult for her to move into a room with another person and just share a space," said Gia Jordan.

'The kids want more'

Peter and Beth Daw of Manhattan were moving their son into the Landmark as well, watching him wheel carts of furnishings into the elevator as they waited near the lobby latte/frozen yogurt stand.

"If there were no options, the kids would have to live with it. But given the options, yes, the kids want more," admitted Beth.

As for the higher cost ...

"We try to accommodate," said Peter. "It's not a blank check. It's not the Four Seasons."

Maybe not, but the Landmark's list of amenities is long: A full health and fitness center with sauna, spin room and tanning beds; 24/7 on-site emergency service and video surveillance, game room, media room, private Zen garden, outdoor patio with built-in grilling, study lounge with computers and a Target Express Store on site.

Landmark, according to parents, isn't even the swankiest student option available at UMD. Some pointed to the brand-new Terrapin Row, an apartment complex just completed by luxury homebuilder Toll Brothers. It touts a "resort-style" pool, but a pop-up on its website warns, "Almost Full!"

"Each year there continues to be another new amenity that gets introduced to the sector," said Smith.

CA Ventures is putting a ski and snowboard simulator into one of its newest properties at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Golf simulators are already pretty standard.

Developers are turning their attention to public-private partnerships with universities. They say there is a tremendous demand from universities to outsource development of student housing as well as refurbishment.