The CEO of the mid to long-term rental housing specialist HousingAnywhere has a message for the education sector.
“Whether you’re a university, a politician, somebody in the administration of the city, you need to know that education and accommodation are a whole. If you offer on-campus education then you need to think about both, you need to think about where people are going to live,” he tells The PIE.
Seelmann is in London meeting stakeholders, prospective customers and partners as the platform prepares to ramp up its UK activity in 2023 in a bid to “further enable people to have freedom to live how they want, where they want”.
With its mature PBSA market, the UK has often been the one mainland Europe has followed when identifying a business model it can replicate.
“I think the UK is very much a light-bearing nation when it comes to the commercial way of providing student accommodation in markets that are really supply constrained. It’s too bad that they haven’t been as successful in Germany or in the Netherlands just because of market regulation,” he tells The PIE.
“We’re not like anti-regulation at all… but you have to think about the effects of it.”
Housing shortages – a problem aggravated by inflation and cost of living crises – have made headlines, from UK and Dutch universities telling international students not to come despite being admitted, to “traumatising” searches for housing in Canada, to capacity concerns in Australia.
Research from Stripe Property Group released in January found that “the burning issue of student accommodation availability is one that is impacting students the length and breadth” of the UK. Some 75% of PBSA at the University of York is already booked for 2023/24, while Harper Adams University and the University of Glasgow are at “the lower end”, with 35% and 20%, respectively, booked.
“It is very nice to be in a top ranking school, but if the education is not accessible because you cannot actually physically live there, it’s a show stopper,” Seelmann says, suggesting accommodation availability should be considered in rankings.
“People are already pre-emptively acting on accommodation options”
“You see that people are already pre-emptively acting on accommodation options. They don’t even know if they’re admitted.
“We see this conversation more and more, universities actually saying to students, ‘do not come if you haven’t secured housing’. That’s a pretty stark message. They say it in August or September, when you have no options anymore to go anywhere else. So what does that mean for a student? Dreams are put on hold, are being shattered. It’s really sad.”
Including the availability of housing in rankings would offer students clearer guidance, he suggests. With the UK hitting 680,000 international students in 2021/22, the country is no exception and is likely to face more acute challenges in maintaining its competitiveness to attract and retain talents, HousingAnywhere contends.
And yet, transparency around availability and cost is also a problem.
“The real problem is that there’s a lack of visibility on what students are paying,” he explained. HousingAnywhere’s International Rent Index warns Europe’s rental housing price increases hit 14.3%, far exceeding the average record-breaking 9.3% inflation across the continent.
“We’re really trying to get some sort of truth on what people are paying,” he says. “Let’s first just look at the data, then we need to keep politicians accountable and not act on the whims of political gains.”
Rent price control, calls to cut the numbers of international students and favour local citizens over international movers, are all short-term views that serve short-sighted politicians pandering to electorates. Rent controls – such as those seen in Berlin, Barcelona or the Netherlands – not only does nothing to create new accommodation, but it also acts as a disincentive to investors, Seelmann maintains.
“The right action is look at how can we actually speed up the pipelines for new builds,” he says. “The buy-to-let is not a solution because the overall housing market is still too constrained.
“What happens when you install rent controls is that investors pull back from the market. So there’s going to be even less, they sell properties that used to be part of the rental inventory and then prices even increase more.”
Affordability will only come when the market allows, Seelmann suggests.
“I’m curious what governments are going to come up with because what we see is very little development from governments to really get these pipelines going. As we see it today, everybody is kind of grinding gears and nothing is really happening. And then when you have problems like building costs rising, interest rates rising, it’s like, ‘okay, we give up’. That’s the response that we see with some governments in Europe,” he continues.
Why is an accommodation marketplace that has built its business model on commission from bookings concerned? Seelmann asks.
“Because when we talk about education, accessibility to education, it’s really getting to a point now where governments are starting to talk about implementing more visa controls and decreasing the number of international students,” Seelmann adds.
“After decades of investments actually attracting these internationals because of their economical benefits, it’s counterproductive. It’s kind of pushing back, kind of putting everything that we’ve built in the past 10, 20 years, back in reverse. It’s like the Bologna Process was actually a bad thing.”
One solution to secure more pipelines is to look to different stakeholders, he adds.
“It’s important that universities have conversations with the city council and say, ‘hey, we want to grow as a university or as a group of universities, we want to attract more international students, where are we going to house them?'”
Along with an expansion in the UK, HousingAnywhere is opening in the US and Canada, ahead of plans in APAC – Seelmann mentions Sydney and Melbourne as “very big destinations”, but also Singapore and Tokyo.
“Creating a marketplace with transactional features for different markets is a big investment”
“It’s interesting, but to create a marketplace with transactional features for these different markets is a big investment. In total, we raised €65m, partly for acquisitions, but about €47m of that went into building our business,” he says.
And it is this tech that will “enable an easier, faster and safer rental experience”, HousingAnywhere states.
Countries cannot afford to risk losing out on inclusive, diverse international mobility if they want to flourish and pursue their goals, Seelman adds.
“Actually getting to understand the other side of the table and seeing the other perspectives, that’s really an important part to live in a planet with 8 billion people now.”