Although the Boulder rental market’s normal pattern of summertime leasing was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, industry experts say the market remains strong, with renters still wanting to live in the city. But units are sitting vacant longer, and leasing patterns have been more volatile, said Todd Ulrich, president of the Boulder-based property management firm Premesys Group LLC, which does business as PG Rentals. He also serves as board president for the Boulder Area Rental Housing Association, which represents about 350 landlord and property-manager members.
During the Colorado Stay-at-Home mandate — which ended in late April for the state — renters weren’t moving, Ulrich said. Boulder also ended its order in May.
“It was down to where our phones would ring for a couple of days, whereas our phone rings pretty much all day long during normal business,” Ulrich said.
Boulder County moved into Safer At Home Level Orange, formerly known as Safer at Home Level 3, restrictions Friday, after a rise in COVID-19 cases. Ulrich said that the rental community adapted to virtual showings during the statewide and Boulder County Stay-at-Home orders. He does not think it will impact the market drastically, but only time will tell, he said.
“Based on having gone through this at an even more restrictive level once before, I don’t think it will have a huge impact yet,” Ulrich said.
PG Rentals manages about 250 properties, mostly in Boulder County.
For a little over a month after the shift into the Safer At Home phase, PG Rentals saw an uptick of 50% when compared with last year. But Ulrich pointed to pent-up demand being the explanation. The majority, 75%, of leases begin and end in the warmer months, he said.
Sarah Dadey, Leasing Department manager for Housing Helpers of Boulder LLC, said the market is heavily influenced by the start and end of the school year. The University of Colorado Boulder is an attraction for college-age students. Housing Helpers manages about 80 of its own properties and works with other property managers and landlords for its multiple listing services.
Neighborhoods near the university are historically competitive, with many off-campus students pre-leasing apartments a year in advance of the fall semester. Millennial professionals, she said, rent many of the Boulder one- to two-bedroom units, along with students. But apartments near campus and one- to two-bedroom apartments are staying on the market longer than others, Dadey said.
She’s seen listings stay up for several months when normally apartments of that size are leased within 30 to 35 days, she said. On any given day, leads for tenants are down 40% to 50% across the MLS compared with last fall, she said. Her hunch is that college-age people and young professionals may be moving to cities with a lower cost of living.
Dadey suggested that landlords renovate their apartments that have been sitting vacant to attract new tenants. In addition, lowering the rent will be beneficial in the long run. She said that in a healthy market, $900 to $1,100 a room is expected.
“They’re not moving out because they dislike Boulder, but they start working from home. Maybe they just want a little more square footage or a little bit more office space,” Dadey said.
Remote work has also been an asset for the market. She’s seeing a trend of out-of-state tenants renting in the city, Dadey said.
Haley Frischholz, a senior at the University of Colorado Boulder studying civil engineering, is spending her fall semester inside her apartment on University Hill. The COVID-19 pandemic replaced her classes with a laptop in her bedroom.
It’s a less-than-ideal situation, she said.
“It’s nice not having to go to campus but, you know, there’s definitely something missing,” Frischholz said. “It’s harder to pay attention and stay focused when you’re in your own room all day.”
Though CU Boulder returned to a hybrid model in October — allowing for a mixture of in-person and remote learning — after being fully online, all of Frischholz’s classes are virtual. Since she moved to Boulder from Vail for her freshman year, she has made several friends who keep her in town. But, if she were still an underclassman studying remotely, she would consider living at home instead of renting a Boulder unit, she said.
College-age and 20-something renters hold a substantial share of the Boulder renter population, Ulrich said. About 40% of PG Rentals’ Boulder County portfolio are student rentals.
Most years, 24,000 to 25,000 of CU Boulder students live off campus, said Jeff Morris, director of Off-Campus Housing and Neighborhood Relations for CU Boulder. Morris’ department helps students navigate the rental market.
First-year students are typically required to live on campus. Because of CU Boulder reducing dormitory capacity for social distancing, about 100 students were permitted to rent elsewhere for their freshman year.
During the pandemic outset in March, CU Boulder closed campus to in-person learning. Morris said that multiple students came to the housing resource to find a way to terminate their leases.
“What was happening was students just assumed right off the bat, ‘Well, if CU is remote, I could just break my lease, and I’ll be fine.’ So we were seeing a lot of students come to us, trying to break those leases,” Morris said. “So for us, it was a pretty big educational moment of explaining to students that when you’re signing this lease you have to look at it as a separate entity from your CU experience.”
Landlord-tenant agreements are further complicated for students who pre-leased apartments for the fall before the COVID-19 outbreak.
The rental market near the university is tight enough that first-year students begin looking for apartments for their sophomore year early into starting college. The university’s off-campus resource holds its housing fairs in October most years. Bruce Sarbaugh, a legal adviser to Off-Campus Housing and Neighborhood Relations for CU Boulder, often begins helping students with lease reviews in November, he said.
He said freshmen begin securing housing for the next year a few weeks into the semester.
“They’ve been here for a month, maybe two months, and now they’re starting to look for housing. They don’t know their roommates … a lot of times,” Sarbaugh said. “It can be problematic when the time comes the next year for them. Now they’ve signed this lease, and now they have to really start paying rent and have their parents sign the guarantee, and things like that.”
Some students elected to take a gap semester or adjust their schedules to fully remote so they could live outside the city, Morris said. He added that there’s an increase in students with concerns surrounding their apartment leases. Sarbaugh’s consultation visits are up by 70% compared with this time last year, Morris said.
There’s not a clear-cut line for students seeking an early release from a lease. Arguments on the landlord and tenant sides can be impacted by numerous factors, Sarbaugh said. If a student signed an agreement before or after the COVID-19 outbreak and whether they have roommates are some determinants.
Off-Campus Housing and Neighborhood Relations and BAHRA put together a COVID-19 roommate agreement that goes over rent, utility payments and safety precautions for the house so students will feel comfortable in their rented apartments. The CU housing resource also meets regularly with the city of Boulder Community Mediation Service, Morris said.
Gov. Jared Polis enacted a statewide eviction moratorium in October after a temporary federal halt on residential evictions was ordered from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sarbaugh said renters must exhibit that they exhausted their financial options.
The state moratorium is in place for 30 days from Oct. 21, and the CDC order is effective until the end of the year. Ulrich said that while BAHRA isn’t sure how this may impact landlords, the outcome could be harsher for independent landlords with smaller portfolios. He said 50% of the rental properties in Boulder are owned by private owners who have one or two units.
Ballot issue 2B, a Boulder tax placed on landlords to provide legal representation to tenants facing eviction and rental assistance, passed 59% to 41% in the Nov. 3 election. Taxes placed on landlords will be $75 per unit.
“BARHA would like to congratulate the NEWR Campaign on the passing of their initiative. BARHA sincerely hopes the effort will produce the intended results. We look forward to working with the City, and learning more about the logistics of this new program,” Ulrich said in a written statement.
Ulrich said PG Rentals’ condo units are mostly stable with a slight increase. The rest of the portfolio is steady, with a projected 1% increase for rent prices by the end of the year. He said he predicts rent prices will increase more by the end of 2021.
Morris said students who are experiencing financial hardships because of the COVID-19 pandemic can apply for the CU Student Emergency Fund. The fund is a combination of federal assistance provided through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, which includes emergency financial aid grants created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) act, the University of Colorado system and independent donors to CU. Grant values are determined by a student’s needs with a limit at $2,000. The maximum amount a student may receive in total across all semesters is $6,000.
Morris said pre-leasing for 2021 has slowed down. But because CU Boulder announced its plans for the spring, pre-leasing is returning to normal levels.
CU Boulder will begin classes on Jan. 14, continuing a mix of in-person, remote and hybrid classes.
Enrollment levels are comparable to last year, with 34,975 students enrolled in fall 2020 and 35,528 enrolled in fall 2019, according to the CU Boulder fall census.
Students who want to live with roommates or want a house on the Hill are already starting pre-leasing, Morris said.
“I think those are going to be the students who, you know regardless of CU being remote or on campus next year, they’re going to want to still stay in Boulder so with them already knowing that decision, they’re kind of confident moving forward with that,” he said.
Lauren Johnson, a sophomore at CU Boulder studying biochemistry, moved from Aurora to an apartment in south Boulder. She said she has two lab classes on campus but the rest are online. She said even though Boulder has a high cost of living, for her, the benefits of living away from home and near campus outweigh the costs.
She spent her freshman year at Vassar College in New York, learning remotely from Colorado when the pandemic moved classes online. Remote learning and being back home was difficult for Johnson. She then transferred to CU Boulder.
“I think it is really important to live closer to campus, because if I were to live at home I would have an hour drive every time I need to go to class,” Johnson said. “I think my parents have definitely always been super supportive. So since I knew that this is what I wanted to do and this is what I thought would be best for me, they supported me in that even though they didn’t 100% understand me wanting to live in Boulder if we live within basically driving distance.”