Bed ridden 

New student apartments in works as dorm occupancy dips

Enrollment at the University of Montana is down, but Jim McLeod isn't worried about a shortage of students for the housing complex he's about to put up. The 488-bed, five-story building on East Front Street should have plenty of perks to entice its target market: a cyber lounge, a fitness center, a parking garage, study rooms, grilling stations and a location near Kiwanis Park that's halfway between campus and downtown.

"We just think students are going to choose to live here," he says.

Missoula's first private student housing project sounds lavish, but it isn't quite a spare-no-expense endeavor, with its developers making a few trade-offs. "We elected not to do the pool," McLeod notes.

On campus, it's a different story, where Residence Life officials are dealing with a novel problem: empty beds and a drop in revenue that is making it increasingly difficult to keep pace with the changing expectations of millennial students. Forget pools—Residence Life Director Sandy Schoonover just wishes she could afford to install laundry facilities and study lounges in a residence hall that has neither.

The parallel situations illustrate how enrollment trends, cultural shifts and new development are converging to reshape Missoula's student housing market.

Normally, a private apartment complex wouldn't compete with traditional dorms. Freshmen are required to live on campus, and residence halls are accustomed to squeezing overflow students into spare lounges each fall. Increasingly, however, UM is looking for ways to keep more upperclassmen in campus housing as freshmen enrollment declines.

This year, Schoonover says 400 of the 2,400 beds in UM's nine residence halls are empty, 325 more than last year. At 83 percent occupancy, it's the university's lowest level since enrollment began to decline in 2011. Residence Life is a self-funding entity, so empty beds make it more difficult to afford maintenance and capital improvements while keeping services strong and paying off existing bond debts.

"We have to do what we can to maintain our occupancy because we have to pay the mortgage," Schoonover says.

click to enlarge Two years ago, UM allowed sophomores to live in university-owned Lewis and Clark Village apartments as demand for campus housing relaxed. A new private complex on Front Street will infuse nearly 500 more apartment-style beds into the Missoula student housing market. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DOWLING STUDIO ARCHITECTS
  • photo courtesy of Dowling Studio Architects
  • Two years ago, UM allowed sophomores to live in university-owned Lewis and Clark Village apartments as demand for campus housing relaxed. A new private complex on Front Street will infuse nearly 500 more apartment-style beds into the Missoula student housing market.

Schoonover's department has responded by using incentives to encourage sophomores to stay on campus. Those who sign up for housing early can now lock in the prior year's rate, avoiding the 5 percent annual hikes slated through 2017. And two years ago, sophomores in good standing were allowed to apply for spots in the university's furnished apartments known as Lewis and Clark Village.

The latter change, she says, helps ease students' transition from dorm life to independent living and is an attractive option that has helped keep UM's apartment-style housing full. Spare space in the residence halls, too, has enabled more students to take double rooms as singles, which offers a somewhat similar feel.

Student interest in private spaces and independent living has driven a surge in suite-style housing communities across the country. McLeod points to a comparable project in Bozeman built last year that also targets students. Like the Missoula project, the Stadium View apartments in Bozeman feature an array of amenities—everything from poker tables to hot tubs—blended with mostly four-bedroom units, community manager Emily Green says.

The complex filled its 499 beds quickly ahead of the fall 2015 semester, primarily with students who had lived on campus the prior academic year, Green says. Stadium View leases to individual tenants, rather than by the unit, at rates averaging $610-$630 a month.

Exactly how the Front Street complex might affect UM Residence Life and the broader Missoula rental market remains to be seen. McLeod says Farran Realty Partners and Lambros Developers are scheduled to break ground next month and hope to begin leasing units for the fall 2017 semester, at which point UM's fluid enrollment situation could again change.

Besides, bringing more student housing to Missoula's often tight rental market has been a goal of university and city officials. UM President Royce Engstrom signed a memorandum of understanding with Missoula Mayor John Engen in December 2012 with the specific goal of breaking ground on 1,000 units. At the time, UM had 14,900 students. Three years later, the number is 13,000.

Whether or not the new construction strains Residence Life depends in part on the price point, Schoonover says, which hasn't been announced. For now, she isn't too worried and says students deserve choices in where to live.

"It would seem to me that there are more than enough students to go around," she says.

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