Harleston Hall, where the Office of Residential Life is housed, is pictured on April 11, 2017. Alexis Serino / The Tufts Daily Archives

The State of Housing at Tufts: On-campus shortages, off-campus exploitation and new solutions

According to the 2017–2018 Tufts Factbook, Tufts’ on-campus bed capacity for undergraduates is 3,440 — 63 percent of the university’s 5,438 undergraduate population. In contrast, other comparable East Coast institutions are largely better equipped to provide their students with housing: Middlebury College and Bates College, both of which have much smaller student populations than Tufts, are both able to house over 90 percent of their students, according to Middlebury’s College Board page and Bates’ Factbook. Schools of comparable size, such as Dartmouth College, Brandeis University and other schools like Boston College, which is substantially larger than Tufts, are able to house at least 75  percent of their student bodies, according to their respective Factbooks.

According to Director of Community Relations Barbara Rubel, Tufts submits University Accountability reports to Medford and Somerville each year, which include data on students living off-campus.

“According to our last report, there are approximately 842 undergraduates living off campus in Somerville and 646 undergraduates living off campus in Medford,” Rubel wrote in an email to the Daily. “We have only been doing these reports for the past few years,” she added.

Despite this, Tufts has continued to increase its class sizes. According to Tufts’ Factbook, the university’s total undergraduate enrollment on the Medford/Somerville campus has increased by 385 since 2006, the last time the university’s housing capacity was increased.

Over the past several decades, there has been a strong push from students and community members to resolve the housing shortage on campus, a push which has intensified in the last few years as enrollment continues to increase and more students express frustrations with the difficulties of off-campus renting.

Tufts Housing League (THL) was formed by concerned students this year to advocate for a long-term solution to the housing shortage and to “pursue fairer, higher quality, and more secure housing for all members of the Tufts University community,” according to the group’s Facebook page. THL represents an increasingly common opinion among the university community: Tufts is long overdue for a new, high-capacity residence hall.

Shane Woolley, a founding member of THL, said that Tufts’ continued and increasing reliance on local housing markets to house upperclassmen is irresponsible to both the needs of its students and the needs of its host communities.

“It’s like blowing leaves into your neighbor’s lawn so that you don’t have to pick them up yourself,” Woolley, a rising senior, said. “They know that because they don’t have to guarantee housing for upperclassmen, they can just rely on the off-campus market to absorb that extra student population and then not have to do anything about it.”

Rising senior Jonah O’Mara Schwartz ran for TCU Senate unopposed this past semester on a platform that included calling attention to the urgency of the housing shortage.

“As a Class of 2019 senator, I’m supposed to be representing the junior class, and a big issue for the junior class is off-campus living,” O’Mara Schwartz said. “I think that not providing housing for students on campus also raises the cost of housing, because you are adding students without the equivalent increase of supply of housing, so that causes local rents to go higher, that causes housing costs to increase… so adding more students without building is distributing the cost among the students.”

In 2015, overcrowding led some incoming students to be placed in overflow housing. The worsening housing shortage led to the formation of the Residential Strategies Working Group (RSWG) in March 2016 and plans to add 600 additional beds to Tufts housing are already under way. The last time a substantial number of beds were added to campus was in 2006, when Sophia Gordon Hall (SoGo) was constructed, adding 126 beds.

But the proposed solutions to the housing crisis don’t include a new residence hall. Instead, the university plans on adding 600 much-needed new beds through a variety of initiatives, some of which, like the conversion of Tufts faculty and staff housing into student housing, have raised serious concerns from students and community members alike.

Regardless of where one stands on the university’s proposed solutions, the urgency of increasing Tufts’ housing capacity is illustrated in the experiences of students living off-campus, and in the struggles of navigating the expensive and, some say, exploitative housing market that has formed around excessive student demand.

Bad landlords, unexpected costs and the difficulties of living off-campus

Jaya Khetarpal, a rising senior, lived off-campus for the 2017–18 school year. She told the Daily that she initially moved off-campus because, though she’d have to sacrifice convenience by living 15 minutes from campus, the house she’s renting is slightly cheaper than Tufts’ housing rates. However, she said, it came with unexpected costs and stresses that she did not anticipate before moving in.

“The windows are pretty broken, and the center has a huge gap that allows the air from outside to come in, and we asked [the landlord] to fix it because even when the heat worked, it was making the rooms very, very cold. And her excuse was ‘it’s an old house,’ and there was nothing she could do about it,” Khetarpal said. “And then what I found out when I got there … is the floor of my closet had started crumbling in, which made me question the structural integrity of the house, [and] which has caused a lot of dust and mold to come up also … so we tried talking to her about that, and her excuse again was that it was an old house and the floor wasn’t fully caved in yet, so there was no problem.”

Khetarpal has severe asthma and suffers from autoimmune deficiency, and between the house’s lack of insulation, exposure to harmful particles like dust and mold and the general lack of maintenance or cleaning done by the owners, living off-campus has not been good for her health.

“One of my problems is I’ve been having heart palpitations a lot when I’m in the house,” she said. “So next year, what we’re being forced to do is pay a lot more for a decent house, but it ends up paying up health-wise because I don’t want to spend the next year having worse asthma or having heart palpitations.”

Khetarpal’s unit is owned by an absentee landlord, meaning she doesn’t live in the area. This absentee-landlord phenomenon appears to be a growing problem in the area as the demand for temporary student housing continues to rise.

During her senior year at Tufts, alumna Collette King (LA ’17) lived in a house owned by an absentee landlord who lived in Florida. She said that communication with the landlord was sparse and difficult at best, and that the upkeep and maintenance of her unit was horrendous.

“We got there Sept. 1, to move in. Basically, there was [stuff] everywhere. There was stuff in the dishwasher, shoes in closets, it was insane. It was clear that no one had come to clean anything,” she said.

King hypothesized that one reason for the poor state of the house was that the landlord didn’t want to pay his property manager, who only got paid if he made a visit, even though property upkeep requires regular check-ups.

“The property manager was aghast at the state of the house, which shows me he wasn’t there in a while. The manager warned us ahead of time that our landlord didn’t like to pay for things. [The landlord] didn’t want to pay the manager to go there often,” King said.

King added that she believed the landlord was stubborn and unhelpful when she asked her to remove dangerous mold from the house, itself likely a product of property negligence.

After noticing strange watermarks on walls and ceilings around the house, King and her housemates contacted the landlord, who told them not to call a mold inspector to check out the issue. They called anyway, and despite their landlord calling independently and telling the inspector not to make the visit, they eventually had their situation appraised.

“Basically, there was mold on three of the four floors. There was airborne mold on all the floors of the house, and there was black mold under the carpet of the basement,” King said. “Throughout, there was a ton of back-and-forth with the landlord around this whole issue. And we were basically like, ‘you have to do something.’”

The mold was serious enough to require a three-month construction project that gutted the house, forcing King and her 12 housemates to relocate in the middle of the semester, with King herself moving into Wren Hall in one of only nine open on-campus rooms for emergency housing that Tufts had available. For King, this was an unexpected and jarring position to be in, and led her and her housemates to write up a contract to ensure that they wouldn’t need to pay rent during construction and that their landlord would compensate them for the disruption and related expenses.

“None of us had meal plans because we were all seniors, and we didn’t have a kitchen anymore. We didn’t want to be responsible for the utilities during the construction because, well, not our fault. We couldn’t cancel the WiFi, so we didn’t want to get billed for WiFi we weren’t going to use. We had to move all our stuff out and store it somewhere. So that’s what the contract was supposed to handle,” she said.

On top of that, King had to front the money for the construction, something that put a dent in her savings and would have been much more difficult for a low-income student.

“We had to front up all of the money, because he paid us after the fact… I was personally fronting hundreds of dollars,” she said.

King noted that her landlord was also interested in creating more rooms to rent — he had converted the basement into a separate apartment unit, despite that fact that it had no kitchen of its own and its rooms were cramped and improvised, with few windows.

“That house was definitely illegal,” King said. “I think that’s why he was scared of litigation.”

If true, it wouldn’t be the first time that landlords around Tufts had skirted local occupancy limits to maximize profit. According to David Shapiro, assistant city solicitor for Somerville, the city successfully sued a landlord in 2014 for knowingly leasing a four-person apartment to five Tufts students. The landlord was Vasileios Gianoukos, a Tufts alumnus who had purchased property after graduating to rent it to other Tufts students.

Edward Beuchert, a Somerville resident since 1998 whose home neighbors the one which Gianoukos was sued for over-occupying, said he believes that Gianoukos, like many other landlords who have invested in properties abutting Tufts in the past few decades, was inspired to purchase the real estate by the university’s lack of on-campus housing, which created high demand for overpriced rooms off campus.  

“The landlord was a former Tufts student, who cleverly recognized that the university was just increasing their enrollment without building new dormitories, and that this was a golden opportunity,” Beuchert, who is also a founding member of the West Somerville Neighborhood Association (WSNA), said. “He was very much a hands-off landlord.”

According to Shapiro, Gianoukos continued to own and lease the property after agreeing to a Continuance Without a Finding and paying the city a $3,500 fee. Gianoukos did not respond to the Daily’s request for comment.

Woolley said that his experience speaking with students as part of the club’s outreach initiatives has demonstrated just how difficult it can be to rent off campus.

“Just having conversations with students about these issues, it’s clear that students are being taken advantage of by landlords in terms of rent gouging and in terms of the quality of their housing and maintenance,” Woolley said. “And those complaints are echoed by community residents, not only Tufts students but people in the West Somerville Neighborhood Association saying they see the quality of the properties deteriorating while rents increase at the same time.”

Khetarpal said she feels that it’s the nature of renting to a reliable but transient market of students that enables the exploitative or negligent character of local landlords. She added that the university thus has been, if not responsible for the problem, at least “passively accepting” of it by putting off new housing for so long.

“Landlords just take total advantage of students because there’s nowhere else to go, really. We can live on campus, but then with lottery numbers and the possibility of not having financial aid, it could be worse or you might not even get it,” Khetarpal said. “So they can jack up their prices as much as they want, or take advantage of the fact that we’re there for a limited time because we don’t have a choice.”

Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences James Glaser said that while he doesn’t believe all landlords around campus act unscrupulously, he sees the benefits in “diminish[ing] some of the reliance of students on the off-campus market.”

Despite reliance on the off-campus market, little to no resources are available for student renters until recently proposed initiatives

Despite the fact that over 30 percent of Tufts’ student body lives off campus, there have been almost no resources to help ensure that these students, who are often signing a lease for the first time, aren’t being exploited. In King’s case, this meant she and her housemates had to deal with the consequences and cost of their landlord’s negligence on their own.

“We asked someone in the [Office of Residential Life and Learning] to look over our lease. But Tufts was basically like, ‘We are super sorry, but there is not much we can do,’” King said.

Yanelle Cruz transferred to Tufts in fall 2017 and was told that she wouldn’t be eligible for on campus housing but would be offered support in her search for off-campus housing. However, Cruz said the contact she was given never responded to her emails and she was unable to elicit a response from ResLife as well, leaving her without housing by August.

“I secured something off campus at the last minute but it was expensive and with random roommates (none were affiliated to Tufts). I’m an international student and this was my first time dealing with American landlords and signing a lease and the process was a pain,” Cruz wrote in an email to the Daily. “It’s hard to go through that without someone being able to guide you through it or at least answer questions.”

Cruz said that in October, she was assaulted by two white men on the basis of her race, and only after this incident was she given housing.

“It says a lot about a university that a student has to get assaulted in order for housing to finally be cooperative… I’m not saying being an international student, low-income student and an out-of-state transfer who does not know the area at all should grant me housing privileges but it is certainly something that should urge staff to be more supportive and responsive,” she wrote. “I expected so much more from Tufts but all I got was unresponsiveness and a traumatic experience to get through that I honestly didn’t deserve.”

Assistant Director of Housing Operations Matt Austin said that although he had no recollection of Cruz’s case, some transfers accepted last year were not offered on-campus housing as part of their admission.

Khetarpal also expressed frustration with ResLife’s lack of off-campus resources, especially, she said, since so many students must deal with the rental process at some point.

“They’re not good at helping you find an off-campus place either. You either have to go through so many hoops to find a place or you have to know someone who’s selling the house, or otherwise you’re kind of screwed,” she said. “I even went to the Tufts website where it’s like, ‘We have landlords listed on here,’ and it was not helpful at all, and it was extremely outdated.”

According to Austin, additional resources to help students navigate the off-campus housing market will be introduced starting this year. ResLife is looking for a new assistant director who will take on off-campus issues, and a new off-campus housing website, contracted by ResLife with Off Campus Partners, will attract landlords and property managers to post on the site and will also include a feature by which students can communicate with each other. The new position was posted on April 10, and Austin said the website will be rolled out this summer.

In an email to the Daily, University President Anthony Monaco expressed his confidence in ResLife’s latest efforts to streamline the off-campus housing process.

“[Off Campus Partners’] software, which is used by other colleges in the Greater Boston area, will also allow students to compare prices and report unscrupulous landlords,” Monaco wrote.

In addition, Austin said he wants to begin educating students about the rental process before their sophomore year, in an effort to combat common pressures and misinformation that he says can often exacerbate stresses around finding off-campus housing.

A brief history of Tufts’ housing crisis

Tufts’ modern housing issues can be traced back to the mid-1970s, under then-University President Jean Mayer, and have often been linked to the untenable relationship between Tufts’ increasing enrollment and its stagnating housing capacities.

According to a 1986 history of Tufts by Russell Miller titled “A Light on the Hill,” Tufts’ student population had increased from 3,600 to 4,200 from 1970 to 1976, and an unexpected over-enrollment in 1977 by 400 students led to “a critical housing shortage for undergraduates” that fall. The university even had to lease out two floors of the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Cambridge for 170 upperclassmen that they were incapable of housing.

“The arrangement was a costly one, for the hotel accommodations, the necessity for additional resident advisors, and the provision of twenty-four-hour bus transportation to and from the campus, more than offset the additional tuition revenue resulting from the over-enrollment,” Miller writes.

The crisis was eventually met with a solution: A construction project that is now known as Latin Way added 221 beds to campus and opened for student occupancy in 1980, and the university began work on the 216-bed Hillsides Apartments that same year. Admission rates were tightened and the so-called “bulge” class graduated in 1981, according to Miller’s book.

Still, Tufts was only able to guarantee housing for 70 percent of its students after that, and this number is even smaller today at 63 percent capacity. Some believe that the lack of on-campus housing options for Tufts juniors and seniors is often glazed over as a non-issue. Somerville Alderwoman Katjana Ballantyne said that when she brought up the housing shortage in conversation with Tufts Director of Community Relations Barbara Rubel, Rubel responded that upperclassmen are either “abroad” or “would rather live off-campus,” a line that Beuchert and THL members also said they’d been told by university officials.

Khetarpal, who is one of the 41 percent of undergraduates at Tufts receiving financial aid, said she didn’t feel like living off campus was much of a choice for her.

“I feel like that’s a forced choice. It’s a choice, but it’s a choice because — it’s a backup, because we don’t have better options,” she said.

She added that it can often be more of a choice for those who can afford nicer units.

“I think … Tufts favors people who have more money and are willing to pay, because I know people who are paying $950 for rent, almost a thousand a month, and they have really decent houses with a great landlord. I can’t afford to pay that, and I don’t think any of my friends can,” Khetarpal said. “There’s just a big quality and social gap in living off campus, and those who can’t afford it are forced to settle for stuff that is not great and has issues.”

Beuchert, who wrote an open letter to Anthony Monaco in 2015 addressing, among other things, the housing crisis that had led to the need for overflow housing that year, said that the lottery system’s exclusionary nature indicates a need for more housing.

“What I would say, it’s very clear, there’s many quotes in Daily articles talking about how students would prefer to live on campus,” Beuchert told the Daily. “As long as there’s a housing lottery, then Tufts is not providing sufficient on campus housing. As long as there are more people who want to live on campus than there are spots then there’s a problem.”

While the lottery process itself might be essential regardless of the housing capacity due to the differing quality of Tufts’ dorms, numbers for this year’s housing application seem to confirm Beuchert’s claims that there is far from enough housing to meet student demand.

According to Austin, out of the 650 rising juniors who applied for Tufts housing, only 150 were given lottery numbers, while an additional 70 have been pulled from the waitlist and 80 chose to live in Small Group Houses. This means that over 300 juniors were denied on-campus housing.

Rent on the rise

Glaser said that while he would like to see more upperclassmen live on or near campus, he believes the severity of the issue of housing upperclassmen fluctuates with rent prices outside campus.

“It’s a problem sometimes and it’s not a problem other times … When the rents are lower, the students tend to want to live off campus and when the rates are higher, the students tend to want to live on campus,” Glaser said. “And then there’s a lot of students who want to live closer and don’t want to be dealing with the things that come with off-campus housing. Some people are perfectly fine with that, but not everybody wants that.”

But rents have been rising steadily in the Boston area for quite a while now. According to Ballantyne, rising rents began to be a problem in 1994, when Massachusetts voted yes on a statewide referendum introduced by landlords to eliminate rent control.

“When rent control came out, that meant that property owners could now sell their property, or invest in their property as a developer and then sell it at a higher price, because they wouldn’t be curtailed by what the law is saying,” Ballantyne said. “And on top of that, there’s a housing shortage, so everything started to go up.”

This, according to Ballantyne, coupled with the increased demand for housing created by a continued migration nationally to urban employment centers like Boston, marked the beginning of skyrocketing rents in the suburbs that had to deal with the overflow — like those in Somerville.

This has led more recently to gentrification in Somerville, which, according to 2017 articles in both the Daily and the Tufts Observer, has made the town inaccessible to many families, including longtime residents, some of whom have been forced to move out.  

Beuchert said that Tufts’ housing shortage has also contributed to rising rent in Somerville and Medford. He said he’s noticed a pattern of houses being bought by landlords to rent to students at inflated prices, and these higher rates  — possible because of the consistency of student demand — raise the property value in general.

“Prices vary, but a good round number is that students are willing to pay about $10,000 a year for an off-campus room. That’s a tremendous amount of money, and if that means a one-floor apartment can be rented legally, that’s $40,000 a year you get by renting it to four students for one year,” Beuchert said. “So when people are looking to buy a house and they’re looking at what people are willing to pay for it, it is much more profitable if you’re renting out to Tufts students.”

But students themselves also bear the weight of rising rent around campus.

“I thought it would be fine to live off campus. But … I’m from Texas, and things are much cheaper there, so I didn’t think rent if you wanted a decent house would be close to $1,000 a month,” Khetarpal said.

And if you can’t pay the high price for a good unit, you may be stuck with something less than desirable — maybe you live a 20-minute walk from campus, or in a structurally unsound building or with airborne mold in every room.

“Just because I’m a student doesn’t mean I don’t deserve to have a healthy or structurally sound house to live in,” Khetarpal said.

Medford has largely been the more affordable side of the Hill for student renters in recent years. According to data collected by Jeff Kaufman from Padmapper, a site that collects rental listings from various websites including Craigslist, rates for a four-bedroom apartment on the Somerville side of Tufts normally range from about $3,500 to $3,800 a month, whereas on the Medford side it is easier to find units available for $3,200 to 3,400 a month.

Ballantyne said that she’s noticed a shift in student tenants to Medford as well.

“It’s changed a lot, even in the four years that I’ve been here, in terms of less being on this side of the Hill and more being on the Medford side of the Hill, because [Somerville] is not affordable,” Ballantyne said.

While there is some fluctuation, Kaufman’s data, which is available on a year-to-year basis as well, shows that Medford has consistently been the more affordable side of the hill for renters since 2011. It also indicates that both Somerville and Medford have become rapidly more expensive since then: from an average range of $2,100 to $2,800 a month, to a range of $3,300 to $3,800 a month in 2018.

According to Rubel, data from the university’s accountability reports, there are currently more students living off campus in Somerville than Medford.

There are fears that, with the incoming Green Line Extension (GLX) project due for completion by December 2021, Medford will become as prohibitively expensive as Somerville has become for many. According to Laurie Goldman, a lecturer in urban and social policy for Tufts’ Department of Urban and Environmental Planning, these fears are well-founded.

“The affordability crisis is more acute in areas where there are new T stops from the Green Line Extension. So Union Square, that’s the current hotspot because we’re under construction right now, but eventually there will be nearby us, College Avenue stop, that’s going to mean that housing close to campus, that’s going to be even more expensive,” she said. “It will be harder for you guys and your families, and harder for members of the community, to live nearby.”

Austin also agreed that the GLX could make finding housing even more difficult.

“It’s going to get more challenging for folks as the Green Line comes in, and the prices in Medford go up too,” he said.

Monaco told the Daily that while he believes the GLX will bring many benefits, he is aware of concerns about rent increases.

“While the Green Line Extension will bring many benefits to the Medford/Somerville area, some observers have speculated that improved access to public transportation could increase housing costs,” Monaco said. “We’re certainly paying close attention to the project and its impact.”

Khetarpal said that she feels the lack of guaranteed on-campus housing for upperclassmen has at least helped drive rent increases.

“I think it’s honestly that landlords are aware that they can take advantage of this student population that really has nowhere else to go,” she said.

According to Woolley, student pressure to find off-campus housing can also exacerbate the rates that landlords list their properties at.

“The information gap is huge when you go into the market for the first time,” he said. “There’s a huge rush because nobody knows when they should be looking for housing so they do it as early as September of the year before, which allows landlords to jack up prices because they know people are desperate.”

Austin echoed Woolley’s concerns, and added that he plans to begin offering educational sessions to help combat these pressures once the new assistant director is hired.

“In our mind, landlords are set up to take advantage of our students in September because they know there’s this built-up demand that really doesn’t need to happen in September… because the only people that Tufts students are competing with are each other,” Austin said. “So if everybody kind of had a united front and said, ‘Well, we’re not going to start looking for housing until November/December,’ the housing rates are generally going to get a little bit lower because they don’t feel like there’s all of this demand and no inventory.”

University response: better late than never?

This past school year represents the first time since 2006, when construction on SoGo was completed, that plans to expand housing options for undergraduates have been in action. Tufts’ solution, according to university administrators interviewed for this piece, will be enacted over the course of a few years, and will include three projects: “bed optimization” in existing dormitories; the renovation of Tufts-owned houses in Medford to create new upperclassmen apartments, some of which will be occupied by students as early as this fall; and the enactment of a similar plan in Somerville. According to Robert Chihade, director of real estate and general manager of Walnut Hill Properties, a real estate company owned by Tufts, “conceptual planning” for the Somerville wood-frame apartments will begin this summer.

This initiative to expand housing options came on the heels of a massive personnel and structural overhaul in the Office of Residential Life and Learning (ResLife), which was put into action last summer after former ResLife Director Yolanda King left her position.

According to Austin, who was hired in April 2017, the newfound urgency around the housing shortage should be largely attributed to the recommendations of the Student Life Review Committee (SLRC) released in May 2017, which, aside from advocating for more housing in general, also recommended prioritizing communal space in dorms and increasing housing accessibility — something that is being pursued with the upcoming renovations to Miller and Houston, according to Austin.

“I think the Student Life Review definitely helped push it to the forefront, and [Dean of Student Affairs Patricia] McMahon, she is a huge champion of this service to students … so that’s definitely helped to have someone in a position of power to help move things along,” Austin said. “But really the Student Life Review, that whole piece of it I think was the real driving force.”

Austin himself has a great deal of career experience in increasing housing capacity at universities, including in his previous job as Northeastern University’s Director of Housing Services.

“The sense that I got when I got hired was they were looking for somebody who had experience with increasing housing inventory over the course of some years,” Austin said. “I don’t know if they hired my position specifically because they knew they were going to be growing, but I think that makes a lot of sense if that was the case.”

Glaser said that conversation around adding more on-campus housing began in 2011, when the new Tufts administration, led by Monaco and former Provost David Harris, began formulating the T10 Strategic Plan, which outlines some of the university’s main goals over the next 10 years.

“Much of our attention was turned by student advocates,” Glaser said. “We went around and listened to people and the students were saying, ‘Highest priority is junior and senior housing, particularly given the Green Line coming in.’ And so we’ve been trying to address that.”

Bed optimization

ResLife began implementing their “bed optimization” strategy, in which some rooms previously designated as singles or doubles would be turned into doubles or triples, last summer, when, according to Austin, 81 beds were added to dormitories across campus.

This summer, Austin said, there will be approximately 100 beds added through optimization. The primary sites will be Hodgdon, where 24 beds are expected to be added, and Harleston, where the first-floor offices of ResLife will be moved to create room for 19 additional beds. Other residence halls expected to have beds added include Metcalf, Bush, Haskell, Wren and Miller, Austin said.

The push for bed optimization came after a housing study was conducted for Tufts by an outside group a few years ago, according to Austin, who said the study identified inefficiencies within Tufts housing.

Despite the fact that much of this bed optimization is taking place in underclassmen dorms, Austin said that he hopes the strategy will help free up space for upperclassmen in other dorms.

“If we put more first-years into Bush, that’s going take our first-year class and maybe not have as many in Harleston, which gives us more space for sophomores, and that trickle-down effect then gives more space for juniors and seniors in upperclass housing,” he said. “We offered more space in Latin Way and Hillsides this year because we took sophomores out of there, essentially.”

According to Austin, the number of sophomores slated to live in Latin Way next semester is 110, compared to over 200 who lived there this semester.

Austin said that the university saw bed optimization as an inexpensive way to increase Tufts’ housing capacity.

“We want to get the most bang for our buck so we don’t have to raise tuition and raise the fees for that on students,” he said. “So if we can acquire beds at a much cheaper rate than building a new residence hall, which is very expensive, then we want to do that.”

Nate Krinsky, another member of THL, said that he has concerns about the bed optimization strategy, including overcrowding and hygiene issues.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a solution that any Tufts students approve of,” he said.

Dani Coates, a first-year, lived in a triple in Metcalf this year, in a room that was previously a double. She said that her room is big enough to make the situation comfortable, but added that not all the rooms that were optimized turned out the same.

“My room doesn’t have an issue at all. All of the beds are lifted so that we have dressers underneath beds for the purpose of maximizing space. In both of the rooms next to mine though, one of the beds are lofted with desk underneath it, because there is not enough space for three beds and three desks,” she said. “From what I heard, those rooms are still much bigger than forced double and triples in Hodgdon.”

According to Austin, the university has avoided creating “forced” doubles and triples as a result of optimization, a practice which leads to more cramped living quarters and for which universities are usually required to rebate some of the cost of housing.

“We’re not doing forced triples. That’s why we have specific furniture, and that’s why we’ve knocked down walls to reconfigure rooms so that we’re not doing forced triples,” he said. “We don’t have to get a variance to have students live in these rooms, but some schools do.”

“CoHo”

But while the much-needed additions provided through bed optimization have been welcomed by many in the university community, the upperclassmen apartment projects have been much more controversial.

The junior and senior apartments in Medford, now officially named “CoHo,” will be completed in three phases: one next fall, one in spring 2019 and one in fall 2019. The project will offer an additional 45 beds as of this fall, and an additional 140 beds overall, according to Austin.

Austin said that the reason for this staggered progress is that the houses which will be used for the apartments, currently owned by Tufts’ real-estate arm Walnut Hill Properties, must be renovated before they can be occupied. He added that around five additional houses will be ready for student occupancy in each phase, and that Tufts will be constructing one entirely new building from scratch, which will serve as a center of “sustainable living.”

Austin said a similar project using Walnut Hill-owned properties in Somerville is set to be completed by 2021, with the possibility of adding over 200 beds. However, Austin said this plan is still in “project development” and may change over time.

The buildings that will be converted to undergraduate apartments already had residents living in them before the plans were announced. Many of these residents, most of whom have been or will be forced to move, are Tufts faculty and staff members renting at reduced rates from Walnut Hill Properties Corporation, a university-owned subsidiary that manages roughly 120 rental units near the Medford/Somerville campus.

After postponing the decision in December, the Medford Zoning Board of Appeals approved the CoHo project on Jan. 11. According to Chihade, 11 total occupied units will need to be relocated to complete the project, including four Tufts staff, three faculty members, and four offices.

Chihade said that some of them will be relocated to Walnut Hill housing, and that residents’ moving expenses will be paid for, in addition to receiving a payment based on the amount of time they’ve occupied a Walnut Hill unit.  

While there was controversy surrounding the “CoHo” project–including the protests of displaced faculty members, one of whom was forced to move out of the home he was born in–the details of those concerns are covered in another Daily article.

But issues in Capen certainly overlap with issues voiced around the apartments project near Sawyer Street in Somerville.

Junior/Senior apartment plans in Somerville

Since the new housing plans were announced in 2016 in an effort to increase capacity, there have been mixed responses. Some students, led by groups like THL, have expressed frustrations with what they see as the plans’ inadequacies and argue that the wood-frame apartments don’t do enough to solve the roots of the housing shortage. Neighbors and community leaders in Somerville oppose the plan on Sawyer as overly expansive, further spreading Tufts’ campus into the host communities. And, most notably, faculty and staff at risk of displacement feel left out, and their families’ needs disregarded.

Associate Professor of History David Ekbladh and his wife Leah Ekbladh live on Whitfield Road with their two children, in a Walnut Hill property they’ve been renting since 2011, which was slated to be used for student housing when the junior/senior apartments plan in Somerville was first proposed.

Since speaking with the Daily about their frustrations, their house, which is not technically inside of the University Special District as defined by the City of Somerville, has been taken off the list of properties to be used for the apartments. According to Chihade, as of now, three or fewer residential relocations will be required for the Somerville apartments.

Nevertheless, the Ekbladhs say their experiences with the university around this issue have been disheartening and incredibly stressful, and that promises made to many faculty members regarding their Walnut Hill housing were walked back to allow for the Somerville junior/senior apartments project.

According to Leah Ekbladh, she first read the news that they were at risk of displacement in a Daily article sent to her by a colleague. David Eklbladh said that in response to the news, he and other faculty at risk of losing their housing wrote a letter to Dean Glaser explaining their concerns and requesting a conversation about alternatives.

David Ekbladh said that before spring break last year, he was called into Glaser’s office, like most of his peers in similar positions, to be notified of the timeline for his departure from the house.

“We had known from other people who had gone in before him that we were being told that our house was on the list to be ‘absorbed’ or whatever the term was at the time, for this village program, and that at that point we would be given some timelines,” Leah Ekbladh said. “We were told we had until June 2020, and then the university would be taking our house back.”

Glaser said that while he felt bad about the need to move faculty and their families, the meetings were never intended to be a conversation about the plans but rather to sensitively notify them of the situation.

“The university owns the houses. The university actually, I think, has the right to use those houses to address an urgent issue that was raised by students,” he said.

But the Ekbladhs said they felt hoodwinked, and that the news ran contrary to promises they had been made by university administrators when David Ekbladh was hired in 2007.

“David wasn’t tenured at that point and I said, ‘Well what happens if David doesn’t get tenure? Do we lose our house?’ And the Walnut Hill person who took us around said ‘no, you are under Massachusetts renters law, we can’t evict you if he is no longer is part of the university,’” Leah Ekbladh said. “So we were basically told we could live here for life.”

In an email to the Daily, Monaco said that he did not know of any “official policy or contract commitment” made by Tufts or Walnut Hill to provide “permanent housing.”

“People assured us, we have housing for you long-term, it’s something we give to you, it’s not formally in my job letter but it was part of my professional package I got when I came here,” David Ekbladh said.

Leah Ekbladh added that their assumption that this situation would mean they have housing security led the family to make specific financial decisions, leaving them with no plan to buy a new house and without the savings to afford to stay in their school district at market price.

“We would have planned our financial lives very differently — we would have put less in retirement, we would have kept a lot more things liquid so that we could buy a house, we probably wouldn’t have moved to Somerville just because we probably would have known we couldn’t afford to live here otherwise,” she said.

University administrators like Glaser and Chihade say that residents are not being evicted, and that the term “eviction” is not appropriate for the circumstance.

“I don’t think it’s fair to call it eviction, because eviction connotes something quite different,” Glaser said. “Evictions don’t happen with two to three years of warning.”

In Chihade’s view, reduced-rate housing in Walnut Hill properties was a rare benefit afforded to faculty and staff, and the university is within its right to rescind it.

But Leah Ekbladh said that at the time, it didn’t feel much different from being evicted.

“I’m pretty sure if you evict me, you need to be like ‘pay me the rent in so many days or you’re out.’ But I’m leaving against my will. It’s not my choice, so how are you not evicting me?” she said. “You are just telling me it is a benefit I am no longer afforded. Which is not how the university said this worked.”

David Ekbladh said he sees a correlation between the change in tone around faculty housing and the shift from former University President Larry Bacow’s administration to that of current President Anthony Monaco.

“Bacow and [then-provost and senior vice president Jamshed Bharucha] approached the faculty and the staff, and the way things are done differently… I don’t see those people doing this,” he said. “I’ve been here nearly ten years, and the tone and the feel of the university have definitely changed.”

“I think when they offered this to us, it was probably in good faith, and then they decided they needed to go in a different direction and they couldn’t care less about the families they were affecting,” Leah Ekbladh said. “And they never tried to have a dialogue with us before they decided to make it a fait accompli.”

According to Chihade, displaced faculty will be offered relocation at a new Walnut Hill unit as long as they remain employed by the university.

“These faculty members can remain in their new unit as long as they remain a Tufts professor. This is indefinite guaranteed housing — an unusual benefit for higher educational faculty in Boston,” Chihade said.

But Leah Ekbladh isn’t so sure that this “indefinite housing guarantee” that she and her family have benefitted from up to this point is much of a guarantee anymore, especially as Walnut Hill’s residential policies were changed in July 2017, shortly after the apartment plans were announced.

According to a document provided to the Daily by Leah Ekbladh titled “Policy for Residential Rentals with Walnut Hill Properties,” it is now official policy that Tufts may relocate residents to another Walnut Hill property if they need to use their unit, at Tufts’ cost. The only exception to this, according to the document and Ekbladh, is for “faculty impacted by the Village Project,” who will be permitted to remain in their relocated unit as long as they maintain their Tufts affiliation.

Leah Ekbladh added that when she asked, administrators were unable to guarantee that she and her family could remain in her house specifically, though they would be ensured Walnut Hill housing as long as her husband maintained his affiliation with the university.

“So, they can still kick us out, but we would be offered another [Walnut Hill] property–but that could be a 2BR [two bedroom] apartment in Medford, which would mean us downsizing and changing school districts,” she wrote in an email to the Daily.

The Walnut Hill document specifies that tenants whose leases begin after July 1, 2017 will have a three-year tenancy limit. This, according to Leah Ekbladh, is a departure from previous policy, as evidenced by long-time residents of Walnut Hill properties like David Cavitch, a former Tufts English professor who retired in 2001 but remained in his Walnut Hill residence until moving out last year at the age of 89. Ekbladh, whose house neighbors Cavitch’s former residence, said that his home was also on the initial list of properties to be used for the Somerville apartments.

Cavitch did not reply to the Daily’s request for comment in time for publication.

Glaser confirmed this change, and said that housing for new tenants will now be purely transitional.

“Everything from here forward is going to be transitional … and we think policy-wise, that makes sense,” he said.

Leah Ekbladh also said she was told that her lease would no longer be “at-will;” that is, it will no longer be up to the residents alone to decide to renew.

“We are being asked to sign a 1-year lease that is renewable at Tufts’ will. This is also apparently a new policy, but we have not seen it in writing,” Leah Ekbladh wrote. “So, good news is we aren’t kicked out as of now … bad news is that it is still not solid and changes still seem to happen frequently.”

Chihade and other Tufts administrators have maintained that these changes, disruptive as they may be, are completely within the university’s rights, and that being able to use university-owned property to meet student needs like housing is crucial.

Still, the Ekbladhs maintain that even if a displaced resident is promised continued Walnut Hill housing, the impact that kind of move has on a family is being overlooked at the convenience of the university.

“My family having a roof over their heads in a place where I’ve built my life is not something they’re allowed to say is inconvenient for them now,” Leah Ekbladh said. “That’s too bad.”

Community concerns around Somerville apartment plans build on decades of tension

Another concern Leah Ekbladh expressed is for the impact of the apartments project on West Somerville, and the schools, restaurants and general neighborhood character therein.

“A major demographic shift could undermine the West’s strong community,” she wrote in a statement that she read at a public meeting on the apartment plans, according to a document provided to the Daily by Leah Ekbladh. “Replacing a portion of the neighborhood’s tax paying and voting residents with scores of college students will damage not only the structure of this diverse corner, but also leave it uninhabited for the almost 5 months of the year when Tufts is not in session.”

According to the Ekbladhs, the apartment plans were not originally confined to the University Special District. Chihade said that after meeting with the Housing and Community Development Committee of the Board of Aldermen, representatives from the University agreed to restrict the project to Sawyer Avenue, which falls inside the district.

According to Director of Campus Planning Lois Stanley, the Somerville housing project is not yet a definite.

“A feasibility analysis will be completed this summer to help determine what the scope, timing, and costs of the potential project might be. That study will inform future decision making,” she wrote in an email to the Daily.

But despite the desire of some residents, including Beuchert, to halt the project entirely, it is unclear if the Somerville Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) will have the power to do that.

George Proakis, the planning director for the City of Somerville, said that while the Somerville ZBA has to approve variances for the physical renovations that are likely to be done on the properties, it will probably not be able to substantively affect the project.

“What’s in front of the Zoning Board are the physical changes to the building, not the use, because of the state protections they have on Academic uses,” Proakis said, referring to the protections afforded to non profit institutions in Massachusetts by the Dover Amendment. “That’s a little frustrating to us, actually.”

Proakis went on to explain that universities can often play significant roles in relieving housing pressures in their host communities by building more on-campus housing, and said that the proposed wood-frame apartments on Sawyer would do little toward this end.

“We’ve had numerous conversations with Tufts about how they can contribute to addressing the housing shortages in the region and in Somerville. And it hasn’t been about converting wood-frame houses, it’s been more about what they can do to build substantial new housing, preferably on their campus,” Proakis said.

Krinsky said that one of the main reasons THL opposes the Capen and Somerville apartment projects is the fact that instead of creating completely new housing on campus, it requires the displacement of residents who will then re-enter the housing market.

“Strictly speaking, [the apartment projects] add more on-campus beds and helps students secure housing and probably pay less than they’d have to off campus. But it doesn’t help the displacement problem because people that are living in those houses now, they’re being forced out and they have to go into the housing market and now they’re taking up more of that housing stock,” Krinsky said. “I don’t think that the only solutions that currently exist help either the Medford/Somerville populations or the Tufts student body. I think there are solutions that will help both, and we think that building a dorm would help both.”

This is a major concern for community members and city government officials, particularly in Somerville, where rising demand for housing and increasing gentrification have contributed to a worsening housing shortage.

According to the 2017 Greater Boston Housing Report Card, effective rents in Greater Boston have increased 50 percent faster than median renter household income. According to Goldman, this has led to a substantial increase in families that are “housing burdened.”

“We know that from the 2013 American Community Survey [conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau], nearly 40 percent of households in Somerville are rent burdened, meaning that they pay more than 30 percent of income just on rent. And 17.8 percent of all Somerville residents are severely housing cost burdened, meaning they spend half or more of income on rent, which doesn’t leave a lot over for basic needs,” Goldman said.

For Krinsky and Woolley, part of THL’s fight for a new dorm is to include consideration of Somerville’s housing shortage and the damage the shortage causes in the community in the development of the university’s housing plans.

“The larger perspective is what the university responsibility and role is in helping combat things like gentrification and the displacement of local communities, and affordable housing stock in the area,” Krinsky said. “These are all things that the university, as one of the largest entities in Somerville and Medford, clearly has a responsibility to affect positive change.”

Austin said that if the Somerville apartments project is abandoned due to this controversy, though unlikely, it would be a major setback for the university’s current housing initiative.

“I’m not planning on a contingency, because that’s really not my place to do,” he said. “If we see 200 beds that are not going to happen in Somerville, they need to happen. So, we’d need to figure out new plans.”

Students, administrators disagree on need for new high-capacity residence hall

A long-proposed solution to the housing shortage has been building a new dormitory. THL has spent the past semester  collecting student testimonies, and members say that, since the Capen and Somerville apartments projects are unsustainable, they are advocating for a new high-capacity dorm.

“It’s a long-term sustainable solution,” Woolley said. “It’s really the only choice. Especially given the fact that Tufts has room to build.” THL launched a petition on April 9 calling on Tufts to start construction on a new dorm. 

According to Factbook statistics from 2016, Tufts has only one residence hall capable of housing more than 260 students: Harleston Hall, with a capacity of 378. This may change after ResLife’s bed optimization strategy is completed, but what’s clear is that a high-capacity dormitory would greatly change the state of housing at Tufts. 

Schwartz said that a dorm would be the more responsible solution for Tufts, both for the needs of its students and the needs of its host communities.

“[The junior/senior apartment plan] doesn’t get to the issue that there is a shortage in housing, not only amongst Tufts buildings but also in the area as a whole,” he said. “We think that the best thing that the university can do is build a new dorm.”

Beuchert is also an advocate of this proposal, and published an open letter in the Daily in 2015 asking the university to address the housing crisis by reducing enrollment and building a new dorm.

“I think that Tufts wants to keep growing [its student body] with that 1.5 percent annual increase … That doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but over a period of 20 years, those increases compound,” Beuchert said. “And for decades we’ve said ‘build new dormitories, please,’ and they haven’t, and the solution right now that they’re saying is the long-term one is to have these colonies of students in the neighborhood, and there is tremendous neighborhood opposition in both Somerville and Medford to this.”

While Krinsky said that THL doesn’t want to see Tufts accept less applicants, he does believe it’s irresponsible to continue increasing class sizes without providing new, long-term housing solutions like a dormitory.

Chihade said that building a new dorm was ruled out because of its cost.

“Though a new dormitory was a goal of the university, the cost of building one would be quite high, making the development of a dorm currently unrealistic because of budget limitations,” he wrote in an email to the Daily. “A new dorm could be built in the future if funding becomes available.”

Rubel argued that since a dorm is apparently not within Tufts’ current budget, the proposed solutions are better than nothing.

“We cannot afford to build a large dormitory on campus yet,” Rubel said. “That would be several years in the future. Do we do nothing until then?”

However, students have said that their demands for more housing preceded other high-cost projects the university has taken on recently, including the $110 million Science and Engineering Complex (SEC) which opened last August. In addition, a $30 million aquatics center was proposed this April.

According to Chihade, the overall cost of CoHo has yet to be finalized, and the scope of the Somerville project is still up in the air.

Woolley said that these expenditures are indicative of Tufts’ spending priorities, which he believes have not been attentive enough to the housing needs of Tufts students.

“We don’t deny that it would be a significant investment of Tufts’ financial resources to build a dorm; that much is clear, but they’ve spent a ton of money in the past few years to build new STEM facilities, the new power plant [Central Energy Plant] for instance, we’re just trying to get the next 10 years to be focused on building residential capacity because right now that seems to be the most pressing issue,” he said.

When asked about how Tufts prioritizes funding for certain projects, Lois Stanley, who sits on the Capital Planning Committee (CPC), said that funding prioritization is determined through a five-year capital planning process by the CPC, before being reviewed by the President and Provost and then sent to the Board of Trustees for approval.

“This capital planning process, in place since 2012, helps the university address the inevitability of competing needs for limited capital resources,” Stanley wrote in an email to the Daily. “The investment in STEM facilities has been noticeable in recent years due to the SEC project, which was Tufts’ first construction of modern wet labs on the Medford campus since the 1960s.”

Glaser echoed Stanley’s opinions on the importance of the SEC, and said that while students are within their rights to criticize the high price tag associated with the project, he believes it was a necessary expenditure that the university has balanced against the competing needs of the institution.

“If you look at how things have gone, we have added residence halls over time, but in between you’ve added academic buildings, and we’re doing our best to sort of balance all these things out,” Glaser said. “The Science and Engineering Complex is providing really important space to the university … If you went to any high school in the area and went to their laboratories, they were superior to the labs we were teaching out of in Barnum. And engineering, you know, really space constrained. So the SEC was addressing big-time and longstanding needs of the university.”

According to Monaco, the SEC had been planned for years and was a crucial part of the university’s strategic goals.

“The SEC building had been an important element of our long-term capital planning for many years because it was considered critical for us to remain competitive in the sciences. The Great Recession postponed its development, but it remained a top priority,” he wrote in an email to the Daily.

Monaco added that the university has spent $140 million over the past five years on maintenance and improvements to residential facilities, including upcoming renovations to Miller, Houston and Stratton Halls and the planned junior/senior apartment projects.

In addition, Stanley said that projects in athletics, like the proposed aquatics complex, are particularly dependent on donor interest for funding.

But price isn’t the only reason the university is opting for the wood-frame apartment plans over a new high-capacity dorm. According to Glaser, the university believes that the new housing will be more likely to attract juniors and seniors than a dorm like Harleston would, and that building a suite-style dorm like SoGo would be too expensive and provide just as few beds.

“The dorm doesn’t address what we think the problem is. The problem is, we want juniors and seniors to come back on campus,” Glaser said. “I don’t think a quarter-style, Miller Hall-type of residence hall, would attract juniors and seniors back on campus. And I don’t blame them.”

Chihade echoed Glaser’s point, and said that studies conducted by the RSWG backed up the claim.

“Focus groups and surveys showed that most junior and senior students want an apartment experience and more independence than dorms allow,” Chihade wrote in an email to the Daily. “Through creative and innovative programs like the Junior-Senior Apartments, we hope to provide options that appeal to students’ preference for apartment-style housing that avoid … abuses by some landlords.”

According to Khetarpal, there is some validity to this argument, especially since one of the major upsides of a suite-style dorm is that it includes a kitchen, an essential for students who want to shed their expensive meal plans.

However, Khetarpal also expressed skepticism toward the apartment plans, and said that more suite-style housing like SoGo or Latin Way would likely be a better long-term solution.

Glaser said that, while he understands why students might critique Tufts’ unwillingness to pay for a new dorm when expensive projects like the SEC have received a green light, he would ask students to keep in mind the complexities and difficulties of balancing different areas of need within a university like Tufts.  

“The challenge of this for those of us who manage the affairs of the institution is, we’re trying to balance the interests of students, of the neighborhood and the towns, the interests of the university, and we’re trying to balance financial aid and infrastructure needs and faculty research and faculty salaries; all the different demands on university resources,” he said. “We are trying to move forward, we are trying to make progress, and the only way to do that is incrementally.”

Krinsky said that while he understands there are many needs the university has to address with limited funding, his goal with THL is to show that housing should be a priority and receive funding proportional to its importance to the student body, instead of the cheaper “band-aid” solution of the wood-frame apartment projects.

“The administration is obviously held in check by its own factors and limitations, like their donors want to invest in specific things: science resources, new labs, things like that. But we’re just trying to change that equation for them by showing that students really are struggling with this,” he said. “’This should be a priority,’ is what we want them to take away from this.”

Print

Comments are closed

Related News

Copyrıght 2017 THE TUFTS DAILY. All RIGHTS RESERVED.