While leaving the dorm rooms is a common dream among campus residents, the surge in Missoula housing prices has left many students with limited options for off-campus living.

According to the Missoula Organization of Realtors, Missoula County’s median house price increased from $323,000 in February 2020 to $438,500 in February 2021. As demand for housing and prices rise, so does the cost of rent for college students.

Mason Niblack, a junior at the University of Montana, said he has been following Missoula’s rental prices for the past few years and has struggled to find affordable options.

Niblack lived in Knowles, Pantzer, and Miller Hall as a resident and resident assistant.

After two and a half years of campus life, he said he found the resident halls became hard to live in mentally, and difficult to operate in at his age.

Yet, a tight college student budget prevented him from moving too far from campus. He currently resides in the Lewis and Clark Villages for its lower price and proximity to the University, since his car recently broke down.

“I was signing up for every real estate update I could,” Niblack said. “Every time you have free time, you need to search. That’s just Missoula’s situation.”

Niblack also said he noticed that as apartments continue to pop up and fill quickly, there are many houses that have been sitting out for rent, but continue to raise their prices instead of lowering them.

One specific house on his watchlist increased its monthly rent by $100 in the past few months.

While one of Niblack’s friends is paying around $500 a month for a rental house, he has six other roommates. Affording a place requires four to six people on a college budget, he said.

To college students looking to live off campus, Niblack recommends having a plan before starting to search. He said moving in with people you can get along with and trust to pay rent is very important. He added, “make sure you have options and places lined up, because the first one is more than likely to fail — especially in the city.”

Sydney Croucher, an incoming freshman at UM, said moving into ROAM Student Living is the safest and most affordable option for her.

Croucher recently graduated from an esthetician trade school in Billings, and plans to earn her associate degree in nursing at UM. She said she was also considering attending school in Bismarck, North Dakota, but her decision ultimately came down to housing.

“I don’t want to live with a stranger or some random person off of Craigslist,” Croucher said.

In Bismarck, Croucher said she would have no roommates that were not strangers, and housing would be expensive in North Dakota on her own. However, when searching for housing in Missoula, she struggled to find a safe and affordable place close to campus.

She said she found many listings that were “two bedrooms, sketchy, rundown, in a weird area and I still can’t afford it as a college student.”

Ultimately, she decided to sign a lease with ROAM, which was recommended to her by a friend at UM. Croucher said she felt it was a safe place to live, close to campus, and she knew she would have roommates close to her age. She also appreciated the individual lease so there was no risk of paying more in the future; a situation she ran into while living in Billings.

Some students believe the increase in short-term rentals has limited their ability to rent a house over a longer time span, as hosts tend to make more money using a temporary housing method.

This year, UM staff conducted and released a study, The State of Short-Term Rentals in Montana. STRs are online bookings less than 30 days, such as Airbnb and VRBO.

The results of the study suggest there are positive STR impacts, but in some locations, “STRs appear to limit housing availability and contribute to increased rent and housing costs,” according to the abstract of the study.

Elena Bigart, social scientist and research associate at UM, was one of the authors on the report. She said while they did not do a study directly focusing on the correlation between short-term and long-term rentals, they did find some concerns in their research.

Bigart said city officials mentioned that STRs bring in more money that could potentially affect long-term rentals. She added that the increase in STRs could also have a negative effect on the market, but there is no proof.

“There’s still a lot more we can learn about it,” Bigart said. “We will continue to explore the issue, and this was just our first study on the topic.”

As college students and families alike struggle to find affordable housing, Missoula city officials are working on creating a team of community members to better address housing needs.

The Missoula City Council is currently interviewing candidates for the Affordable Housing Citizen Oversight Committee. The committee will act as an oversight body for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund adopted in July 2020. The fund is intended to be a sustainable source of funding to meet housing needs and community goals in Missoula.

Emily Harris-Shears, an administrator for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, said the volunteer committee is open to anybody, and no level of expertise is required to join.

The committee, which will finalize its members in late April, will approve administrative policies, the annual Allocation Plan and assist in prioritizing funding each year.

The path to affordable housing in Missoula will be a slow process, and there is no way of knowing where the market will be in the coming years.

“Housing is always changing, and you have to be ready to change with it,” Niblack said.