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Getting by: Boise State grad students struggling with high rents, few housing choices

Boise was a pretty easy place to live as a graduate student when William Rudisill rolled into town five years ago.

Fresh off a stint as a river rafting guide after finishing his undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Rudisill, 29, was drawn to Boise State University because of its geophysics program and the good quality of life for affordable prices. He soon started a master’s and launched into researching the water cycle in mountain regions. By next year, he expects to complete his doctorate with years of research on the headwaters of the Colorado River under his belt.

[Boise State looks to lease beds for freshmen, plans new dorm building]

But, every year he’s been in town it has gotten more difficult to make ends meet. He’s lived in nearly half a dozen different houses near Boise State’s campus with a rotating cast of other grad students, with the rent increasing every year. Now, he’s renting an aging house for $1,200 with his girlfriend and it’s the most he’s ever paid for rent.

“I feel like (affordability) was a big selling point of Boise State,” he said. “Compared to some of the other big research institutions in the region it doesn’t have the same reputation of (University of Washington) or Utah (State University), but I feel like a selling point of it has been that it’s a great location and it’s a cool city and cost of living was cheaper than some other places. But now, I don’t think that’s the same selling point.”

Rising rents, low stipends

As Boise and its namesake university boomed in recent years, so has rent in and around Boise State’s campus. This is straining undergraduate students, professors the school hopes to recruit, and staff. But it’s also having a big impact on graduate students powering the school’s research efforts, teaching classes, and working toward their own advanced degrees.

Boise State has Idaho’s largest graduate program with 3,551 students, 40% of which are earning degrees online, like MBAs or a Master of Social Work. But, nearly 500 graduate students on campus, like Rudisill, are either fully or partially funded graduate assistants. This means their tuition and fees are covered and they’re paid a salary to conduct research or help teach classes full time.

However, the average stipend for all of these students is $16,000 per year. If you only count the stipends for full-time students, the average rises to $18,355. This low salary is complicated by the fact that lots of these students are prohibited to seek a second job on the side by the terms of their grant, leaving them between a rock and a hard place trying to pay their bills as Boise’s rents rise.

Boise State campus
Boise State “B on the Blue” event 2019. Courtesy Boise State

Living near campus is a must for many graduate students as they try to juggle time in their research labs with the courses they teach. A place nearby also allows students to walk or bike to campus and avoid a costly parking pass.

Boise State’s Acting Dean of the Graduate College Scott Lowe said the school’s graduate program grew 500% in the past 15 years, including 10% growth between 2019 and 2021 while the housing crunch was going on in earnest. But, he said university staff is discussing the issue frequently and looking for ways to find more money to pay students so they can afford to live in the area.

“There are record numbers of graduates, record numbers of enrollees so it’s one thing to say it’s difficult, but we’re still attracting students,” he said. “There’s still growth in graduate education, but eventually the cost of living compared to the growth in the stipends we offer through the graduate assistantships has to catch up. Those pressures are eventually going to result in impacts to recruitment.”

‘Baffling’ rents after moving in from the Midwest

Bridget Bittman quickly realized her search for housing in Boise would look quite different than it did during her first four years of college.

Bittman, 22, accepted an offer from Boise State in the final months of her studies at Central Michigan University where housing was both plentiful and affordable. She started looking for housing by adding herself to mailing lists for apartment complexes and trolling websites like apartments.com and Zillow, but she started striking out quickly. Every apartment she was considering was gone before she could even find out any information about it.

“When I made the decision I was going to come here and started looking, I knew I would be paying a lot more but I was baffled at how expensive things were,” she said. “Finding housing was a huge stress that sat on my shoulders for months. I signed up for emails for different places I liked and if I got calls I would miss them because I was in class or doing homework, and I would call back later and they’d say ‘sorry, this apartment is already taken.’”

Bridget Bittman outside of the Environmental Research building at Boise State University. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

To land an apartment, Bittman had to start leaving class and dropping everything and anything she was doing to fill out an application. It finally worked out with a stroke of luck when someone at an apartment complex gave a 60-day notice, allowing Bittman and her boyfriend just enough time to snag the unit. As difficult as the process was, Bittman counts herself lucky as she’s able to live with her significant other, instead of having to scrounge online for roommates she doesn’t know like other people in her cohort.

Although average rents in Boise took a recent dip, apartmentlist.com data show rates are still up 21% from where they were in 2020. The median average for a two-bedroom apartment in the city stands at $1,262.

Application fees, rental deposits piling up

Housing near Boise State has been a point of contention in Boise for the past few years. A flood of new students hoping to live near campus instead of commuting has put a strain on available housing in the neighborhood. It has resulted in tension between long-term residents, developers hoping to redevelop student-centric projects and the students struggling to find affordable options as things get tighter.

Multiple applications for apartments also result in multiple application fees. Rudisill said during his multi-month hunt for a place to live, he had to pay $60 multiple times for background checks on both him and his girlfriend. He also ran into issues with property managers refusing to provide him with a receipt for how the fee was used, as required by the city’s ordinance.

Rudisill also took property management company HomeRiver Group to small claims court in 2019. The company refused to return his security deposit after they claimed damage to the garage door wasn’t covered by his insurance. After Rudisill showed proof from the insurance company that it was taken care of, the company settled with him in court.

“In my case, I was able to get the right outcome, but I just know if it’s happened to me it’s happening to so many people,” he said.

An open room = a flood of applications

Brian Busby, 28, isn’t sure he would have come to Boise State now knowing how much trouble he would go to to find housing he could afford on his stipend. Busby first came to Boise State two years ago after working in Montana to earn a master’s degree and research birds of prey at the university’s Raptor Research Center. Even at that time, he went through a similar battle as Bittman to find a place to live under his budget of $500 a month.

Busby tried to set up a few apartment showings ahead of visiting Boise from Montana, but by the time he could make an appointment the units were gone. Instead, he had to fly by the seat of his pants once he got into town by answering as many Craigslist ads as possible every morning and heading out to showings that day.

Brian Busby near the Albertsons Library at Boise State University. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

It eventually paid off as Busby found a two-bedroom place to stay with a roommate. He still lives there today and says rent has increased hasn’t increased too much since he’s been a student. When his former roommate moved out and he needed to find another person to fill the apartment, he posted an ad online that flooded his inbox with interested students in only a matter of hours. Busby eventually had to take the ad down because he had over 50 applicants to look over in just a day or two.

He said the range of roommate options wasn’t a bad thing, but it shows the level of need for graduate student housing at the prices people can afford to pay on their small salaries.

“My rent is low enough that I can get by, but I know graduate students who are selling their plasma every week, taking out loans or working other jobs secretly on the side to make enough money to pay rent.”

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Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at margaret@boisedev.com or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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