Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
10th May 2023

Continuing housing crunch opens the door to innovation and new strategies

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • A widening student housing crisis means that we are seeing a variety of new strategies and solutions coming forward this year
  • Some focus on converting other facilities (even river barges!) to housing stock, others on co-living and shared housing, and others still on collaboration with local partners or financial incentives to ease pressure on campus housing
  • Whatever the approach, it is becoming more apparent that international educators must give greater weight to expanding housing capacity
  • The availability of suitable housing is a major factor influencing students’ study abroad choices

The widespread shortage of affordable student housing continues to be a problem across many student destinations this year.

The private sector is moving quickly to build up student housing stocks. Industry research specialists BONARD report an additional US$5 billion investment in purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) across Continental Europe in 2022. Meanwhile, the online booking service Amber estimates that the global value of housing investments in 2022 exceeded US$33.5 billion.

Even so, student demand for housing continues to considerably outstrip the available supply in most destinations, and access to affordable housing is an increasingly pressing issue for students planning for study abroad.

In a recent student survey conducted by IDP, nearly two-thirds of Chinese students said they wanted to make sure they had accommodation confirmed before travelling to their study destination. Most said that they would not travel at all without a confirmation of housing.

Significant proportions of students in other key Asian markets, including Thailand and the Philippines, also said that their study plans hinged on advance confirmation of housing.

There is a broader impact here, too: increased demand for student housing puts additional pressure on availability and costs in the larger, local housing markets of major study destinations.

This all adds up to make housing an acute concern for nearly all international educators this year, which in turn has led to a wide range of new approaches to increasing housing stock.

The conversion solution

The shift to remote working during the pandemic – and the ensuing legacy of hybrid home-office work routines – has contributed to rising office vacancy rates in many cities.

This has spurred a movement to convert office buildings into housing. Early experiments are underway in a number of cities, including, in Canada alone, in Calgary, Halifax, Toronto, London, and Yellowknife. Not all commercial buildings can be easily or efficiently converted for housing, but it appears that conversion efforts are likely to expand as a partial response to the housing crisis in many local markets.

In the Netherlands, a new start-up is taking a different approach. Floating Students has stepped around some of the inherent challenges of converting office space and has focused instead on converting river barges into student housing.

The initiative aims to help address an estimated shortage of up to 22,000 student housing beds across the country. The company estimates that it can build 24 student housing units on every barge that can be diverted from the scrapyard, offering a more sustainable solution that reduces waste and improves housing availability and housing density.

New tech services for co-living

We are also seeing new online services springing up that aim to match people seeking housing with those who have rooms or even entire units to spare. These new sites, such as LifeX and Habyt, are encouraging a renewed interest in shared housing, especially in cities where affordable housing or student beds are especially hard to come by.

Habyt, for example, claims locations in more than 40 cities across 14 countries (spanning Europe, Asia, and North America) and a total of 30,000 units "that vary from co-living, studios and traditional rental apartments." A recent press release reports three-fold growth in 2022 and a projected further doubling of business volumes in 2023.

The LifeX website offers this definition of co-living: "Co-living is a modern form of shared housing; it’s a way to live and share a home with other like-minded people…Modern co-living spaces come in many different shapes and styles. The term has been used loosely for different kinds of living arrangements: from 'big box co-living' (buildings with hundreds of pod-style rooms) to family-style apartments turned into co-living homes…What all these co-living concepts have in common is the desire to offer a more community-oriented lifestyle."

Yet another example, this time from Australia, combines the shared housing concept with an option to reduce rental costs by contributing to household chores. The Room Xchange estimates that there are as many as 13.5 million unused bedrooms in 10 million homes across Australia.

When matching homeowners with potential house sharers, the service allows the parties to negotiate a reduction or waiver of rental fees in exchange for "short bursts of help" around the home. Room Xchange explains their concept in this way: "The traditional way of renting has always been about renting a room for money. That's one way to do it but there is another way. We call it Rent Offset. Rent offset gives the household the option to offset part or all of the rent by requesting help around the house. This help is above what would normally be expected as a housemate. The help could be home organising, cooking, or walking the dog."

Planning and incentives

There are also any number of examples of institutions working with local authorities to improve housing availability for students. In the United Kingdom, for example, Nottingham is home to two universities (University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University) and a surging local student population.

The two universities have partnered with Nottingham City Council to develop a Student Living Strategy. The strategy is designed to improve the availability of affordable and safe housing and build community across the local area. There is not yet a more concrete action plan attached to the strategy, but nevertheless it stands as an interesting example of university-to-local-government cooperation around the shared goal of easing local housing pressures.

Other institutions are taking more immediate steps. Florida Atlantic University, for example, has signed contracts with adjacent hotels to provide 180 beds for incoming students. The University of Utah, meanwhile, is offering locally based alumni up to US$5,000 per semester to board students.

Universities are also working to divert demand for campus housing via cash incentives. The University of Manchester has offered incoming students £2,500 to give up their spot in student housing, and a further financial subsidy for those commuting by train from more remote housing. The University of Cincinnati applied a similar approach last year with a US$2,500 financial incentive (and a free parking pass) to encourage students to move off campus into private housing.

These examples illustrate that educators, and other stakeholders are pursuing a variety of strategies to expand the stock of available student beds and otherwise ease local pressures on housing stock. That the question of housing now looms so prominently in students' planning for study abroad will only reinforce the importance of such measures going forward – especially as students' housing concerns are linked to equally prominent issues of affordability and student welfare.

In other words, this year more than ever student housing is everybody's business.

For additional background, please see:

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