In movies, college residences seem to be divided into two categories: bland, squashed, beige dorm rooms or elaborate, traditional, wood-paneled Greek houses. For most students, neither trope is correct, and for once, the truth is often much more pleasant than fiction. Among those at the forefront of student housing’s new normal is Aspen Heights, which has built townhouses in university communities across the country—including Columbia, MO; Charlotte, NC; and Clemson, SC, to name a few—that aren’t just hastily constructed boxes stacked atop one another.
The company designs units “where people who have left their homes can feel like they have a home again,” CEO Greg Henry says. Large bedrooms, closets, guest bathrooms, and kitchens outfitted with Sears appliances give the residences the feel of houses rather than apartments. Each complex is different, featuring such amenities as clubhouses, cardio and weightlifting gyms, movie theaters, tanning beds, and waterfall-filtered pools that transform them from places to rent into places to live, play, and study.
High-end living for students has sparked enough debate among academic and community critics that a 2013 New York Times article outlining the industry phenomenon boldly proclaimed in its headline, “In Student Housing, Luxuries Overshadow Studying.” Henry was one of several professionals on the development end who argued that this was not so, explaining that a relaxing home environment helps students rather than distracts them.
A closer look at Aspen Heights confirms that its mission is not to suck wealthy students into spa-like environments in which classwork is secondary and comfort is key. Head to the company’s website, and you aren’t inundated with photos of hot tubs and manicures; instead, it promotes an obsession with customer service and touts its volunteer work in Africa. The company even helps students move into its communities, hiring movers and sending staff to be on location to offer assistance in getting settled. “When we started, we said we wanted to have the best customer service in the industry,” Henry says. “We wanted to change how we approached the market and our customers. We treat students with respect, like valued clients, and it really shows.”
It shows in more than customer-service questionnaires and renewal rates, too, for Aspen Heights has grown tremendously since its founding in 2006. From 2009 to 2010, the company went from $30 to $60 million in revenue. It increased from $60 to $150 million the following year, and the year after that it jumped again from $150 to $300 million. It has operated at around $300 million since then and has developed more than $1 billion of property.
Aspen Heights’ relationships with different financial partners, including HFF, Inc., have grown in that time as well. Last year, HFF handled a $230 million transaction for the company, a major contract that strengthened the relationship between the two businesses. Even during the recession, Aspen Heights grew while other companies faltered, largely because student housing is a recession-proof business. As Henry explains it, people will go back to school to better their chances of securing work in a tumultuous economy, so the need for housing climbs. The student-living industry had great success across the board in 2008 and 2009, and Aspen Heights’ commitment to luxury at market-adjusted prices proved a major selling point.
The company’s current properties form a ring that spans Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and Mississippi, and it’s slowly flowing westward into Missouri, Oklahoma, and Colorado. The company is looking to expand into other facets of the housing industry, as well, including multifamily and condominium units and the senior-housing industry, and it soon will build a high-rise condominium complex in Austin, Texas, that could become the second-tallest building in the city.
None of this is what Henry sees as the takeaway of his business model, though—not the pools, not the high-rises, and not even the prices. It’s the company’s culture that sets it apart. “We focus a lot, internally, on how our employees regard their work and how it translates to their lives,” Henry says. “We want to engage our customers as well as our employees. We want to help people reach a higher potential for what they want in their lives and careers, both in where they live and where they work.”
Neighborhood: Old West Austin, TX (8th and Nueces Streets)
Certification: Austin Energy Green Building two-star rating
Cost: $50 million
Projected opening date: April 2016
Owner & Developer: Aspen Heights
Architect: Rhode Partners
Civil Engineer: Bury
Structural Engineer: Architectural Engineers Collaborative
Mechanical & Electrical Engineer: Jordan & Skala Engineers
Landscape Architect: TBG
General Contractor: JE Dunn Construction
Size: 169,000 rentable sq. ft.
Housing units: 200 units
Average size per unit: 850 sq. ft.
Amenities: Rooftop pool and lounge, dog park, top-floor fitness center, ground-floor conference rooms, and a technology bar