Emily Tschetter

(Daily Montanan) Escalating rents in Montana are putting pressure on campus housing, and both flagship universities are at or near capacity as the school year begins.

Montana State University in Bozeman said it has not found a correlation between high campus housing demand and inaccessible real estate in the community, but according to the U.S. Census Bureau, median rent in the city rose by $229 from 2019 to 2022.

Missoula also has seen upward pressures on rents. As the director and creator of the Associated Students of University of Montana’s Bear Necessities office, which started in September 2021, Kat Cowley helps hundreds of students find basic resources, including housing.

“Historically, students have had a lot of trouble finding housing in Missoula,” said Cowley, who herself experienced a housing emergency when she was a student. “There was one point in my schooling that we had another period of low vacancy rates, but we weren’t also seeing this inflation. So it’s been tough for students before, but it’s never been tough like this.”

Now, UM’s residence halls are at full capacity, and Cowley said 80 percent of her work involves directing students and even full-time faculty to rentable spaces, even providing them with listings outside Missoula’s urban area. She has avoided directing people to university housing all together since early June.

The Washington Post reported an 11.3 percent national rent increase in April, but the major college towns in Montana saw an even more dramatic increase. Yellowstone County jumped 14.7 percent, Gallatin rose 18.6 percent and Missoula bumped up 18.9 percent.

Now university residence halls and apartments are some of the cheapest options available with private property increases, but with many at full capacity, college students and faculty are having a difficult time finding affordable options at least in Missoula and Bozeman. The situation at MSU-Billings is a little different.

In Missoula, UM housing anticipated that all students who applied for residence halls would be in permanent spots by the time school started, and the eight working residence halls are at 100 percent capacity this year. One hall, Knowles, is being renovated, and Aber Hall was supposed to be converted entirely into offices, but due to housing demands, four of its 11 floors are now once again dorm spaces.

The full-capacity residence halls also mean UM has no spaces set aside for on-campus residents to quarantine if they contract COVID-19, but UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz said the university’s COVID Response Team is assessing the need each week.

“We’re at this point where the demand has outpaced supply because the university is growing, and we have a difficult housing situation here in the community. This has spurred an accelerated effort for the university to start identifying how and when we can start adding more housing supply,” Kuntz said.

Kuntz said demand is so high due to rent rates at university apartments being lower than most rentable spaces in Missoula, which means more upperclassmen are seeking university accommodations than previous years. UM did raise rental rates for university-sponsored apartments, but by no more than $100 for each unit type.

Students are also staying in university units longer than in the past, causing fewer turnover vacancies.

To ease the strain in the future, UM plans to issue $60 million in bonds with $36 million budgeted for a new 200-bed residence hall, although the project does not yet have a set timeline for construction.

“There is very urgent action being taken to add supply to campus and build contingency plans because we don’t want any student not to continue their education because they couldn’t find a place to live here in Missoula,” Kuntz said.

Meanwhile, Montana State University in Bozeman said it has a waitlist for 12 residence halls and 1,000 graduate student and family apartment beds every year. MSU reported 16,841 students attended last fall, and the campus has generally seen enrollment growth over the last decade.

“There’s nothing special about this year in terms of waitlists. There was a time where it was more common for students to be able to have a single room, and now that is a very uncommon situation,” Director of MSU News Service Michael Becker said. “Nowadays, 99 percent of our rooms are at full capacity. We don’t have any direct data to link increased housing costs in the surrounding community to the demand for campus housing, but we have seen a consistently strong demand for campus housing for many years now.”

The Board of Regents, which governs the university system, approved a 4 percent increase for both MSU’s residence halls and university apartments, with room and board ranging anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000 and rentals from $420 to almost $1,000 a month. Becker said MSU has no plans to increase available accommodations after it has spent more than $100 million adding to housing inventory during the past decade and built two new residence halls that added more than 900 available beds.

MSU has guest spaces available in most residence halls for campus visitors that Becker said could be used as quarantine spaces for COVID-19, though no concrete plan is in place.

In contrast, Montana State University—Billings has many vacancies in its two residence halls that serve their 4,000-student population. MSUB housing director Josh Hulgan said COVID-19 hit campus residency particularly hard, with only about 400 students living on campus while the larger of the two residence halls can house 500. This allows the smaller of the two residence halls to be set aside for almost exclusively single rooms and for MSU-B to have plenty of spaces for quarantining, a rarity in the current housing climate.

MSU-B does not have a large apartment complex like UM or MSU, but it has 10 apartments set aside for family housing where it raised rent by $25 in July. Room and board with even the best accommodations does not exceed $5,000 at MSU-B.

MSU-B director of communications and marketing Maureen Brakke noted the cost of living is cheaper in Billings than in Missoula or Bozeman and said one factor for the low occupancy in the residence halls is the high population of non-traditional students. There, 40 percent of MSU-B students have a non-traditional status, and Brakke said they have a large commuter population from within Billings and the surrounding areas.

“We’d like to see our enrollment increase, and it would be great if we could fill up our residence halls even more, but we’re not actively trying to recruit students to live on campus,” Brakke said.

Cowley said she does not envy being a college student contending with inflation no matter where they reside in the state. She said she likely could not stay in Missoula herself if she did not live with her partner that has a corporate job, and she hopes students seek out staff like her who can relate to their struggles and provide them with comfort and resources that can lead them to solutions when the university has no spots to provide them.

“I hold a lot of space for students to feel those big feelings and be frustrated. I remember being a student and feeling like I didn’t have an outlet, I was yelling into the void,” Cowley said. “There are some major problems here in the state, at UM and in the city. They’re all impacting students and staff in a really hard way, but we’re a collective of really compassionate people. We have solutions already, we just need to get them to the right people and implement them.”