How the community houses Tufts, Part 2: PILOTing the future of Tufts student housing

03/15/2018 - Medford/Somerville, MA - Houses on Bellevue Street, which is being adopted for the CoHo project, are pictured on March 15, 2018. (Ben Kim / The Tufts Daily Archives)

For five years, Somerville City Council President Katjana Ballantyne, frustrated by the university’s continued expansion into local neighborhoods and a lack of transparency in Tufts’ urban planning decisions, has advocated for Tufts to build an on-campus dorm.

“I’ve been trying to have a conversation with Tufts starting from the very beginning,” Ballantyne said. “I will say they have been less than forthright with me.”

After years of struggling to negotiate with the university, Ballantyne has turned to other measures. She is working to legislate an institutional master plan requirement that would facilitate dialogue between Tufts and the city of Somerville regarding Tufts’ major urban development projects.

“Five years ago, I was trying to figure out: What powers do municipalities and neighborhood residents [need to] have to have a dialogue [with Tufts]? What I determined is, the tool that’s out there for us is called an institutional master plan requirement,” Ballantyne said.

Ballantyne hopes that a legally mandated community dialogue would enable the city of Somerville to prevent Tufts from further expanding into the surrounding neighborhoods. According to Ballantyne, 2019 marks the third year she has attempted to run the bill through the Massachusetts state legislature.

“It seems like the university would be well served by getting out in front of this issue instead of waiting for legislation to pass and having to respond to it,” Assistant Professor of Social Policy and Community Development Shomon Shamsuddin said, regarding Ballantyne’s bill.

“If, then, instead, they were proactive about working with the Board of Aldermen to figure out what some of these issues are and what … the best way to approach [them would be], that would seem to be a more far-reaching approach,” Shamsuddin said.

Ballantyne’s campaign for an institutional master plan comes at a time when re-negotiations for the “Payment in Lieu of Taxes” (PILOT) contract between Tufts and the city of Somerville have just begun. The PILOT contract will establish requirements for payments Tufts allocates to the city of Somerville in return for resources including access to police and firefighting services.

Ballantyne hopes that this year’s contract will include a commitment from Tufts to an institutional master plan, while other community organizers and Tufts students have banded together in hopes of negotiating a more democratic agreement than in years past.

“The last two PILOT agreements were … negotiated in private, in secret, between the mayor and Tufts University. This round, people were saying, we want more citizen input,” West Somerville Neighborhood Association Board Member and Co-Founder Edward Beuchert said.

Beuchert said that he will not consider the negotiations successful unless Tufts commits to addressing its on-campus housing crisis, ideally by building a new on-campus residence hall.

“[Mayor Curtatone said], ‘Let’s just say that Tufts gives us everything that we want … but they do nothing to deal with the housing crisis. Would we call that agreement a success.’ I was like — no,” Beuchert said

In hopes that the PILOT agreement will include a commitment from Tufts to building a new dorm, Tufts Housing League (THL) organizers Ann-Marie Lee and Mauri Trimmer, both juniors, have begun working with local organizing groups including the Medford and Somerville groups of Our Revolution.

“We started going to different Our Revolution Medford/Somerville meetings to really put onto the forefront our vision of a high-density dorm,” Lee said. “[We said], ‘You should get into the PILOT agreement a commitment from Tufts to build a high-density dorm, right now. Get them to commit so that this way they’re held accountable to Somerville and Medford.’”

After PILOT negotiations began, THL student organizers have intensified their advocacy efforts but have repeatedly experienced difficulties while scheduling meetings with university administrators.

“As the PILOT agreements are starting to kick off and the mayors are starting to go into discussions with Monaco, we’ve been trying to … amp up the pressure by continuing to talk to our community partners,” Lee said. “We were supposed to have a meeting with President Monaco, which got canceled because his schedule changed.”

Beuchert, who is also a member of the PILOT negotiating committee, stated that he has felt increasingly sympathetic toward Tufts students as the housing crisis has progressed.

“We as neighbors definitely feel like we are more allies in solidarity with students and the faculty and the workers,” Beuchert said. “We’re … seeing [much more that] it’s the administration … doing these things that … I’d say are fundamentally against Tufts values.”

After living alongside Tufts students on Conwell Avenue for over 20 years, Beuchert expressed hopes that housing conditions will improve for students both on and off campus.

“This idea of the forced triples?” he said, referring to Residential Life’s “bed optimization” strategy of converting double-occupancy rooms to triple-occupancy rooms. “Wow — what a horrible living experience that must be. I really see Tufts students as victims of this kind of thing.”

Beuchert said that Tufts has a responsibility to provide all of its students with housing options no matter their class year.

“All students who want to live on campus should be able to,” Beuchert said. “That’s what I’m really realizing right now. As long as we have to have a lottery, then there’s not enough on-campus housing. There are many students who want to live on campus.”

Similarly, Ballantyne stated that she believes Tufts has deprived students of a fundamental right in not providing students with options for on-campus housing during their junior or senior years.

“What I always say to students is, ‘With you as their customer, Tufts hasn’t provided you with what I think is sort of a basic right — shelter,’ she said. “They require students to take on that burden.”

She expressed skepticism at previous statements from Tufts stating that the university was financially unable to build a new on-campus dorm, especially when peer institutions such as Boston University and Brandeis University provide housing options for 75 percent of their students.

“They have the space to do it,” Ballantyne said. “Build it. Commit to it. Ultimately, I think all of their students should have an opportunity of housing. Every single one of them. Other colleges and universities go through the same thing.”