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UM student housing 'at capacity'

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UM graduate student and University Housing employee Rachel Hall, right, and UM spokesman Dave Kuntz in a newly renovated Pantzer Residence Hall dorm room last summer.

An open dorm bed will be hard to come by after the University of Montana revealed last week it will be at full capacity for the fall semester.

UM housing staff are arranging for more than 100 temporary housing spaces planned for those on campus. Other students are stuck on apartment wait lists.

University officials told the City of Missoula affordable housing committee on June 8 that there are more than 300 students on a wait list for a UM apartment and triple the number of people looking to stay another year in residence halls compared to 2021.

“For both Lewis and Clark and University Villages, we have every thought that they will be at 100% occupancy this fall,” UM Housing Director Sandy Curtis told the committee over Zoom.

A university spokesperson also said applications to live on campus will remain open, despite the high demand for student housing. Officials also guaranteed the university will make sure all new students have a safe place to live.

More students are using UM Housing after Missoula’s rent and home prices rose dramatically in the last two years. Home value has shot up 57% from January 2020 to January 2022, while the available inventory dropped by 58%, according to data from Zillow. The median house price in January was $485,000, according to the Missoula Board of Realtors.

Dave Kuntz, director of UM strategic communication, said this crunch is driving students back to campus housing.

“That dynamic is harder to measure, but we feel it,” Kuntz said, adding much of the demand has come in the last two years. “In 2019, there was no wait list for Lewis and Clark. In 2021, there were 14 people. Now it’s growing significantly (last week it had more than 100 students).”

Another reason housing is so tight on campus is because of construction projects that reduced the number of residence halls. In 2019, there were roughly 1,800 beds for UM students. For fall 2022, there will be around 1,600 spots.

The renovation of Knowles Hall, partial demolition of Craig Hall and six new floors of office space in Aber Hall all contributed to fewer beds. To fix the situation, the university plans to restore the top six floors of Aber Hall back to residence halls.

“Part of this is housing demand from the Missoula community, part is because we are growing,” Kuntz said. UM’s 2021 fall freshman class led the university to its first enrollment increase in 10 years.

Asked whether the university would eliminate the first-year residency rule, which requires all first-year students to live on campus, Kuntz said that policy remains in effect. He added housing officials will make sure each student gets a safe place to live.

UM also plans to transform some common areas like study lounges into temporary bunk rooms, with the plan that some students will drop out in the opening weeks. Kuntz said they hope to get every possible student into a permanent setup. He could not rule out that some students could be moved to temporary housing off campus.

University apartments, also managed by UM Housing, are also feeling the housing supply crunch. More than 200 wait-listed students are looking to get a spot in the University Villages, while roughly 100 are in line for a spot in Lewis and Clark Villages.

Sophomore O’Mastewin Foster applied for a UM apartment in Elliot Village with her friend in early April, but doesn’t feel optimistic about making it off the waitlist, where she is currently “in the hundreds.”

When she applied to Lewis and Clark, Foster said housing officials told her she would have better luck not applying with her roommate and join a random group instead. Now, she is working and living full time on campus.

“I am thinking that staying on campus is my only option now,” Foster said. “I just don’t think they have enough housing to cater for us.” 

Foster is looking at either living in a residence hall for fall 2022, or finding off-campus housing.

Kuntz said there is not much UM can do, especially when all apartments will be at full capacity. He hoped some of the demand would be cut down by Aber Hall, since it is common to be on multiple housing wait lists, especially on UM’s 13 individual lists.

Earlier this year, the university entered a feasibility study to replace some of their apartments with taller, more dense units. Mosaic Architecture, which is running the study, told the Montana Kaimin new apartments could come online in 2023. University officials are also discussing the possibility of a new residence hall, but little is known on that timeline.

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