I am at Tufts thanks to an overwhelming amount of financial aid. I am not embarrassed to be here on financial aid — at least, not anymore — nor am I embarrassed by the amount I have received. I have in many ways believed that Tufts believed in me, that even after my parents’ house in Vermont was foreclosed during my freshman year, Tufts valued me and its other students who come from lower-income households the same as those that can afford full tuition. But in light of the recent passing of the Ordinance Regulating University Accountability, Tufts’ silence forces me to question their priorities and integrity.
In the March 3 article “Somerville passes ordinance, mandates list of off-campus students,” the Daily reported that the city of Somerville unanimously decided to re-enforce a strict zoning code — which states that “no more than four unrelated adults may share an apartment” — by forcing Tufts to provide off-campus addresses, the number of students at each address and each student’s graduation year to the city. By reducing the number of tenants, Somerville hopes to reduce the number of neighborhood noise complaints. To justify the ordinance further, the city claims the ordinance will prevent overcrowding and fire hazards in light of a similar restrictive ordinance that was passed downtown, affecting Boston University students.
What the ordinance ignores, and what Tufts has thus far remained complicit in, is the disproportionate impact the zoning restriction will have on lower-income students. While masquerading as an ordinance to protect students — capping the number of people in a house, regardless of house size — it only results in higher living costs. Instead of splitting rent five or six ways, the same amount is divided among four people.
But that’s really just the tip of the iceberg.
An apartment’s proximity to campus already excludes certain students from renting, and rent prices continue to rise each year. The ordinance will create a $100-$200 spike in apartments across Somerville, making the neighborhoods that surround Tufts too expensive for lower-income students. These neighborhoods that have a history of housing students will only be affordable for wealthier students and young professionals. Lower-income students will be relegated to neighborhoods further from campus, disturbing and gentrifying previously unaffected communities. Add in the impending Green Line extension, and the phrase “affordable housing near Tufts” sounds like a depressing punchline.
What I predict is a literal and figurative marginalization of lower-income students. Only the financially secure students will be able to live closest to campus, while lower-income students are boxed out and pushed further into Somerville. These students will be less integrated in the campus community and will have to commute further to class. They will probably suffer academically and socially as a result.
I’m frustrated and upset with Somerville, but more angered and confused by Tufts’ inaction. Tufts seems happy to ignore the chaos these housing changes will create for a significant portion of the student body. But more importantly, I think the University is unprepared and hopelessly out of touch with how it will affect them. And we can’t afford that.
By allowing rent to increase without intervention, more students are going to seek on-campus housing. Tufts doesn’t have the capacity to house an extra 100-200 students. We already saw a precursor to this crisis when, as the Daily reported two years ago, “an unusually high number of rising juniors were unable to secure single rooms in on-campus housing” because more seniors beat them to it. ResLife director Yolanda King’s advice was to seek off-campus housing via the website JumpOffCampus, a hilariously incomplete listing of apartments “near” campus. Even worse, King seemed oblivious to the fact that most leases are signed in October, and that juniors were left to scavenge through whatever houses remained unsigned in as late as March.
Tufts, then, has several unpopular options. They could expand university-owned off-campus apartments by buying out Somerville residents. They could triple up dorm rooms. Or they could construct temporary housing on Fletcher Field. Call me crazy, but I don’t think Tufts wants any of these solutions to be enacted.
The unaffordable housing issue is the same complaint Somerville residents have taken up with Tufts; middle- and lower-income residents are getting priced out of their neighborhoods. Tufts has made few, if any, steps towards addressing this issue with the community. But now that students are going to be directly affected, Tufts needs to act. And Tufts needs to act in a way that assures all students have equal access to housing. Whether this takes the form of extra financial aid or subsidizing off-campus living costs is up to Tufts to determine.
After attending the city council meeting this past week and hearing the public forum on the housing ordinance, I see that this issue is not going away. Lower-income students like me, who rely on the fact that off-campus apartments are cheaper than university housing, need Tufts to act. The balance is shifting, and Tufts needs to do more to support lower-income students in affording and acquiring the housing they deserve.
Correction: In a previously published version of this article, the word “gentrifying” was removed from the piece during the editing process. The Tufts Daily would like to apologize to the author for altering his editorial voice, and the word has since been replaced.