Tufts Housing League (THL), Tufts Director of Community Relations Barbara Rubel and Tufts Director of Real Estate Robert Chihade met with Alderman Mark Niedergang and Alderman Katjana Ballantyne, members of the Committee on Housing and Community Development for Somerville, on Nov. 29 to review Tufts plans to expand student housing into the surrounding neighborhoods.
The meeting constituted a follow-up to a meeting previously held in December 2015 in which Rubel and Chihade originally presented Tufts plans, Rubel said in the meeting. Since this time, Tufts plans for expanding housing have not changed, she said.
This meeting was called by Ballantyne who was concerned that Tufts was beginning to make progress on the project without communicating with the city, she said in the meeting. Ballantyne complained of a lack of transparency from the university in their process during the meeting, saying that she had originally heard about the expansion of student housing into the surrounding communities from a Daily article about the Capen Village project.
“We are constantly reacting to news,” she said.
Rubel assured Ballantyne that no changes had been made thus far in Somerville, though Tufts is moving forward on creating student apartments in Medford.
Tufts' current plans for expanding student housing involve the conversion of wood frame houses already owned by Walnut Hill Properties, a Tufts-owned corporation which manages its real estate, into student housing, Chihade said. The university will not be purchasing any more properties unless an owner comes forward with an offer to sell, Rubel wrote in a June letter to the Aldermen. The current occupants of these properties are either Tufts offices or Tufts faculty, Chihade said.
Chihade recognized that this project would cause the displacement of the Tufts faculty currently living in these properties. The university promises to pay for any moving expenses, as well as a one-time premium payment based on how long the faculty has lived there. The university also presents the opportunity for faculty to move to any other available Walnut Hill property and to stay there for the rest of their affiliation with Tufts, Chihade said.
“[It is] an opportunity which few people have in a lifetime,” Chihade said.
According to Chihade, creating new housing for students has become a priority for the Tufts administration, which hopes to expand housing by 600 beds over the next five years. Chihade mentioned that the project is extremely ambitious as Tufts has not built new housing since 2006 when Sophia Gordon Hall was completed. Prior to that, Tufts had not added new housing options since South Hall, renamed Harleston Hall, in the early '90s, Chihade said.
New student housing is also a priority for the two host cities and Tufts students, junior Nathan Krinsky, president of the Tufts Progressive Alliance (TPA), said. THL, a side-project of the TPA, is taking the initiative on amplifying student voices in this issue.
Krinsky said the lack of on-campus housing causes a host of problems. First, Tufts students frequently must deal with manipulative landlords who are seeking to raise rents on low-quality apartments. Second, Krinsky noted that landlords often sell units to groups larger than the host cities allow, which can be unsafe for the students; Medford allows only three unrelated individuals per unit and Somerville allows only four, according to the Tufts Off-Campus Housing Resources webpage. Finally, students moving into the surrounding areas raise rents for those living in the cities and leads to gentrification, Krinsky said.
Krinsky said it's important to act on these issues now before the problem gets worse.
“When we are talking about displacement, talking about rising rents, it's a problem now, but five to 10 years down the line when the Green Line Extension comes, it is going to be a really big problem,” he said.
However, THL is not supporting the village model being proposed by Tufts, junior Shane Woolley, a member of THL, said. In concern for sustainability and displacement, THL would be more supportive of building a new dorm building.
“The problem that we have with the idea of the village model, [is that] this Capen Village project is only going to add about 145 or 150 beds, but we have a unit shortage of 2,000 beds,” Woolley said. “There are about 5,300 undergrads and about 3,300 beds. This is not a sustainable way to fix that problem."
Woolley mentioned that the village model would displace faculty and stuff currently living in houses that will be converted to dorms, pushing residents to other parts of Somerville.
Woolley said a new dorm could solve these issues of displacement and rising rent, while also helping ease the stress of looking for off-campus housing.
“It’s a real position to be in, especially if you are low income and you are looking for housing off campus," Woolley said. "There is a huge rush at the beginning to get the housing that is close to campus and also cheap... It puts people in situations that aren’t necessarily safe, like having four people in a three-person apartment, which is more common than the Tufts administration and the city would like to acknowledge."
Woolley also mentioned that peer institutions like Brown University guarantee housing all four years.
Ballantyne also expressed strong feelings against the project, for several reasons. She voiced monetary concerns, like the potential loss of tax revenue if Tufts stopped paying income tax on the properties it converted into dorms. Ballantyne also said the Tufts expansion could “decimate the quality of our neighborhoods” by creating “dead zones” during the winter and summer breaks, affecting the quality of life of the neighbors.
Chihade said that Tufts would be willing to sign a contract committing to continued payment of property taxes to alleviate this issue.
The issue of insufficient housing is increasingly urgent since Tufts seems to be consistently increasing class size each year, meaning that more and more students will be needing to move into the surrounding areas, Jim Bryde, a Somerville community member who spoke at the meeting, said.
This would mean that even if Tufts adds around 500 beds by building housing in the surrounding area, it will not constitute a significant net gain of housing or diminish the amount of students who need to seek housing in the surrounding communities, Bryde said.
Woolley and Ballantyne expressed their support for the construction of a dorm within the university zone of the city.
According to Rubel the boundaries of the housing expansion project would be a small area of two square blocks immediately adjacent to campus and to the university zone. The boundaries are Professors Row to the north, Packard Avenue to the east, Whitfield Road to the south and Curtis Street to the west, she said.
Chihade said that with Tufts' current budget for housing, a dorm is not a feasible project.
“There is an issue with Tufts not providing housing for its students,” Chihade said. “We are trying to address the student housing issue. With the same budget to build a dorm there would be far fewer beds. We are trying to be discreet and use existing assets."
Rubel echoed this sentiment.
“We cannot afford to build a large dormitory on campus yet,” she said. “That would be several years in the future. Do we do nothing until then?”
Rubel projected that construction in Somerville would not begin until at least a year from now, at which time the project would need to be approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals in Somerville to convert the houses into student living.