Carlos Rosado, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, spent the last semester abroad living at The Student Hotel in Barcelona's Marina district. There he lived in a 130-square-foot micro-unit.
"It has the necessities. It has the sink, toilet, some shelf room for my toiletries," Rosado said, squeezing into his private bathroom. “I mean, I'm a college student. It does the job."
Barcelona attracts more than 188,000 students like Rosado from all over the world. Unlike in American college towns, there are no dorms. Most Spanish students live at home. International students rent apartments, putting pressure on the tight housing market. A London-based developer wants to bring the Barcelona model to Boston, targeting the city's 150,000 college students, specifically the 64,000 who already live off campus.
“We’ve had a tremendous influx of young people," said economist Barry Bluestone, former dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. “Good news is this keeps us vibrant. Bad news is we don’t have a housing stock for them.”
Bluestone believes Boston could learn and benefit from the Barcelona model.
“There's demand for that kind of housing, and I think we're going to find the same among our students,” he said. “That would take tremendous pressure off the existing housing market."
At The Student Hotel in Barcelona, the IKEA-inspired rooms come with flat-screen TVs and free Wi-Fi. Students from around the globe share kitchens and living spaces.
"All I had to do once I got to Barcelona was just unpack," recalled Rosado, a 20-year-old from Milton, Mass.
In the lobby, there's a ping pong table, a cafe and restaurant. Upstairs, rooftop pools with views of Antoni Gaudí’s unfinished Catholic Church, the Sagrada Famiglia.
Just blocks away from the Mediterranean, Rosado admits, it’s difficult to get work done. “There's a study room downstairs, which remains quiet, so that's where I'll go if I really have to bear down,” he said.
The cost to stay here? Alicia Alvarez, the hotel's general manger, said international and Spanish students pay above market rate – about 700 euros or $800 a month.
"It's not only a physical space, but a mental space,” Alvarez said, sitting below signage that promises, in bold English lettering, "YOU ARE ENTERING THE BEST TIME OF YOUR LIFE." “We try to have attractive amenities that will invite people to connect and meet others, to exchange experiences between students and even neighbors."
This student-housing experience could soon be available in Boston, America’s hub of higher education. Last year, Scape Student Housing opened its headquarters in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood, where CEO Andrew Flynn is leading the company’s North America expansion.
Inside a warehouse, Flynn showed me one of Scape’s model micro-units.
"Every unit has its own kitchen and its own bathroom,” Flynn said, lifting a mattress in one of the demo units to show additional storage for winter clothes. “Where we take our inspiration is from ship cabins, airplanes, submarines — small spaces that are well-designed. Every inch is thoughtfully-programmed."
In the age of tiny houses and Marie Kondo, Flynn thinks college students are increasingly drawn to shared spaces and these kind of private micro units.
"If we can deliver appropriately-sized and -scaled space at an appropriate price point, that it's something that is really compelling to students," Flynn said.
Scape won't disclose how much it plans to charge, but Flynn says the company is committed to offering below-market prices and is confident the company will find more than enough international and domestic students who are able to afford the European-style micro-units to be built in Boston.
"There's been a bit of overbuilding of luxury product that is not obtainable by students — not obtainable by folks just out of college,” Flynn said. “We have some of the best institutions in the world. Students come here, and then a lot of times students leave a day after graduation because there's nowhere to live."
The City of Boston has identified a need for at least 18,000 undergraduate housing units by 2030. Flynn acknowledges the company can't single-handedly solve Boston's housing crisis, but it's prepared to invest at least $1 billion to build more than 500 units in the Fenway by 2020.
In Spain, on the University of Barcelona's campus, the micro-units at The Student Hotel are widely seen as luxury housing for rich American and other international students.
Jahaira Aquino, 21, is a second-year student who rents a small room off campus for about half as much the hotel charges.
"It’s not feasible,” Aquino said. “I work part-time, and honestly I make just enough for necessities."
In Boston, landlords are accustomed to raising rent on students and, after they graduate, seeing them doubling and tripling up in units. Bluestone acknowledged landlords won’t lower rents immediately when working families decide to move in.
“But it will be a start at developing the housing supply so that supply catches up with demand, and we move from a sellers’ market, where the landlords have all control, to perhaps even a buyers’ market, where the renter is now able to find something that they can afford," Bluestone said.