Tufts in our Community: Symbiosis or Cancer?

An Open Letter to Tufts University President Anthony Monaco and the Board of Trustees

At its best, Tufts University contributes to its Somerville and Medford host communities by opening events and exhibits to the public, hosting the annual Community Day, permitting use of some facilities to local groups, allowing residents to audit one class a semester at a discounted rate, providing student volunteers for youth projects, broadcasting WMFO non-commercial radio, injecting greater diversity into our neighborhood and paying a well-publicized but relatively meager monetary payment in lieu of taxes.

Tufts has grown significantly over the years, and as is well documented by numerous Tufts Daily articles, created a number of seemingly metastasizing problems. Over the last three decades in particular, the University has expanded into our surrounding neighborhood, buying up residential property and turning homes into tax-exempt academic property. With each Tufts acquisition, its residential neighbors have to make up the difference by paying more in taxes to accommodate the University’s growth and suffer significant other problems too. As then-Tufts President Jean Mayer famously proclaimed in a Tufts Daily article on April 26, 1988, “Although some people don’t like it we will continue to buy surrounding houses and land to expand” as well as expressing his desire to “find ways of housing students without housing them on University land.”

But with its aggressive expansion, the University has exceeded the carrying capacity of both its own facilities and our surrounding neighborhood. A Tufts Daily article “Over-enrollment at Tufts: fact or fiction?” in the Sept. 25, 2014 issue explained that “overcrowding is becoming a real problem in all aspects of campus life, including dining halls.” Then-sophomore Amanda Danielson stated “I have had to sit on the floor at some point during [a quarter] of all my college classes because there weren’t enough seats for all of the enrolled students … It can also be a challenge to find seats in the dining hall at peak hours. On really popular nights, I’ve had to wait in line for over 15 minutes and I’ve had to sit on the stage.”

Housing is an even more critical emergency. Since 1985, Tufts has increased its undergraduate enrollment by about 1,000 students, from 4200 to 5177, while building only two new dormitories (South Hall completed in 1991 and Sophia Gordon Hall in 2006) which offer a mere 493 total beds. No new student housing has been built recently, so the overpopulation problems are worsening, and yet the Tufts administration continues to increase enrollment every year. A Sept. 30, 2015 Tufts Daily article titled “Limited space puts incoming students in overflow housing” summarized the current situation quite well. Without a new dormitory in nine years, all the extra students have been forced to somehow find rooms somewhere off campus. Earlier this year, Tufts brazenly attempted to purchase the 40-unit residential apartment building at 119 College Avenue. Somerville officials and citizens alike were outraged that not only was the University trying to convert a large off-campus residential apartment building to Tufts housing, but had actually applied for taxpayer-funded assistance to do so. In one of the few victories for our community, the University backed down from that purchase in the face of the strong opposition.

While a few families have moved away and had their homes converted to student rentals, it’s clear that the housing emergency has created an opportunity for unscrupulous absentee “investor” landlords to illegally expand their properties to house Tufts students. It’s extremely lucrative! Just ask Tufts alum Vasileios “Bill” Gianoukos (A ’98), one of those prosecuted by Somerville for illegal occupancy violations. Evidence that compelled Bill to admit his guilt in Somerville District Court on March 18, 2015 to Judge Maurice Flynn included leases from his dissatisfied former tenants. Tufts students realize they’re getting ripped off and paying outrageous rents for substandard housing, but they’re forced into dealing with exploitative slumlords by the administration’s decision to admit ever-increasing numbers of students. Current off-campus rentals have risen to about $10,000 per student per year, so a landlord who packs an extra four tenants in reaps $40,000 of additional income annually — more money than the University pays some of the people who work on its campuses…

There are many problems associated with these illegal rooming houses. Safety is one issue: Let’s not forget the tragic death of Tufts junior Wendy Carman, who died in her garage apartment when a fire broke out in 2003. Wendy’s illegally occupied a Medford loft rental had only a single entrance / exit, a direct violation of the building code. Or in 2013, when BU student Binland Lee, who died when she was trapped in her illegal attic bedroom during a fire.

Far more frequently, the illegal occupancies lead to increased sanitation problems and noise disturbances. The ongoing rat infestation that broke out in 2011 spread from the western side of the Tufts campus into the surrounding residential area because the rats found easy access to food primarily through poor garbage disposal practices. Volunteers from the West Somerville Neighborhood Association identified over-occupied student households as the source of much open food waste. Noise disturbances are a significant headache for residents. When an absentee “investor” landlord converts every available room into a bedroom and there’s insufficient common space inside, late night recreational activities move outside onto the back porches and yards, even in cold weather. The biggest neighborhood problems typically come from the same over-occupied slum houses year after year. While neighbors are certainly concerned about student safety, those who pressed Somerville officials to prosecute the recent rooming house cases persisted in their efforts for years because particular properties continued to be loud and filthy nuisances.

The Tufts administration’s pursuit of unrelenting enrollment growth has created this housing emergency. Going back two years, a Nov. 7, 2013 Tufts Daily article titled “Competition pressures students to sign leases for off-campus housing early” began, “This year, the scramble to find off-campus housing started even earlier than in previous years, with many students signing leases for next year starting as early as the beginning of September. Students have noted that the level of panic among students about finding off-campus housing seems even higher than last year at this time.” Not surprising, given that Tufts had increased its first-year enrollment to 1318 without expanding its student housing! The next year, in 2014, the number of first-years was further increased to 1352. Following that, this year’s 2015 incoming class contains 1360 students. There simply is no room on or off campus to house all these extra students. Tufts needs to dramatically cut back enrollment — and absolutely not grow it!

President Monaco, you’re an accomplished biologist. Certainly you realize that when an organism that depends on a host grows uncontrollably, there are, as Gore Vidal pointed out, only three possibilities: the host dies, the dependent organism dies or both die…

Sincerely,

Edward Beuchert


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