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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, May 25, 2024

How the community houses Tufts, Part 1


Tufts is enrolling more students than ever — Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences James Glaser reported during a faculty meeting on Oct. 24, 2018, that the university will continue to increase the size of each first-year class by about 100 students for another two years.

“One of the keys to financial sustainability is added students. Each class is about 100 students larger," Glaser said at the meeting. "Two years from now, we will be 400 students larger.”

Despite continuously increasing its yearly enrollment, Tufts has not built a new on-campus dorm since the opening of Sophia Gordon Hall (SoGo) in 2006. This has pushed growing numbers of students into off-campus housing — a shift that has deeply impacted residents of the surrounding Medford and Somerville neighborhoods.

“Tufts has … significantly increased their student population without providing corresponding housing for the students,” Edward Beuchert, co-founder and current board member of the West Somerville Neighborhood Association, said. “It’s resulted in student overcrowding, student exploitation and families being forced out.”

Beuchert, a longtime resident of Conwell Avenue, described living alongside landlords who treated Tufts students seeking off-campus housing as vehicles for profit. According to Beuchert, a landlord next door once asked him what could have motivated Beuchert to live in his own property rather than renting it out to students.

“In a way, he kind of laughed at me for buying the house behind his house,” Beuchert said. “He said, ‘Don’t you see what’s going on? Tufts is constantly increasing their enrollment. They’re not adding dormitories. The most lucrative thing around here is student housing.’”

The landlord went on to explain to Beuchert how he planned to advertise a luxury off-campus living experience in order to increase profit from Tufts students in the neighborhood.

“He was going to have the top of the student market, the kids who could kind of afford the best,” Beuchert said. “He had a hot tub outside. And he was boasting to me how … by the increment that he’d added to the monthly rent, he was able to make twice what the hot tub cost him every single year.”

Beuchert expressed incredulity in response to Tufts’ plan to continue increasing student enrollment, which he noted will add 200 new students to the off-campus market in the next two years.

“That number is just shocking,” Beuchert said. “Given four tenants per apartment, and most of them are going to be [units with] double apartments, we're talking 50 double apartments. That’s how much of Conwell Avenue?”

Somerville City Council President Katjana Ballantyne described how she has seen the impacts of Tufts students living off campus in the Somerville area.

“[Tufts has] left less available apartments for the region … [Tufts] is in direct conflict with our strategic plan as a city, in building a vibrant community,” Ballantyne said.

Shomon Shamsuddin, an assistant professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts, stated that increased demand from Tufts students seeking off-campus housing could cause rents to increase in the area.

He explained that units occupied by groups of students provide opportunities for landlords to charge higher monthly rent rates than they would for homes occupied by a single family.

“If [a unit is] a five-bedroom home or apartment occupied by a single-parent family, the rent would be set at some level for the single-parent family before,” Shamsuddin said. “But if two or three students are coming in, they’re pulling together two or three incomes and they can afford to pay a lot more. So the landlords will recognize it and start to raise the rent.”

Shamsuddin concurred that while many Tufts students wish to move off campus, the local housing market has been largely strained by an unmet demand for on-campus housing.

“It seems like it’s a real issue if enough units are not being provided for students to live on campus, potentially pushing students into the market,” Shamsuddin said.

A recent survey conducted by the Daily found that only four out of 72 respondents who applied for on-campus housing for their junior or senior years received it — a success rate of 5.3 percent.

As students move off campus, the university has continued to work to optimize pre-existing spaces on campus rather than building an on-campus dormitory, initiatives that have included turning double-occupancy rooms into triple-occupancy rooms and singles into doubles.

“The university … continues to look at the possibility of building a new dorm, but current budget realities make that unrealistic at the moment,” Rocco DiRico, Tufts' director of community relations, told the Daily in an email.

When asked how the university has worked to accommodate local residents impacted by increases in students moving off campus, DiRico cited initiatives such as bed optimization and the renovation of 14 wood frame houses in the Medford Hillside area as part of the Community Housing (CoHo) housing development.

“The university is committed to an ambitious goal of creating 600 new on-campus beds for our students,” DiRico said. “By the fall of 2019, we will have added more than 420 beds via better utilization of existing residential spaces, major renovation to existing halls and the addition of CoHo Medford.”

In line with the university’s new tiered housing system, students living in CoHo and SoGo will pay $10,219 in the 2019–2020 academic year, according to an Aug. 29, 2018 Daily article. According to Associate Dean of Student Affairs Christopher Rossi, that averages out to $1,135 per month.

Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon stated that she believes a monthly cost of $1,135 reflects what students in the Medford/Somerville area already pay for off-campus housing.

“We feel that the SoGo, CoHo rate is competitive with what people are paying off campus for an apartment,” McMahon said. “I’ve talked to people ... who are going to pay $1000 [per month] next year and then when you add in WiFi, heat, hot water … There’s obviously a huge range.”

The Daily’s survey of 142 students living off campus found that the average student paid $892.95 per month, including all utilities and WiFi expenses. Only four students reported paying $1,000 or more per month for rent alone.

Shortly after the introduction of the tiered housing system, Tufts Housing League (THL) circulated a petition demanding that the Tufts administration discard the plan, calling it an “inequitable pricing system” that will increase economic divides within the student body. Over 1,500 students, alumni and parents have signed the petition.

When asked how the university has accommodated the sentiments of students, faculty and alumni upset with tiered housing, McMahon listed ongoing efforts to discuss the changes with students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds across campus.

“I've had lots of conversations with the Housing League; I've had lots of conversations with individual students. People on my team have talked to different student groups to sort of make sure we're walking carefully through ... what's happening with tiered housing,” McMahon said.

McMahon emphasized that students on financial aid will pay a consistent rate across all housing tiers, which she stated was highly unusual for a tiered housing system.

“We're really thinking about how to make all of our housing tiers available to all of our students,” McMahon said. "Any student on financial aid will not pay one dollar more for their housing, regardless whether they live in Miller in their first year or CoHo in their senior year.”

THL organizer Mauri Trimmer, a lifelong resident of West Medford, said that they see the tiered housing system as a manifestation of a crisis that has been building in urgency for years.

“While tiered housing made the housing crisis at Tufts a reality for students ... housing in the area has been in crisis for a lot longer than it's been in attention," Trimmer, a junior, said. "It's not new that 2,000 students find off-campus housing every single year.”

Trimmer expressed hope that Tufts will take preventive action to prevent housing shortages from further impacting students and community members.

“Tufts Housing League is frustrated that Tufts University has not taken prior steps to remedy the situation when it has clearly been a problem for a long time,” Trimmer said.