“Shortages and insecurity in on-campus housing continue to push students to look for housing elsewhere—in surrounding communities.”
Housing instability within Somerville continues to worsen as universities struggle to accommodate their rising student populations. Meanwhile, rental prices in surrounding communities increase. The growing divide between students and the community puts pressure on city officials, universities, and residents to try and solve the housing issues.
Tufts University, the main source of student residents in Somerville, has tried to put forth solutions to housing scarcity. Tufts guarantees housing to first and second-year students, with only limited capacity for junior, senior, and graduate students.
To combat the housing issue, a process called “bed optimization” is used to describe squeezing the maximum number of students into each dorm room. This process coupled with renovations has added over 450 beds to the campus over the last five years.
In late April, Tufts completed a $250 million bond offering. The proceeds of this bond will be used to fund the construction of a high-density, on-campus residence hall for undergraduate students.
To accommodate the huge influx of students, Tufts converted a sophomore dorm into a freshman dorm for the 2021-2022 academic school year. West Hall, which previously was a sophomore dorm, has become an incoming first-year dorm. Carpenter House, previously a freshman dorm, was converted to house sophomores.
This conversion alone sent students scrambling for last-minute housing solutions. The school is only able to house around 62% of the student population according to Tufts University Fact Book 2020-2021.
The incoming freshman class for 2022 has yet to be determined, but with 31,190 applicants, the number of accepted students may be the highest yet.
Tufts University’s Executive Director of Media Relation, Patrick Collins, spoke to the ongoing search to better help students.
“We continue to look for opportunities to add more beds through these types of projects. The new residence hall will build on these efforts and make it possible for even more students to live on campus,” says Collins.
Despite the blame placed on Tufts, the university works very closely with its host communities. Tufts University pays more than $1 million a year in property taxes and over $1.4 million in PILOT payments each year.
“These direct payments to our host communities support vital city services and programs,” says Collins.
Tufts Community Grants program awards money and financial support to local nonprofits, including the Somerville Homeless Coalition, the Community Action Agency of Somerville, the Welcome Project, Medford Youth Center, Mystic Community Market, and other community groups that work on homelessness, housing insecurity, and food insecurity.
Shortages and insecurity in on-campus housing continue to push students to look for housing elsewhere—in surrounding communities. The current shortage of housing leaves very few options for low-income students at Tufts, who in turn, are being priced out.
Tufts senior, Ella Do, wants Somerville residents to know that students don’t always have a choice. They are forced into living off campus due to university housing issues and price points. Students of lower incomes struggle to find housing in Somerville.
“It is hard for us, as students, to find places that are not adjacent to family homes,” says Do.
Josh McLinden and Lillian Worth are graduate students at Tufts University who collaborated in the writing of the Boston Neighborhood Community Land Trust, a nonprofit organization focused on combating residential displacement and racial injustice in the surrounding neighborhoods of Boston. The BNCLT focuses on building neighborhood stability and housing access among low to middle-income residents.
“I think some of that [PILOT] money could be directed towards affordable housing programs in Somerville and the surrounding cities. I think it’s kind of a shared obligation. The housing situation and the university should be building for their students,” Worth says.
Transient student populations in Somerville often displace low-income renters in the area who are long-term residents. This includes pushing out families who cannot compete with the rent prices of multiple students living together.
McLinden is hopeful for the changing nature of student-resident relationships in communities. Ideally, he believes, there would be more collaboration between students and residents to fix the housing crisis.
“It’s not either individual’s fault, and students are also being exploited by the same system that the residents are suffering from,” McLinden says.
Aaron Weber is a Somerville resident and member of Abundant Housing Massachusetts, a movement that drives legislation and policy for affordable housing. He has seen student-resident tensions create a community that doesn’t accept students.
“The long-term residents wind up demonizing students, because they see the students coming in, and they see the prices going up. And then the students come in, and they see these out-of-control prices, and people get angry,” says Weber. “I think that really can be very counterproductive, dynamic.”
The Somerville Community Land Trust (CLT) works at a local level to address the affordable housing crisis. It allows the community direct control over land in Somerville and how it is used to foster housing stability and security.
Under CLTs, the land is managed as a shared and communal resource. This ensures communal wealth rather than individual wealth-building. This maintains affordability in housing for the community while aiming to build stable housing for low-income residents such as students and families.
While CLTs are not an entire fix, they are a partial solution to the housing market and issue that is often attributed to students and universities.
“There are three core parts of a successful housing policy: stability, security, and supply,” says Weber.
Weber also works with an initiative called “Yes In My Back Yard” that was formed to secure housing, jobs, and opportunities. The program is part of a national organization that trains community members to become housing advocates, driving for better housing policies in their communities.
Jeff Byrnes, co-founder & steering committee member of Somerville YIMBY, believes that their work directly impacts students because they are often low-income residents.
“Our work, and the work of AHMA, seeks to create housing abundance such that students are not forced into co-housing situations with their peers and partners and that they do not have to endure substandard living conditions because landlords aren’t incentivized to compete for tenants,” says Byrnes.
Byrnes is looking directly at universities to embrace housing abundance. Providing homes dedicated to student life, separate from the general housing market, would significantly reduce competition for the limited supply of homes on the market.
“If we create abundance for students to live on their own, that frees up larger homes, 3 plus bedrooms, for people with kids or other dependents, who otherwise cannot compete with the multiple rent-payers of an all-adult co-living household,” says Byrnes.
Ellen Shachter, the Director of Somerville Housing Stability, has many ideas for addressing the housing crisis in Somerville and mitigating the struggle between students and residents in the area.
“Universities should be increasing the financial compensation to cities and towns to create more affordable housing to prevent the displacement of local residents caused by spiraling housing costs,” says Shachter.
This article was produced in partnership with Professor Gino Canella’s grassroots journalism class at Emerson College. It is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this, make a contribution at givetobinj.org.