Op-Ed: From nightmare neighbor to courteous campus: the fight for a fair PILOT

It’s widely accepted that Tufts students live in something of a bubble — between homework, midterms, clubs, sports, internships or jobs, it’s easy to forget that a whole world exists beyond our idyllic life on the hill. But Tufts is, in fact, part of a larger ecosystem, affecting our Medford and Somerville neighbors and the broader Greater Boston area. To put it nicely, Tufts is not being a good neighbor to our host communities, and the decisions the administration has made continue to produce a justified animosity on the part of neighbors, which extends to the student and alumni body.

In our rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, where rents are steadily rising and longtime residents are being priced out of their homes, Tufts is complicit in the ongoing crisis. The administration has continuously increased undergraduate class sizes; from 2007 to 2017, the student body grew by nearly 500 students while the number of university beds increased by just 18. With 63 percent of students living on campus, including just five percent of junior and senior respondents who applied for housing, according to a survey conducted by the Daily, thousands of students are forced off campus to compete with our neighbors for a limited number of housing units. Currently, the administration is planning on increasing incoming class sizes by 100 students for the next four years with no adequate plan on where to house these students.

Additionally, as a non-profit, Tufts is not legally required to pay municipal or state taxes. Like many universities in Massachusetts, Tufts chooses to participate in voluntary Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreements with the cities of Somerville, Medford and Boston. PILOT payments help these towns make up for the lost taxes and enable them to pay for municipal services such as the fire department, which is called to the Tufts campus an average of 200 times per year. In Boston, Tufts pays 25 percent of what they would owe the city if their properties were not tax-exempt. In Medford and Somerville, however, Tufts paid only four percent of the taxes it would owe to each city in the agreement that ended last June, equivalent to $275,000 annually.

Last year Tufts paid Boston 100 percent of their negotiated PILOT amount, about $1.2 million. Tufts’ compliance with the City of Boston’s recommended payments shows it is possible for PILOT agreements to hold universities accountable to their communities. Medford and Somerville activists and elected officials, enraged by Tufts’ housing policies and feeling short-changed by the meager amount paid in the previous PILOT agreement, have geared up for a fight for a fairer deal in the next PILOT agreement. President Monaco, Mayor Burke of Medford and Mayor Curtatone of Somerville will negotiate this new agreement in the coming months.

Over the past year, Tufts Housing League (THL) has been heavily involved in the PILOT renegotiation process, testifying to the Somerville Board of Aldermen, regularly attending Our Revolution’s PILOT committee meetings and meeting with the mayors of Medford and Somerville. THL, mayors and community members have echoed the same refrain; the administration’s policies hurt not just neighbors, but students too. Students are hurt by the lack of on-campus housing just as our neighbors are, and addressing this issue would be mutually beneficial. It is for this reason that we stand in solidarity with Our Revolution Medford and Somerville, the West Somerville Neighborhood Association and all our Medford and Somerville neighbors and demand a fair PILOT agreement that adequately addresses the housing crisis by committing to building a new high-density on-campus dorm with union labor.

If Tufts intends to fulfill its mission, to truly be the Light on the Hill, it cannot pretend that its choices have no consequences for our surrounding communities. For too long Tufts has been a bad neighbor, complicit in a regional housing crisis and responsible for a lack of community trust. A new PILOT agreement provides an opportunity to change that.