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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Editorial: Raising the roof: Medford and Somerville's role in the housing crisis

Debate over what to do about housing shortages at Tufts often centers around actions that can be taken by the university. However, the cities of Medford and Somerville can play an important role in helping alleviate problems for their residents and the university.

It is important to note that the “spillover” of students from Tufts into nearby neighborhoods harms both Tufts students and Medford and Somerville residents. Students who cannot find on-campus housing due to low lottery numbers may have to pay large amounts of money that could otherwise have been covered by financial aid if they lived on campus. For the approximately 40-45 percent of Tufts students who are on financial aid, these severe costs can force students into unsustainable financial situations in order to live off campus.

The influx of students also drives up rents in Somerville. In January 2007, the average Somerville home cost $363,000. Now it is $587,000, and prices are forecasted to continue to rise 4.3 percent over the next year. Medford’s housing prices have increased as well, although not as severely. In January 2007, the average home cost $370,000; a home now costs $498,000While there are many factors behind this increase, Tufts' increasing enrollment certainly plays a role.

Landlords are able to raise rent prices knowing that there are Tufts students who can afford them. This pushes out local Medford and Somerville residents. Additionally, landlords are able to provide low-quality housing and still make a profit as students need a place to live.

Neither students nor Medford and Somerville residents benefit from the current situation. Medford and Somerville should not wait to take actions that can help both parties. In May, the City of Somerville instituted a progressive policy of inclusionary zoning, which essentially requires a larger percentage of new housing units built in the city to be affordable. Reforms like this are an important step forward in alleviating the crisis, and should be lauded. However, more can be done. In a 2013 op-ed in The Boston Globe, Lawrence Kady, president of the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Massachusetts, suggests that cities in Massachusetts consider options such as flexible zoning, residential districts promoting starter homes and streamlining the local permitting process.

There are many solutions that the city has yet to implement. For example, Medford and Somerville’s zoning codes prohibit the university from creating buildings that are more than 100 feet high. Although residents of Somerville and Medford have criticized Tufts’ plan under the Residential Strategies Working Group (RSWG) to expand housing in Tufts-owned buildings along their borders with Medford and Somerville, there is very little room on campus to build dorms. Allowing taller buildings is a practical solution that can help alleviate the crunch for space. This may not be well-received by residents concerned with the aesthetic and environment of the community, but the spillover problem is large and harmful enough that it must be addressed, perhaps at the expense of other aspects of life in Medford and Somerville.

Unless there is a change in Somerville and Medford’s zoning codes, the only way for the university to house these students is to expand horizontally, which will continue to exacerbate the problems currently faced by both sides.

Changing zoning codes and increasing the height limit would reduce the number of Tufts students living off-campus and lead to an easing of tensions between the university and its neighbors. Residents are rightly concerned about Somerville's population density, but as long as Tufts enrollment continues to increase and rent increases with it, we must evaluate solutions that haven't been considered as seriously in the past.

While rent increases and other problems can be attributed in part to the university's decision over the years to increase enrollment, that should not stop the governments of Medford and Somerville from continuing to work on common-sense solutions that will help residents and students alike.