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Education

MSU To End Subsidized Employee Housing To Increase Student Options

201130_FamilyAndGraduateHousing_SingleFamilyHomes_MSU_Bozeman_RachelCramer.jpg
Rachel Cramer, YPR
A row of single family homes that are part of MSU's Family and Graduate Housing in Bozeman on Nov. 30, 2020

This fall, Montana State University announced it will end on campus housing for staff and faculty to make more space for students. Some employees say they cannot afford the rising cost of living off campus and that MSU’s decision during a pandemic added to already heightened levels of stress.

A quick walk from the heart of campus, red brick apartments, townhouses and single family homes make up MSU’s Family and Graduate Housing(FGH).

With rent for a two bedroom house at $600 a month, it’s well below Bozeman’s market rate, and there’s a waiting list to get in.

Around 1,200 students, employees, spouses and kids live here.

“When I walk around Family and Graduate Housing and I see those little kids, I see myself. It’s kind of full circle for me,” Phuntsog said.

That’s Tenzin Phuntsog, a tenure track faculty member at MSU. During his childhood, Phuntsog lived in family faculty housing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst while his father pursued a PhD.

Many colleges and universities across the U.S., including the University of Montana, offer subsidized staff and faculty housing, especially in places where the cost of living makes it tough to recruit and retain employees.

But in September, Phuntsog and 77 other staff and faculty living at Family and Graduate Housing received an email from MSU, saying “the unit you presently occupy is part of the university’s overall student housing inventory.” It said non student housing contracts must end June 30, 2021.

Phuntsog says it caught him off guard.

“On my salary, I don’t think it’s possible to live in Bozeman,” Phuntsog said.

Two other MSU employees who live at FGH asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution from the university. One says she’ll seek employment out of state because she doesn’t want to get locked into a long term lease while working under semester by semester contracts. Another says they had envisioned spending their career here, but now they don’t know what they’re going to do.

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Rachel Cramer, YPR
A playground at Family and Graduate Housing on MSU's campus in Bozeman on Nov. 30, 2020.

All three say they expect a lot of staff and faculty will leave MSU without Family and Graduate Housing.

MSU’s Vice President of Communications Tracy Ellig says nine months to find alternative housing should be enough time for the 170 people, which includes spouses and kids, who are impacted by the decision.

“This was a difficult decision for the university and we didn’t take it lightly. And we also understand that it is a difficult time for employees, but we also understand that as difficult as it may be for our employees, it’s even more difficult for our students,” Ellig said.

Ellig says that’s because students don’t have full fledged careers to cover tuition and housing costs.

He says over 100 students, dozens with families, typically add their names to the FGH waitlist for the fall semester and demand for affordable housing will go up as MSU’s graduate student enrollment continues to grow under the university’s strategic plan.

Ellig says housing in Bozeman is a scarce resource .

“Whenever there’s a scarce resource and you have to make a decision about how that’s allocated, what we do is return to what our mission is as a university, and our number one mission is to assist students,” Ellig said.

Tenzin Phuntsog says students cannot succeed if staff and faculty are struggling.

He says he’s still paying off student loans, and without Family and Graduate Housing, he’d be spending up to half of his income on rent and utilities. The federal marker of affordable housing is less than 30 percent.

Phuntsog says losing housing during the COVID-19 pandemic adds another layer of stress to an already challenging year.

“It’s a horrible time to be asking people to leave. Teachers are exhausted. We’re not only teaching twice the workload because we have to adapt to two or three different modalities, but we’re also becoming social workers and taking care of young adults,” Phuntsog said.

He says he hasn’t had time to look for new housing, which is getting harder in the fastest growing micropolitan in the U.S.

The majority of full time MSU employees earn less than $63,300, the area median income for a one person household in Gallatin County.

The median sale price of a single family home in Bozeman has been more than half a million dollars since July, and Gallatin County’s housing inventory in September was 60 percent lower than the year before.

Several MSU employees told YPR that in addition to cheaper rent, they value Family and Graduate Housing because it’s the most diverse place in Bozeman, saying it provides community and a safe space for People of Color.

“Of course the subsidized rent is good, but the thing that I really value, especially when the election was happening, was feeling safe in that Family and Graduate Housing because all the families there are immigrants, refugees, people from other countries,” Phuntsog said.

Dana Longcope, the head of MSU’s Physics Department, says the university’s decision will make it harder for his department to recruit postdoctoral researchers, especially those from abroad, who work on federally funded projects for two to three years.

“Being able to offer them a way of finding housing quickly and relatively inexpensively and conveniently so they can get to campus, helps us get them here and helps them be more productive right off the bat for a position that may not last all that long,” Longcope said.

MSU’s VP of Communications Tracy Ellig says FGH has never formally been used by the university to recruit and will not have a big impact on the university’s retention of 3,500 full and part time employees.

“We have 3,500 employees, and this affects 78, and so do I think that this is going to have an enormous ripple effect on the other 97 percent of our employee base? The answer is: no, I don’t think it will. If anything, I think it’s very appropriate that we treat all our employees equally,” Ellig said.

Over the next six months, MSU employees living at FGH will decide whether they try to find alternative housing in Bozeman, commute or look for work elsewhere.