Durango’s population grew a bit Thursday, as Fort Lewis College students began moving in on campus.
With it comes the question of how students impact the Durango rental market.
FLC Dean of Student Engagement Jeff Dupont said the effect of students on the housing market is less than it used to be because enrollment has decreased. He said enrollment during the early 2000s sat at around 4,000 students. In recent years, FLC has been seeing about 3,300 students annually.
Furthermore, the college is seeing a 25% increase in on-campus housing applications this year, which Dupont believes is a result of students’ inability to find an affordable place to live.
Last year, the college experienced a 35% increase in students returning to live on campus.
“Over the last 20 years, housing capacity is considered to be about 1,600 students,” Dupont said.
This year, the college has added capacity for about 60 more students through offering certain three-person dormitory rooms at a discounted rate.
“It’s a more affordable option for students, but it’s definitely a tighter living situation,” he said.
Dupont said all of FLC’s housing is at market value cost if students live with a roommate, and three-person dorms are even cheaper.
Region 9 Economic Development livable wage data from 2022 indicates the fair-market value for a two-bedroom apartment in Durango is about $1,413 per month, while a single bedroom apartment costs around $1,200 per month.
In addition, the college has partnered with The Gauge Apartments on Escalante Drive to provide housing for 90 additional students. Dupont said increasing demand for on-campus living situations comes from returning students, adding that this year’s freshman class of 800 students is smaller than the college is used to.
Durango Property Management owner Janet O’Bannon confirmed there were fewer college students seeking off-campus housing this summer. She said she did not have specific data on the portion of the rental market students take up.
She said Durango Property Management’s willingness to rent to college students is based on the property owner’s preference.
“Some owners are reluctant if they have had a bad experience with students, but there are also some that welcome students,” she said in an email Monday.
She added that students returning for the school year doesn’t affect the rental market because some property owners elect not to rent to students.
Students do face disadvantages when trying to find off-campus living situations.
FLC senior Tahleiah Begay said finding housing in Durango is frustrating and nearly impossible if a student has a pet.
“There were moments that I wanted to give up school just to work two full-time jobs in order to afford housing and other bills,” she said.
It is a slippery slope for students trying to live off-campus in Durango.
Students need a certain number of credits per semester to graduate in four years, but also have to deal with the high cost of living and a lack of housing inventory, forcing them to find employment that will provide a high enough wage to live.
Sophomore Bella O’Bryan said living off-campus was never really an option for her because she knew what the housing market looked like in Durango. Instead, she decided to become a resident assistant because it allowed her to live on-campus for free, and she wanted to help her community.
She said these are common reasons why students become RAs.
“I had a pretty good time in on-campus housing,” she said. “I’ve definitely lived in one of the nicer dorms, but I’ve had a pretty good time.”
Furthermore, she said there is a decent number of unhoused FLC students who will often couch surf in order to go to school.
In July 2022, Neighbors in Need Alliance released a report that surveyed 135 FLC students in which 54% said that they slept in a place not normally used for sleeping, such as a friend’s couch. Also, 27% of those students surveyed reported housing insecurity.
“My friend was homeless for a while,” O’Bryan said. “She really couldn’t find off-campus housing.”
She said over the last few years, the college has been over 100% occupancy for on-campus housing.
The 2022 Livable Wage Report conducted by Region 9 Economic Development showed that the actual average rent cost for a one-bedroom apartment in Durango is $1,469 per month. While most students have roommates to alleviate the cost, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,700 per month.
Many of the jobs in La Plata County are in accommodation and food services, with an average annual wage of $22,935, according to the most recent data from Region 9 in 2022. This is well-below the $19.70 per hour wage rate the organization deemed necessary to live in Durango in its report.
This comes as little surprise, as the cost of buying property has risen exponentially in Durango over the last four years because of the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Data from the 2023 Southwest Economic Outlook showed that La Plata County Housing appreciation values were at 2.2% before March 2020 and shot up to 42.2% after March 2020.
FLC junior PJ Rude also struggled to find a place to live off-campus. After multiple attempts, Rude eventually found a place in Bayfield with two other roommates.
“I spent three or four months looking and applying,” Rude said.
Rude said it costs almost double to live in Durango compared to Bayfield. However, this does create a 30-plus mile round trip to and from class. With gas prices at about $4.15 per gallon, it’s yet another expense for Rude.
Rude attempted to apply for Mercy Housing, but made too much money for eligibility because the salary cutoff is around $16,000 per year. Rude also inquired about living situations via Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, but had no luck with those options.
“The only options cheap enough for a single person to live in was like a roommate position in a house that is too small for as many people as it had,” Rude said.