A pioneer of the student housing industry is plotting its second act.
GMH Communities Trust was once the largest owner of student housing in the nation, with more than 60,000 beds in 29 states. In early 2008, at the height of the market, the Newton Square, Pa.–based company sold its student housing portfolio, for $1.4 billion, to Austin, Texas–based American Campus Communities (ACC).
Now that its “do not compete” agreement with ACC has run out—and wielding a sizable balance sheet—GMH is ready for an encore. The company recently acquired more than 23 acres of land in Salisbury, Md., a stone’s throw from Salisbury University, where it plans to break ground on a 696-bed community by the summer.
“We’re very excited to be re-entering the market,” says Gary Holloway Jr., president of GMH Capital Partners. “Over the last few years, we’ve really taken the time to understand the markets and analyze how we want to approach it this time around.”
The second coming of GMH will begin modestly and with a different twist, as the Salisbury deal illustrates. In the past, GMH was all about acquisitions—for years, the company represented one of the main exit strategies for student housing builders.
“We’re not looking to bulk up and be the biggest; we’re going to do it in a more refined way, to selectively go into markets like Salisbury that the big players aren’t chasing,” says Holloway. “That’s not to say we won’t take down a portfolio down the road, but we’re going to be selective. And we’ve chosen the first time back out to get into development.”
Founded in 1985 by Gary Holloway Sr., GMH’s strategy has been to pioneer niche multifamily markets and help develop them into mature industries. GMH bought its first student housing community in 1986, a time when the perception of the market among financiers and owners was more “Animal House” than “viable business model.”
“Back then, student housing was still the red-headed stepchild—people were afraid of it and didn’t buy into it,” says Holloway Jr. “If you go back to the early '90s, we got Goldman Sachs to invest, and they were the first institutional-equity partner to ever come into a student deal. Today, there’s so much capital chasing it, and so many different players out there.”
As an early student housing titan, the company developed many strategies that ended up becoming standard in the industry, such as by-the-bed leasing. The company also built a sizable military housing portfolio, which it sold in 2008, for $350.5 million. Going forward, Holloway Jr. says he wants GMH to “get back to its roots as a niche player.”
And true to form, the company is exploring a new venture—high-end drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers. Much like the student housing industry 25 years ago, the market for high-end rehab centers is also at an early stage, and GMH is hoping to provide a model for success there. The company would like to have its first center—a note acquisition on an assisted-living facility in Palm Beach County, Fla.—up and running later this year. Branded “Futures,” this niche may well represent a new future for a company that has successfully glimpsed the future before.