Just a few days before the start of classes, roughly a fifth of the University of Montana’s housing slots were still empty.

As of Wednesday, UM Housing had received 1,486 applications, about 82% of its current "market capacity" of 1,813 spaces, according to data provided by UM housing director Sandy Curtis.

Alex Mitchell has seen this firsthand. Last week, the freshman journalism major from Miles City moved into his dorm in Knowles Hall. The building’s entire fourth floor — 36 rooms — is empty this year.

Mitchell is in Knowles with a few dozen other Davidson Honors College students, in a cohort known as a “Living Learning Community” of UM students with similar interests. “I wanted to be a part of this Living Learning Community,” he said.

Curtis noted the numbers were still changing, as more students finalize their housing plans. In fall 2018, 1,572 students lived on campus, about 80% of that year's 1,956-bed capacity (the market capacity can change with room configurations, Curtis explained in an email). That's much lower than Montana State University’s 98% occupancy rate for the 2018-19 academic year. However, MSU spokesperson Michael Becker wrote in an email that reliable data for this year are not yet available.

Montana University System policy requires all students with less than 30 credits — in effect, all freshman — to live on campus unless they get a waiver. Mitchell isn’t yet sure whether he’ll stay.

But with 6,909 undergraduates last fall, and only 1,572 housing spots filled, a healthy majority of UM students choose to head off campus. Another new student, Savanna Ziegler, plans to join them after her freshman year. “I’m probably going to move off campus,” she said, explaining that she was eager to live in an apartment.

Developers see opportunity in students like Ziegler. In the past year, two new apartment complexes — ROAM Student Living and Sawyer Student Living — with a total of nearly 700 bedrooms have gone up in downtown Missoula and the Old Sawmill District, respectively. This past January, junior Ryan Wood moved from UM’s Mitchell Hall into ROAM and didn’t look back.

“I didn’t want to live in dorms, but I still wanted an apartment complex and younger crowd,” he said. “For the price range of the (UM) dorms I could get a decent apartment on my own” at ROAM, he said. UM’s dorm rates, charged by semester, run from $2,084 to $2,934. Monthly rentals in the UM-owned University Village apartments go from $433 to $1,081 per month.

ROAM’s rates overlap with those, running from $555 to $925 per month. Amenities include the bright lobby, with leather couches and colorful paintings, where Wood was hanging out Thursday afternoon.

“It’s not like I disliked” student housing, Wood made clear. But in the business major's eyes, ROAM’s nearby parking, private restrooms and other amenities were major gains. Asked if he’d consider going back to student housing, he chuckled. “Doubtful,” he said. “I couldn’t see giving up this for that.”

Not all upperclassmen agree. Another junior, Scott Weedon, has lived in student housing since freshman year. Working the front desk at Jesse Hall on Thursday, he said that “I really like the dynamic here.”

“Being right next to your classes makes everything a lot easier,” he said. Wood had taken issue with both the parking situation and meal plan requirement that came with UM housing. But those parts of the experience suited Weedon just fine. “I plan to stay on as long as possible,” he said. “It’s not too much more expensive than living off campus, and it makes life a whole lot easier.”

Despite these offerings, UM Housing director Sandy Curtis wrote in an email that "as enrollment increases at the University, we anticipate that the residence halls will have more students as well. We will continue to maintain our residence halls and look at how we add more amenities in order to meet the needs of our students."

With about a fifth of the school's beds currently empty, could some serve non-students? Empty dorm rooms did just that at the University of Missouri-Columbia. That school, faced with its own surfeit of housing, started renting out its dorm rooms to visiting football fans in 2017. The program lasted only one year before the dorms filled back up with students. During that time, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, the program took in $124,000 in revenue and $4,000 in other gifts.

Missoula City Council member Julie Armstrong sees another use for student housing. At a council meeting this past December, she suggested using vacant UM dorms to house elderly Missoula residents with housing needs.

“I think that would be a really good option for them to pursue,” she told the Missoulian Thursday. This “intergenerational living” concept has spread in recent years, with a growing number of programs in the United States and Europe placing adults in their 20s in some kind of living arrangement with senior citizens. Typically, the students receive reduced-price housing in exchange for helping with chores and keeping their older roommates company.

Armstrong thinks a program like this at UM could help students who struggle to afford housing and seniors unable to stay in their homes. “At least do a pilot project,” she suggested. “Do 10 units.”

Eran Pehan, the City of Missoula’s Housing and Community Development Director, said that while her department has looked at the intergenerational housing model and worked with UM on Missoula’s overall housing issues, at this point “we haven’t had any specific or targeted conversations with the university about the current vacancies at the dorms and the plans regarding those.”

UM hasn't taken many steps toward this proposal either. Asked whether the university had considered expanding its rentals to unaffiliated visitors or long-term residents, Curtis wrote, "There are no plans at this time to offer housing to people that are not affiliated with the University. The main mission for university housing is to house students."

Student Housing has about $1.7 million left over from prior years' revenues and savings. And students are making themselves at home in the 82% of housing that is filled. Despite a “musty smell” when he walked into his room, Mitchell said he liked his dorm’s offerings. He and his classmates were starting to paper the lounge’s bulletin board with flyers, and they’d salvaged some discarded classroom desks to create an outdoor study space on the balcony.

“Our floor is really nice,” he said.

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