What It’s Like to Be a Student in One of Arizona’s Most Expensive Cities for Housing

By Alyssa Bickle

August 18, 2023

College is hard enough—but NAU students are also struggling to afford rising rent in a city with limited housing supply. 

This story is part two in a two-part series about housing affordability in Flagstaff. Read part one about a renter’s experience finding a place to live here

An overall housing problem in Flagstaff, the city housing Northern Arizona University’s main campus, is not receiving much help from the university to improve affordability. 

Nearly half of NAU’s students live in some form of university-provided or university-contracted housing, and the unaffordability of those spaces has driven some low-income students away from the city. 

In the fall 2022 semester, 37% of the total students enrolled on the Flagstaff campus lived in NAU campus housing, with an additional 300 beds planned to be added in the fall 2023 semester, according to an NAU spokesperson. 

Including properties managed by American Campus Communities, the largest developer, owner, and manager of student housing communities, that number increases to 47%, according to the spokesperson. 

The city of Flagstaff has some of the highest housing costs in the state of Arizona—the average cost of rent is $443 higher than in Phoenix. 

Paired with limited land to grow on due to national forests and tribal lands—prices continue to go up.

Student Living

Charlie Dors, who uses they/them pronouns, is a senior at Northern Arizona University, and works as a community assistant in an upperclassman dorm on campus to afford the cost of living in Flagstaff.

Dors lives in the same building as students to assist them with their campus experience, and in return receives free housing, a meal plan, and a stipend. 

But, for the number of hours that Dors logs as a community assistant, sometimes as much as 60, the free housing is not worth it to them. 

The living conditions of many on-campus housing options are not ideal, with heating routinely going out during the winter months, and mold growing inside the rooms, Dors said. 

Another student said she has experienced rent increases every year she’s lived in Flagstaff. 

Lexi Dss, a senior at NAU living off campus within walking distance of the university, said the apartment she lives in was renovated with cheap materials and the price of rent went up nearly $200.

“They redid our paint on our cabinets and it’s already peeling,” Dss said. “We had a really bad winter up here this year and there was no maintenance in the parking lot whatsoever, like cars were sliding into each other and sliding into posts.”

Dss lives in a loft-style apartment with three roommates. Her bedroom has a sink inside the room and has no windows or closet, and she shares a toilet and shower with another roommate. She pays around $870 a month for this space. 

“It feels like a prison cell,” Dss said. 

“Landlords will focus on students because they can cram more people into a house for more money,” she added.

Dss works about 36 hours a week to try and make ends meet. “I definitely have to take from my savings every single month just to pay rent, you know, and get groceries,” she said. 

Sometimes the housing costs are enough to drive students out of school and the city. 

Many of Dors’ residents that they had worked with as a community assistant have had to drop out and move away due to the cost of living. 

“When people transition out of NAU, it’s not into the Flagstaff community—they are moving out,” Dors said.

NAU’s Control of the Housing Stock

The average cost of university-provided housing, including the Honors College, for the 2023-2024 academic year is $7,511 per resident, compared to the 2021-2022 academic year of $7,152 per resident. 

Off-campus housing can easily top over $1,000 a month per tenant, according to rates listed on Louie’s List

“I believe we all have a role to play, and that includes NAU”, said Ross Schaefer, executive director of Flagstaff Shelter Services. “Students living off campus certainly add to the folks looking and renting housing. I support that but also recognize that this makes the market more competitive and drives the rental costs even higher.”

In fall 2022, the earliest available data, 21,411 students were enrolled on the Flagstaff and Phoenix Bioscience Core campuses, which are lumped together in the enrollment numbers. The city’s total population in 2022 was 75,907. 

“NAU is way too big for what Flagstaff is and Flagstaff hasn’t been able to grow to accommodate,” said Caitie Quick, a Flagstaff renter who moved to the city in 2021.

NAU offers discounted triples that save students on their academic year rent rate, nine-month contracts that save students money during months they may not be at school, and summer housing for students enrolled in summer classes with discounted rent rates. 

For the 2022 to 2023 school year, the housing application was open from Oct. 15, 2021, through July 18, 2022, according to an NAU spokesperson.

“We keep the housing application open as long as we predict space availability, so we do not have a scenario where someone applies for housing and is later denied that housing. Instead, if we predict that we will no longer be able to guarantee space, then we close the housing application at that point with at least 3-5 days notice on the website,” said an NAU spokesperson in a statement. 

But, this past year, campus housing closed the housing application and didn’t notify any students who were relying upon receiving a space, Dors said. 

Dss has seen petitions go around campus to ask the university to stop accepting so many students each year due to a lack of housing and parking spaces. 

“I definitely think that NAU is a huge contributing factor to the housing crisis here for sure,” Dss said.

Housing Resources 

Louie’s List is a resource to help students looking for housing near NAU search through active rental listings.  

The Lumberjack CARE Center works with students to address any concerns such as food insecurity and financial needs, and refers students to support services based upon what they need. 

The Flagstaff Housing Authority offers low-income public housing and Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers to receive rental assistance to rent a unit on the regular rental market within the city.

All of these programs have a wait time of approximately 1-3 years and give preference to those who live and work in Flagstaff, according to the City of Flagstaff Housing Authority. 

For emergency housing, contact the Front Door Program, an organization that prevents homelessness among those on waiting lists for housing. 

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  • Alyssa Bickle

    Alyssa Bickle is an affordability and LGBTQ+ reporting intern for The Copper Courier. She expects to graduate in May 2024 with degrees in journalism and political science and a minor in urban and metropolitan studies. She has reported for Cronkite News and The State Press and is an assistant research analyst at ASU’s Center for Latina/os and American Politics Research.

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