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There are roughly 8,500 University of Montana and Missoula College students living in off-campus, privately-owned housing in the Garden City. From apartments to single-family homes, these students are living in places where working families would normally live — if this wasn’t a college town.

There is no question that these students are a major factor behind why Missoula’s housing prices have risen roughly 30 percent since 2010, mainly due to a lack of inventory.

That’s part of the reason why a group of local developers, Farran Realty Partners, decided to build a 468-bed housing project called ROAM Student Living on East Front Street near Kiwanis Park, a short walk or bike ride from the UM campus.

According to city officials, downtown Missoula lacks both high-density housing and ample parking, and they believe this project will alleviate both of those problems in a major way. That’s why the Missoula Redevelopment Agency will spend up to $3.2 million in Tax Increment Financing, paid back by the new project's property taxes, to purchase more than 130 spots of the two-level parking garage being built underneath the housing complex on Front Street. The project, which will cost the developers around $38 million, is expected to generate roughly $320,000 per year in new property taxes and sits in the Front Street Urban Renewal District.

Jim McLeod of Farran recently gave a tour of the facility, which is under construction. The first tower, of which there are four, is expected to be open and accepting move-ins by May 1. The rest of the project is expected to be complete by fall semester. It was named ROAM Student Living by business students at the university, and McLeod said they’re promoting Missoula’s outdoor recreation opportunities as one of the prime recruiting tools. He’s hoping the project can perhaps even help UM’s declining enrollment problem.

McLeod said there will be four commercial spaces in the street-level floor of the building, and while he can’t make any announcements yet, he thinks Missoulians will be happy about the new tenants.

“I think people will be excited for what we have here,” he said.

He hopes the location of the complex will cut down on alcohol-impaired driving because it’s so close to the downtown bars, reduce traffic congestion at the university by allowing people to walk or bike and provide an economic shot in the arm to downtown businesses.

“All the restaurants, clothing shops and businesses downtown are looking forward to it,” he said. “With the new library coming in across the street, I’m excited for what’s coming.”

Prices range from $550 a month for a shared unit in a four-bedroom apartment to $899 for a private one-bedroom. By comparison, rents at Ashlyn Place, a fairly new apartment complex about a mile farther from campus near the Old Sawmill District, range from $950 to $1,300 a month. Zillow lists a basement three-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment for rent on Arthur Avenue near campus for $2,100 a month, with wifi and cable not included. There's no question ROAM rents are on the higher end of the Missoula rental market, but are similar or lower compared to newly constructed housing near campus, especially when factoring in internet, gym membership and pet fees.

Almost all of the bedrooms at ROAM have their own private bathroom, and all apartments are furnished with big flatscreen televisions, washer/dryers, full bathtubs and air conditioning. Many units are pet-friendly, there’s a 24-hour fitness center, a bike and ski tuning room, secure entry and bike storage, 24-hour maintenance, study rooms, high-speed internet, cable and a huge enclosed outdoor courtyard with fire pits and grills. There’s also a clubhouse, sound-proof music rooms, and the Mountain Line bus system will stop there every 15 minutes.

“All the kids have to show up with is their clothes and a laptop,” he said. “We’re really trying to make it easy for them to not have to have a car or furniture.”

McLeod said he toured other student housing projects across the country, and there will be a variety of measures in place to keep the building secure from unwanted visitors and partying.

“We’re not going to let it turn into an 'Animal House' situation,” he said.

Students are not a protected class according to Montana’s housing laws, so technically anyone can live there, but it's heavily marketed toward college kids.

According to Sandy Curtis, the Director of Residence Life at UM, there are currently 1,581 students living in university-owned residence halls, 403 students living at Lewis and Clark Village and 566 living at the University Villages. The rest of UM’s 9,407 students and Missoula College’s 1,580 students, enrolled as of fall of 2017, live in off-campus housing.

According to Bryce Ward, an economist at the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at UM, Missoula’s housing prices rose 114 percent between 1990 and 2015, which is faster than places like New York, Seattle and San Francisco. A report by the Missoula Organization of Realtors last year listed a lack of inventory as the main reason why prices are rising rapidly. McLeod says that having 500 fewer students occupying housing across Missoula, and instead living at ROAM, will be a significant improvement.

"It's going to be a community benefit," he told the MRA board when asking for TIF assistance.

Curtis said UM freshmen generally are not allowed to live off-campus, and even though ROAM is a short walk over the Madison Street Footbridge, it will not qualify.

“There is a Board of Regents requirement that freshmen live on campus, and that project is not considered on-campus housing,” she said.

McLeod said leasing has been fairly brisk, and he is hoping they already will be a quarter full by May 1. He expects a bigger rush toward the end of summer.

Meanwhile, Farran Realty Partners is busy working on other major projects in Bozeman and Missoula, including trying to meet an 18-month deadline on submitting plans for the $150 million development of the Riverfront Triangle site just a few blocks down Front Street. McLeod said they could have invested far less money in the student housing project and built it much less dense, but he believes the more ambitious plans will pay off for both the company and the community in the long term.

"We just thought that when you get a chance like this, you have to have to take it," he said.

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