University backs down on request to purchase Somerville property

Tufts has suspended its efforts to purchase an apartment building located at 119 College Ave after learning that the City of Somerville would oppose the university’s proposal due to its direct conflict with the city’s comprehensive plan, according to Ward 7 Alderman Katjana Ballantyne.

The university had intended to use the property to house different members of the Tufts community, Ballantyne said. She explained that the proposal ran counter to her previous understanding of Tufts’ intentions with regard to purchasing residential property in the city.

“The … thing [that] is … disappointing is that I have been told personally, maybe four times, that Tufts University is not interested in buying residential property,” she said. “So this was a surprise to me to say the least.”

On Jan. 6, the Somerville City Clerk’s Office received an unexpected letter from the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency indicating that it was considering approval of a revenue bond to fund Tufts’ proposed purchase, Ballantyne explained. She noted that the letter, which was intended to inform members of city council of the potential acquisition, also sought feedback from the aldermen on whether the project would interfere with any current or future plans of the city government.

Ballantyne, who serves as alderman for the ward in which the apartment building stands, explained that Tufts’ acquisition of the property would not align with the goals that were set forth in Somerville’s comprehensive plan for the city’s future, SomerVision.

“There was this feeling that the city needed more housing, more commercial pack space, a certain amount of green space and we are trying to make it walkable,” Ballantyne said. “In terms of housing, the central plan says that we are looking for 6,000 new housing units … 1,200 [of which] would be permanently affordable housing units.”

Tufts’ decision to expand housing in the city has highlighted and reinforced areas in which Tufts maintains less-than-ideal relations with Somerville, according to Ballantyne.

“[Tufts] has not shared its long-term plan, like Cambridge and Boston require of their colleges and universities keeping on file their institutional master plans,” she explained. “In March of last year, I asked from the city to request that an institutional master plan be kept on file [because] it helps the neighborhood and the town to understand what the future planning needs are of the institutions because then we understand what the impact is to our neighborhoods.”

At press time, neither the Office of Residential Life and Learning nor the Office of Community Relations had responded to the Daily inquiries regarding this matter.

Edward Beuchert, a Somerville resident and a member of the Board of Directors of the West Somerville Neighborhood Association, cited increased enrollment at Tufts over the past several decades as a primary cause for housing-related tension between the school and surrounding neighborhoods.

“Essentially, Tufts was asking for taxpayer-funded assistance to purchase a home where members of the community were living and turn it into housing for the university,” he said. “The fundamental problem is in the last 25 years, Tufts has increased [its] undergraduate enrollment by more than 1,000 students and there hasn’t been any corresponding increase in on-campus dormitories. Sophia Gordon Hall is a great building finished in 2006 … we need about six more of those.”

Beuchert underscored that the high demand for off-campus housing given the lack of guaranteed housing for upperclassmen also promotes shady practices by landlords leasing homes.

“Criminal landlords have expanded the properties they have rented out … because they can get lots of money that way,” he said. “It causes a lot of problems in the neighborhoods.”

Current housing policies can serve as a source of anxiety for upperclassmen, who are not guaranteed housing on campus. Vanessa Torrice, a sophomore whose house hunt began in September, explained that the concept of increasing the number of living spaces on the school’s grounds is attractive.

“One of the main stressors for me personally was knowing that I had a low lottery number for junior year — one that Tufts designated as ‘unlikely’ to get housing [on-campus],” she said.

Torrice also cited additional hurdles she has experienced in her efforts to secure housing, including the Somerville law that prohibits more than four unrelated residents from living in the same home, which in turn hikes up the price for students seeking off-campus housing. She added that Tufts could do much more to alleviate the strain placed on students by the housing grind.

“There were a few informational meetings about housing off campus, but all it basically told us was that it was our responsibility, with a few tips on how to go about it,” Torrice said. “Very unhelpful … Ideally, it would be best to have more on-campus housing to at least give students more of a choice about whether they want to live off-campus or not, to relieve some of the stress and pressure.”

Ballantyne said that she is feeling increased friction between the city and the school, but she hopes to restore a sense of community and collaboration between the two entities in order to allow them to work together as one.

“The neighbors that live around Tufts University are not opposed to students,” she said. “That is not the issue. They just want to understand what is happening, because slowly over time, housing has been taken away from families that could live here. If there was a plan everyone could talk about, people could get used to certain ideas. We just have a lot of work to do.”