As Reno Rents Rise, UNR Students Feel The Burden

May 16, 2018

In the last few years, the University of Nevada, Reno, saw a spike in enrollment even as nationwide numbers decline. But with that increase in students comes another problem; where are they all supposed to live? And as Reno Public Radio's Jacob Solis reports, the answer is not so simple.

It's the week before finals, and Shaina Bird is studying inside UNR's student union. She's a senior at the university, and she lived in university residence halls for two years before heading off-campus in search of cheaper living arrangements. But these days, the savings have been getting slimmer. 

"I've been living off-campus for two years, I've seen rent increase about, I'd say 50 to 60 dollars just where I've been living," Bird says.  

What's happening to her is happening to other students, too, as many watch their rents crawl up year by year. And as the cost of housing rises, the other costs of going to college — tuition, books, even food — aren't getting any cheaper.

"I worked two jobs my first three years of college, and then my fourth year I had to quite one and was taken off payroll for the other," Bird says. " So as price increased this last year, it's definitely been a factor into whether I can pay for my food for month, or if I pay for my car, my gas or rent."

It's difficult to quantify how many students struggle to pay for food because of housing. The university is currently working on a survey to suss out any relationship between housing costs and food insecurity, but the results won't be available until next month. 

The people working with food-insecure students, however, are seeing a change. Brittany Brown is the student director of the campus food pantry, Pack Provisions, which saw 140 percent more students use their service this year compared to last.

"Most students aren't making more as housing prices are going up, so they're just going to struggle more," Brown says. "And one of the first things people usually cut is their budget for food."

As students grapple with housing, the university is in the middle of a sustained wave of population growth. A decade ago, there were a little more than 16,000 students at UNR. Today, that number is north of 20,000.

A fraction, 3,000, live on campus, most of them freshman. And while the university has added about 1,000 beds in five years to cope with expansion, its resources were still stretched thin by a few extra-large freshman classes.

"We've had more demand than spaces available the last few years," says Rod Aeschlimann, executive director of residential life, housing and food services at UNR. "So we've had to restrict our returning students wanting to live on campus, and we've had to triple some of the rooms that were set up for double occupancy."

Aeschlimann says things have stabilized these days with more consistent freshman class sizes and the coming addition of another dorm, Great Basin, in the fall. But there are still 18,000 students not living on campus, and they need a place to live.

Doug McIntyre, president of the Reno/Sparks Association of Realtors, says that specific demand is playing a large role in price increases both near UNR and in downtown.

"Pretty much all of the property around the university, within walking distance, is pretty much taken," McIntyre says. "Or they are currently building on those sites."

That property is largely held by private student housing complexes, sprawling complexes that offer dorm-style living by the bed, usually with luxury amenities. These properties are often cheaper than on-campus living, and can offer many more available units or rooms than the university can for upper-classmen looking to live near campus. 

In 2014, there were just a handful of private student housing complexes within walking distance of the university, mostly situated just northeast of campus, near the medical buildings. By the end of this year, the number of complexes will have more than doubled from 3 to 8, with at least two more buildings on the way.

Many — though not all — are owned or operated by national investment or real estate management companies who see student living as a recession-resistant investment. After all, when a recession hits, universities often see an influx of people heading back to school, and all those students will have to live somewhere. 

But these new student complexes also exacerbate the existing land shortage, and as more student-specific living is built near UNR and downtown, it will mean fewer available plots for other kinds of housing. 

McIntyre says that as both businesses and students keep moving to the university and downtown area, Reno will need not just new housing, but affordable options in order to keep up. But, he says, expect it to be an issue for at least the next few years.

Jacob Solis is a senior at the Reynolds School of Journalism.