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Lunch with Mimi: Kyla Maldonado and Keystone Real Estate Group respond to new era of student housing, complicated by effects of pandemic

on July 02, 2020 12:11 PM

As director of marketing services for Keystone Real Estate Group since 2012, Kyla Maldonado oversees all the marketing outreach and communications, serving four regions in Pennsylvania, including developing The Apartment Store brand and social media presence in State College.

As a wife and mother of two young kids – a son, 5, and a 10-month-old daughter – Maldonado has her work cut out for her during these unprecedented times in navigating the changing landscape of student housing and a global pandemic while juggling the role of raising her family.

Born and raised just outside of Bloomsburg, she earned her bachelor’s degree in communications with a minor in theater arts at Penn State in 2003. Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith interviewed Maldonado via Zoom to discuss how Keystone Real Estate is weathering the student housing market in State College amidst this pandemic.

Mimi: I've had the opportunity to do some business with you and thought you could perhaps give our readers a sense of what's really going on. The market will be overloaded with student apartments when all the construction is finished, which makes the picture look a bit more complicated as we go forward.

Kyla: And then add a global pandemic on top of that.

Mimi: It's not exactly a perfect marketplace.

Kyla: Not at all. I started with Keystone Real Estate Group in late 2012. And that was coming up on the end of an era as we once knew it. In 2013, 2,000 additional beds came on the market. That was the start of the larger, luxury student housing communities. Before that, we were generally full – our entire portfolio fully rented – by the end of February.

That has changed. It was a seller's market then. Now, we are to the point where we are leasing throughout the summer. Everybody is. If you look around and see how others are advertising and the specials that they're offering, that's just the way that the market has shifted. There's much more supply than demand. Looking back at 2013, we saw an additional 2,000 beds. Now, between 2018 and next year, there are an additional 5,000-plus beds projected to be in the market. That is a massive influx. And on-campus housing is continuing to renovate existing dorms while also adding new dorms.

Mimi: How do you see this shaking out?

Kyla: I think a lot of it will depend on what Penn State decides to do this fall. That's the immediate issue at hand. Long-term, we are on our toes. We are watching what everybody else is doing. And we are providing the best service that we can. Ultimately, that's what we have the most control over – our brand. If Penn State can keep up with an increase in enrollment, that would be nice. We don't have control over that.

Mimi: Well, the facts being what they are, fewer students are graduating from high school and going to college. The birth rate is on a regular decline.

Kyla: Yes. And there are some interesting qualities of this generation currently in college. They're value-focused, so they're looking for the biggest bang for their buck. There's a lot of suggestion that trade schools are going to make a comeback. We've all seen that as a trend. College can be expensive, and we're seeing a generation that's looking to maximize their investment.

Mimi: Well, and they're used to getting it now; the internet has made people want it now. We're in a climate where we're suffering from something we've never experienced before, and there are issues that come out of that. In addition to that, we're dealing with the generation that wants everything now.

Kyla: When the shutdown started in the first couple of weeks, we focused almost exclusively on increasing our online presence as much as possible. So, having virtual tours, having even better images, making sure that our leasing teams could be reached in a multitude of ways so that we were as accessible as possible to our customers.

Mimi: Did you have mostly good experiences?

Kyla: We did. We've worked really hard in the last few years to increase our online presence, which motivated us to double down as much as we possibly could. It was a team effort.

Mimi: What did you do to do it better?

Kyla: Our operations teams, while they were out doing some inspections, gathered virtual tours for us. We've enlisted some virtual staging companies to take existing photos and add decorations, furniture, etc., to make them look more impactful. And we've built out our YouTube channel.

Mimi: Does the real estate world in State College collaborate, or are you just tough competitors?

Kyla: Since all of this started, the local landlords and owners have been working together a lot more, especially when it comes to orchestrating move-out and move-in throughout summer. We’ve always reached out to other companies to find out what their leasing looks like, to get an idea for numbers. That's something that we've always strived to do, mainly because it gives us a better idea of where we stand in the market.

Mimi: You are a remarkable young woman who is an example of what the world never thought we could do. You’ve got a great responsible job. You have a 5-year-old son, and now you have a 10-month-old little girl. I understand your role, even though I'm way up there at the end of the equation. How do you do it?

Kyla: It has been very challenging. Our daycare did open (in mid-May). So, my 5-year-old was able to go back, which was wonderful, because trying to explain to a 5-year-old what's going on, and why he can't see his friends, is really difficult. And then trying to explain to him why you can't spend time with him during the day because you're trying to work adds another layer.

Mimi: Your children both have unusual names. There must be a story to that.

Kyla: Remington was a name that my husband and I agreed we both liked. Arletta is an old family name that I’ve always loved.

Mimi: How do you get satisfaction out of your work these days? How do you get the reward you need for this juggling act that you find yourself involved in?

Kyla: It's a choice, isn't it, to choose to do the juggling act. So, there has to be something there. I am so fortunate to be in a position of leadership in our company. For me, the personal satisfaction comes from building and mentoring my team. I’ve been honored to work with some very smart recent grads. Watching them grow and move on to pursue their own careers is incredibly rewarding.

One of the best pieces of advice I was given about being a leader is that you should always be training your replacement. I love that because it forces you to share it all, share all of the duties, whether somebody else is accountable for doing them or not. It's making sure that people understand the big picture, making sure that they know how they contribute to that end result, and making sure that they understand all of the other roles, so that in theory, if they are your replacement someday, they can pick up where you left off and be set up for success.

Mimi: Does the urge to move up in the organization keep you motivated?

Kyla: If the opportunity presented itself, yes, definitely.

Mimi: As a leader within a company, a mother of two wonderful children, and a good wife to your husband, that’s a lot of work. What do you think of next year?

Kyla: I know that I want to keep moving forward. What I'm doing right now, I find personal satisfaction out of it. I enjoy the challenge with my position, given all of the market issues that we've already discussed. But I love the process of identifying what those challenges are, our needs, developing the solution, and executing it. That keeps me going.

Mimi: I think it's interesting that you came to Penn State as a student and never found your way out of town, like me.

Kyla: That happens to a lot of people.

Mimi: We’re a big crowd, only I've been here since 1950. You weren't here when this category of student apartments became really big business in State College – that was in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. In the early part of my time with the trustees, in 1976, we began a discussion of the residential problem of living on campus. That’s when faith was put in private enterprise to pick up the ball and develop quality student housing in State College. Your organization was one that saw that opportunity and jumped in.

There is not sufficient housing in State College for people who have ordinary jobs and can't afford to rent. That is a real problem that we haven't begun to solve. Maybe out of this conversation, we could start digging some of the dirt and getting it to happen.

Kyla: As property managers, we have the unique task of balancing the needs of our resident guests, property owners, and community. These needs are dynamic, and as they change, so must we. In addition to student housing, we currently manage several State College properties that serve the graduate and professional market. We also work with local organizations that provide affordable housing for our community. We try to offer something for everyone.

Mimi: You’re a roller-blader?

Kyla: Roller derby.

Mimi: How’d you get into that?

Kyla: I had a friend at the time involved in starting the local league, and when I went to see one of their first games, I was hooked. I played sports my entire life and jumped at the opportunity to be competitive again. I’ve since retired from skating, but volunteer with the organization as often as I can.

Mimi: What would you like to leave as your legacy at your company?

Kyla: I would like to leave The Apartment Store with a distinct voice that cuts through the noise of a crowded market and speaks directly to the needs of our customers.

Mimi: You’re a remarkable young woman. Thank you.

Kyla: Thank you, Mimi. It was an honor.


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