Op-Ed: The Housing Shortage: Can We Fix It?

Tufts announced in April that they have given acceptance offerers to 3,140 applicants. While a large percentage of these students will choose to attend other schools, admissions officers estimate that 1,435 new Jumbos will start their first year this September which would make the class of 2022 the largest incoming class in Tufts’ recent history. This is not the first record-breaking class in recent years — since 2006–07, the undergraduate population has grown by over 500 students. However, we have not built a dorm since that same year, when Sophia Gordon Hall (SoGo) was opened.

 As of fall 2017, we have 5,541 undergraduate students enrolled on campus — and only 3,440 beds.

So where do these slightly less than 2,000 or so students go when their lottery number isn’t high enough for that swanky SoGo suite? Into the housing markets of Somerville and Medford, where they’re forced to compete with residents for a limited and increasingly expensive supply of apartments. Opportunistic landlords exploit this high demand, driving rents up for everybody. This dynamic is especially precarious for low-income students, who may be forced into a lease that is too expensive for their means or an apartment whose distance or disrepair keeps its cost affordable. And with the Green Line soon extending to Tufts neighborhoods, rents are sure to skyrocket.

This housing shortage is a unique problem for Tufts. We have a reputation for playing catch-up with Ivy statistics, and our 62 percent of undergraduate students housed on campus is no exception — Harvard, Princeton, Columbia all clock in above 90 percent, Yale and Dartmouth above three-quarters and even our unreciprocated rival, Brown, can fit 76 percent of their Tufts-rejects in their residential halls. We don’t even come close to the other NESCACs. The next-lowest in the league is Bowdoin, with 88 percent on campus. The stats for all other nine are higher.

To their credit, the Tufts administration and the TCU Senate have acknowledged the shortage and have begun to taking steps toward closing the gap. Unfortunately, these steps have been halfhearted at best and at worst actively harmful towards Tufts students and our surrounding communities.

The administration’s plan so far has taken two forms: bed optimization and the village model. “Bed optimization” is the administration’s term for converting single-bed rooms into doubles, and doubles into triples. In another word, overcrowding. On paper, adding beds like this may look like a solution. But in reality, the resulting living situations are uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. As anyone who has lived in a Tufts double will tell you, the rooms are cramped enough as it is.

And then there’s the “village model”: Tufts’ plan to convert existing wood-frame buildings owned by the university into student housing. While the first of these developments is well underway, further implementations of the village model would be unsustainable, unjust and insufficient.

The village buildings being converted currently house faculty and staff, and those folks will be displaced to other off-campus buildings, thus kicking the can down the road and keeping area rents high and housing stock away from local residents. The first village to open, aptly named “CoHo” — a name that evokes white-washed rebranding efforts in gentrifying neighborhoods like Harlem’s would-be “SoHa” — will house only slightly more than 140 students once completed. Why should Tufts pursue a costly plan that displaces its staff, does not address underlying housing shortages and provides beds for a fraction of the students that need them? It seems the administration has not asked itself these questions, as they are considering developing another student village on Sawyer Street in Somerville.

In the face of rising rents, deteriorating living conditions and the displacement of our neighbors, Tufts’ current strategies will only fan the flames. It’s time for us to take a stand for our communities and say enough is enough. If we’re going to prevent this budding housing crisis, the only way to do so is to build a new, accessible and higher-density dorm on campus.

That’s why we’ve come together to form Tufts Housing League — to push for a new dorm and fight for fair living conditions for students, staff, faculty and our neighbors in Somerville and Medford alike.

In the few short months since Tufts Housing League’s founding, we’ve met with local residents and elected officials, testified at a Somerville Board of Aldermen meeting on Tufts’ housing policies and spread awareness of the need for a new dorm. Last month, we helped pass a resolution in the TCU Senate calling on the administration to establish a system to increase transparency of university data, including those related to housing.

In our conversations with members of the greater Medford and Somerville communities, we quickly learned that residents have been calling for a new dorms for years.

And yet, despite the rising outcry from these residents and the student body, the university currently does not see a new dorm as a priority, while buildings like the Science and Engineering Complex having recently been built, and Tufts recently announced that it plans on spending over $30 million to renovate the swimming pool.

Now, it goes without saying that the administration has a lot of financial priorities to balance. We understand that. But, as students who pay ever-increasing tuition to go here, we have legitimate priorities too. It’s up to us to demonstrate to Tufts that a new dorm is one of them. Judging by the frustration we’ve heard in our conversations with students across campus already, that shouldn’t be too hard.

And so, in calling for a new dorm, we ask that the Trustees start spending money on projects that benefit everyone here, not just specific sports teams, not just specific academic departments and not just wealthy donors.

In calling for a new dorm, we join a growing coalition of movements on campus calling on the university to return its focus to the needs of our community: our students who are struggling to keep up with soaring costs of attendance, our dining hall workers who recently unionized to bargain for fairer treatment and our neighbors who simply want the assurance that more students won’t be moving off-campus and competing with them for their own homes.

And in calling for a new dorm, we ask our fellow Jumbos: What kind of a community do we want Tufts to be? One where we contribute to displacement in one of the least affordable metros in the country or one where we work with our neighbors to build an attractive and equitable place to live and enjoy together? One where many of the buildings alienate those of us with physical disabilities, or one where we commit to campus infrastructure that is accessible to all? One where our upperclassmen are scattered across two cities on either side of the Hill, cut off from each other during some of the most memorable years of our lives, or one where we’re able to stay on campus from O-Week to Commencement and strengthen our sense of home, belonging and school spirit along the way?

If you’d like help us start to answer these questions and campaign for a new dorm at Tufts, the first step is to sign our petition, which you can find on our Facebook page. The next step is to message us directly and get involved as we ramp up our research, outreach and action efforts for the fall.

There’s no doubt about it: The housing shortage at Tufts has reached a tipping point. The question is, can we fix it fairly and before it’s too late? To quote a famous builder: yes we can. Let’s get to work.

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