Student mobilities present interesting similarities to touristic ones, such as their relevance for urban economies and their distorting effects on the housing market. The Covid pandemic has shed light on the dependence of some cities on university students, forcing them to implement ad hoc recovery strategies.
The housing market of major European cities has been undergoing major reconfiguration processes, for which an important driver of change is the impact that mobile populations (tourists, students, temporary workers) exert on long-term residents’ access to decent and affordable housing. Albeit rarely acknowledged, in particular university students represent for many European cities a relevant segment of the market whose effect in this respect could be considered partially similar to the ones of tourists.
Two main trends of urban transformations are triggered by student housing dynamics, which eventually may produce conflicts and negative externalities for local communities. On the one hand, the role of competitors played by students in the long-term housing market. On the other, the increasing relevance played by PBSAs (Purpose Built Student Accommodation) as a major real-estate investment.
The Covid pandemic has made evident the increasing level of dependence on mobile populations (especially tourists) characterising some urban economies and it has shown the vulnerability of a housing market dominated – particularly in some cities in the global touristic circuits – by short-rental accommodations. The exceptional stop to mobilities is showing interesting process of reconfiguration as well as unexpected windows of opportunities to implement positive reforms for local residents. First, strategies that broadly addressed these two types of categories (tourists and students) are becoming sharper through market operators’ shift of attention. Short-term accommodation platforms like Airbnb have supported their clients in reconfiguring their offer toward medium-term rent while it seems most likely that students are the first mobile group that will be back in town.
Second, declared intentions of reforming the housing supply seems floating around. A recent article in the Guardian listed a series of initiatives (or rather good intentions) to take advantage of this opportunity. The case of Lisbon made headlines, due to the city’s launch of a programme aiming at converting touristic flats into affordable housing and the very strong tensions caused by tourism in the housing accessibility for local residents, even if its size of intervention was very soon downscaled.
In this frame, looking at various initiatives currently popping up in many Italian cities, another trend seems to be at work; namely, the effort to implement strategies to bring students ‘back in town’.
Indeed, many Italian cities have been working to either expand or sustain the offer of student accommodation. In Parma, an important university town, the City has launched a rent support programme for low-income students, thanks to a partnership with the Region and the University that enabled to create a dedicated fund. The Piedmont Region launched a public tender to convert tourist accommodation facilities into student halls, aiming at increasing by 260 units the offer of bed places allocated to students in need in Turin. In Bologna, a partnership between the City and the University aims at transforming tourist accommodation facilities into student halls and, in the meantime, providing financial support to low-income students. Venice has gone further, directly involving the renown short-term rental platform Airbnb in the conversion of flats formerly rent to tourists into student accommodation. Indeed, the Country Manager of Airbnb has expressed interest into the possibility of expending the company’s offer to medium-term rents. Pursuing a different path, Milan looks at the business of PBSAs to build a city attractive to students. The city’s strategy to bring back students (especially international ones) while paying attention to provide spaces that are compliant with the social distance prescriptions consists in the provision of 13 new PBSAs, for a total amount of 5,000 new bed places for students.