Luxury housing is a growing trend at many colleges around the world. From fireplaces to hot tubs to spin studios, these apartment complexes seem to really have it all — and they embody wealth and privilege.
This is where Scape, the British firm that recently bought out half a block of prime real estate in Davis Square, comes in. Scape’s primary focus is to build a 15-story student dormitory in Fenway, its first venture in the U.S., but the firm also hopes to achieve something similar in Davis Square.
Scape has over 18,000 beds in operation and development around the world and hopes to achieve that same growth in prominent academic cities, particularly in the U.S. and, specifically, Boston. Under Scape’s model there is no financial or administrative relationship with a given school, and rooms are open to students from any nearby college or university.
It seems strange to imagine that these lavish apartments might be the future for many Boston-area students, but when we consider that the housing crisis at Tufts has shown little sign of improving, there appear to be few other options.
Tufts has put little effort into expanding housing opportunities, instead investing effort in the newly-instituted tiered-housing system. According to the Tufts Student Life website, tiered housing consists of price tiers designed to reflect variations in room configurations and amenities. The university has only added new beds in current dorms through “bed optimization” and in its highest tier and newest option for housing: Community Housing (CoHo).
The creation of the CoHo apartments and the recent renovation of many of the dorms are both responses to the pressing issue of housing on campus, but as of May 2018, Tufts only had space for 63% of its undergraduates. Construction of CoHo displaced faculty and staff members, tiered housing prices perpetuate the “country club” phenomenon — through which students with means are sifted out into higher end accomodations — and bed optimization has forced many students into triples that were previously designated as singles or doubles but have now been converted.
In August 2018, the Tufts Housing League presented a petition with over 1,500 signatures in protest of the implementation of tiered housing. However, Tufts does not see new dorm construction as a financial priority and prefers the profits of tiered housing and advantages of bed optimization. “I’m not opposed to a new dorm, but I thought it was important as a strategy to better our existing dorms — add new rooms as we can and then think about a new dorm room when we financially can support it,” Monaco told the Daily in May.
The university’s response to the housing crisis has been insufficient. Through outrageous price differences and stubborn scarcity in housing, Tufts has paved the way for Scape to step in and profit off of its student population.
According to Jim Costello, senior vice president at Real Capital Analytics, student housing prices have never been higher, and private equity firms, investors and real estate trusts have taken note. Scape is just one of the many businesses seeking to take advantage of this growing market. Luxury student housing has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry as universities face financial constraints and student enrollment continuously increases, and firms are competing to buy buildings to refurbish and then lease out to students who can afford it.
Scape has promoted their private dorms to student customers by extolling the suite-like lifestyle, but unlike Tufts suites, these entail “cinemas, gyms, shared kitchens and other spaces that build warm communities.” This transition away from traditional student housing might suggest a more innovative or modernized approach to campus life, but it epitomizes a system that ultimately divides students and host communities.
Scape should never have had the opportunity to consider expansion to Somerville because Tufts should not have allowed for the housing crisis to reach this point. If a major change isn’t made to how students are housed on and off campus, Scape will have no trouble finding student tenants and further stratifying our student body between those who can and cannot afford such luxuries. Scape’s private dorms are the last thing Tufts needs to heal widening gaps of access and affordability within our community.
These luxury dorms reinforce and recreate economically divided communities. On their website, Scape says they were founded on the principle that “students deserved better.” But is this really what students deserve? Do students deserve to be divided based on whether or not they can afford the private gym or theater? Students shouldn’t have to pay extreme amounts for housing, whether it’s on or off campus. Students shouldn’t find themselves separated from their peers based on their economic resources. In their accommodating our desire for excess, comfort and amenities, these private dorms sacrifice equity and community. Students deserved better and still deserve better: not from Scape, but from Tufts.