A shuttle marked with “Hyatt Direct” on its headsign. The construction of modular homes on the Vouté Tennis Courts. Students making do in forced triples and doubles.
Whether you are a prospective student, a senior or a longtime Somerville or Medford resident, one stroll around Tufts’ campus is sufficient to see the pervasive effects of the housing crisis.
Tufts has expanded its undergraduate population for decades, resulting in a slew of problems for students and community members, ranging from a lack of accessibility and encroachment on our host communities to last-minute changes in housing and competitive housing lotteries. Many have criticized the university for failing to follow up its expansion with adequate on-campus accommodations.
Since building Sophia Gordon Hall in 2006 — the last dorm constructed on the Medford/Somerville campus — the university has resorted to alternative solutions to address campus overflow, including sending students to a hotel and building modular housing on campus. Throughout the same period, Tufts has completed other high-budget developments on campus, including the $110 million Science and Engineering Complex and the $90 million Joyce Cummings Center.
This year, Tufts announced plans to finish an apartment-style dorm for about 370 juniors and seniors by the fall of 2026. The design and location of the dorm have yet to be determined. While some were relieved by the announcement, others remain concerned that it is not enough to address the protracted effects of Tufts’ expansion on surrounding communities.
Increased student demand for off-campus housing, which Tufts’ recent increase of about 200 students is likely to compound, could exacerbate already increasing rent prices in the area due to the construction of the Medford/Tufts stop on the Green Line Extension (GLX). Some fear that these developments, along with the upcoming end of the eviction moratorium in Somerville, could displace residents and reduce cultural and socioeconomic diversity in Medford and Somerville.
History of the housing crisis at Tufts
The history of Tufts housing is marked by a constant pattern of unanticipated increases in the student population met with an inadequate supply of on-campus housing.
As early as 1977, undergraduate overenrollment prompted the university to house 170 upperclassmen in the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Cambridge. Even after Tufts added over 400 beds to campus with the construction of Latin Way and Hillsides in 1980 and reduced admissions in 1981, Tufts was only able to guarantee housing for 70% of its students at the time.
This trend continues 30 years later. When more first-years enrolled than expected in 2007, the university planned to house sophomores in the Hyatt Place in Medford Square but canceled after students expressed that they did not want to live far from campus. Instead, the university resorted to housing 148 first-years in forced triples on campus.
In 2015, the university resorted to placing the “unusually large” group of incoming students in overflow housing, or on-campus spaces that the Office of Residential Life and Learning typically sets aside in case people need to be moved during the academic year, including on-campus apartments and special interest houses.
Tufts’ undergraduate student population has grown by more than 2,100 students over the past 45 years, with 4,395 undergraduates enrolled in the 1976–77 academic school year and 6,499 in fall 2021. But over the same period, the university has built five high-capacity housing projects — Latin Way, Hillside, Harleston Hall, Sophia Gordon and CoHo — which added roughly 1,200 beds on campus.
In an effort to address the crisis, Tufts announced, in July 2018, the implementation of a tiered housing system, which stratifies housing into different cost ranges. According to the Tufts Student Services website, tiers are meant to “reflect variations in room configuration, kitchen access, and amenities” and, for the 2022–23 academic year, will range from $9,160 per school year at the lowest tier to $11,388 per school year at the highest. While 73% of Tufts housing was at the lowest tier in 2019, many of the options available for upperclassmen are in the highest tier, such as Community Housing, also known as “CoHo,” or Sophia Gordon Hall, also known as “SoGo.” Those high-tier options are also usually in the highest demand — because the upperclassmen housing lottery only guarantees a certain number of spots, many students are either left to live in lower-tier housing or live in off-campus houses.
Many students were not happy with the change. Tiered housing on campus in tandem with ever-rising rents in the Somerville and Medford housing markets engendered a wave of protests by students and community members. About 200 students, faculty and community members convened in November 2018 to march in protest against the implementation of tiered housing on Tufts’ campus.
Supplemented by workshops, teach-ins, performances and a physical demonstration of the crisis known as “Tier Town,” protestors criticized Tufts’ housing policies and called for the need to build a new, high-capacity residence hall on campus. Protestors expressed concerns that the new program would lead to further expansion into nearby neighborhoods and segregation among students of different socioeconomic statuses. Students also worried that the change would harm low-income students.
Still, upon completing the controversial CoHo project in 2019, which provides apartment-style living for 141 juniors and seniors, Tufts implemented tiered housing in the 2019–20 academic year. CoHo displaced residents that had formerly occupied the houses, provoking protests from faculty and community members against Tufts’ expansion into its host communities.
Tufts Housing League asserted in a 2018 statement that tiered housing would only drive more students off campus in search of more affordable housing, “forcing the housing crisis out of the hands of administrators and into the surrounding community.” THL launched a petition, pressing Tufts to discard the tiered housing program, which garnered over 1,500 signatures.
Students, local residents and elected officials alike have long supported the need for a high-capacity dorm on campus. Edward Beuchert, a longtime resident of nearby Conwell Avenue and co-founder of the West Somerville Neighborhood Association, advocated for the construction of a new dorm in an open letter to the Tufts administration, published by the Daily in 2015. Katjana Ballantyne, Somerville mayor and former Somerville City Council president, has also called for the construction of an on-campus dorm for years.
Despite these concerns, in the fall of 2018, Tufts introduced a multiyear plan to expand enrollment. The effort, as detailed by Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences James Glaser in a faculty meeting on Oct. 24, 2018, would increase the size of each first-year class by about 100 students for another two years, ultimately aiming to increase Tufts’ undergraduate population by 400 students by 2020. The program was instituted in an effort to ensure the financial sustainability of the university.
The school aims to have approximately 6,600 full-time undergraduate students by 2026 — about 100 more full-time students than were enrolled in fall 2021, Patrick Collins, Tufts’ executive director of media relations, told the Daily in March.
Coinciding with these developments is the construction of the Medford branch of the GLX, which is slated to open this summer after many delays. In the years since its announcement, community members and town officials have expressed concerns that the extension would drive up property values and rent prices in Somerville and Medford. According to a 2014 report by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council of Massachusetts, rents near the planned GLX stations could rise by as much as 67%.
The housing crisis at Tufts today
What might have started as unforeseen increases in class sizes and routine development in Somerville and Medford has boiled over into a multidimensional housing crisis on Tufts’ campus, affecting both students and local residents.
The student population at Tufts is larger than ever. Over 6,600 undergraduate students, both part-time and full-time, are enrolled at the university. That number is over 1,000 students larger than the total undergraduate population just four years earlier and over 1,700 students larger than the 2006–07 academic school year, when Sophia Gordon Hall — the most recent dorm on Tufts’ campus — was built.
Tufts’ on-campus bed capacity for undergraduates was 3,465 in 2006, which would allow housing for about 70% of the university’s 4,982 undergraduate students. Today, there are just over 4,000 beds on campus, or enough for 61% of the undergraduate student population.
The Class of 2025 is the largest class in Tufts’ history to enroll at the university, with 1,807 students enrolling in 2021 — almost 200 students larger than the Class of 2024. Patrick Collins attributed this unexpected increase largely to “extraordinary forces related to the pandemic,” such as a spike in applications associated with Tufts’ decision to drop standardized testing requirements and fewer students studying abroad.
Tufts has added more than 450 beds to its campus in the last several years and expects enrollment growth to slow in the coming years. According to Collins, the university has incurred a total cost of about $30 million on three of its main responses to overenrollment: housing first-years at the Hyatt Place, housing first-years in modular units on the Vouté Tennis Courts for the next five years and optimizing on-campus residential capacity.
But the university’s expansion has already had a profound — and for some, an irreversible — impact on Tufts’ community, most notably on student housing.
Bed optimization and overcrowding in dorms
Beginning in 2017, Tufts initiated bed optimization, a multiyear project involving the renovation of existing on-campus housing units to maximize their capacity. The university contracted LDA Architecture and Interiors to perform a code analysis and feasibility study of this plan.
Through bed optimization, many singles have been converted into doubles and many doubles into triples — commonly referred to by students as “forced” doubles and triples. During the summers of 2017 and 2018, Tufts added a total of 162 new beds in eight dorms: Bush Hall, Harleston Hall, Haskell Hall, Hodgdon Hall, Metcalf Hall, Richardson House, West Hall and Wren Hall.
For first-year Sara Dolan, a resident of Hodgdon Hall, living in a forced triple has been a mixed experience.
“It’s ridiculous how small the space is,” Dolan said. “I really do love my triple; it’s just, I wish the space was bigger.” When seeing the size of her room, Dolan said her first thought was, “My parents are not going to be happy with this.”
Although Dolan has not been able to compare her triple to others on campus, she said that it was clear that her space was forced.
“There are people in my hall that have doubles that are like the same size as my room,” she said.
When asked how she thinks Tufts could better accommodate students in her situation, Dolan proposed making revisions to the first-year rooming survey. Because those living in triples have limited space, Dolan urged that it was especially important for those placed in triples to have aligned living preferences.
“All my roommates, … we do not have similar sleeping schedules,” she said. “We’ve made it work, but I know for some people that’s really hard, to have dissimilar living habits.”
The most important thing for Dolan was to allow incoming first-years to have a choice of whether or not to live in a forced unit.
“I know some people that would definitely love to be in a triple. … Maybe [Tufts should] allow people to pick their triples,” Dolan said.
When asked what she would do if given the choice, Dolan said, “I would prefer a forced triple over living on the tennis courts,” referring to the modular homes that will house first-years next year.
She also suggested that those assigned to forced triples should receive better numbers in the housing lottery for the following year, similar to what Tufts did with students assigned to the Hyatt earlier this year.
Dolan emphasized how formative first-year living experiences can be.
“Especially freshman year, having roommates really helps to introduce you to other groups. … [It can] kind of make or break your experience,” she said. “It’s important to have a good first year.”
Conversion of campus spaces to underclassmen housing
As incoming class sizes grew, Tufts converted spaces that formerly housed upperclassmen into exclusively first-year and sophomore dorms. The Office of Residential Life and Learning announced in 2017 that Stratton Hall and Lewis Hall would house only sophomores, barring any juniors and seniors. Though ORLL said that more apartment-style housing would be available for upperclassmen, this change ultimately reduced the number of dorm-style units for seniors, which are far more affordable.
In April of 2021, ORLL changed West Hall, which previously served as sophomore housing, to a first-year dorm. The decision, which was made just hours before rising sophomores were supposed to form housing groups, divided friend groups and forced students to re-enter the lottery system for random selection.
Blakeley Hall, which was previously a graduate student dorm for students in The Fletcher School, was converted into undergraduate housing for the 2021–22 academic year. Matt Gomez is a sophomore who lived in a triple in Blakeley this past year. After Gomez failed to get a single on campus after all spots were taken, he went months without knowing where ORLL would put him for the following academic year.
“For a while, I was homeless,” Gomez said. “I think I got the email that I couldn’t get into a single … in March or April. So for months, I just didn’t know where I was going to live.”
In July, ORLL informed him that he would be living in Blakeley. Aside from the uncertainty he experienced with finding sophomore housing, Gomez said that living in Blakeley has been a positive experience.
“I'm pretty happy with how it turned out,” he said. “I got the benefit of having my own room but also two built-in people to have there as friends. … It’s fine because it’s all sophomores, so we’re all in the same situation.”
Tufts is also converting other spaces on campus to student housing. The university is in the process of adding beds to 114 Professors Row and 123 Packard Avenue — which formerly housed the fraternities Theta Delta Chi and Delta Upsilon — and is preparing to convert more Tufts-owned wood frame homes into apartments for juniors and seniors, according to an email sent by Camille Lizarríbar, the dean of student affairs and chief student affairs officer.
Tufts is converting the buildings for the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning — 97 Talbot Avenue and 72 Professors Row — into student housing.
“My department’s being kicked out of our houses,” Laurie Goldman, a senior lecturer in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, said. “We’re moving to Bromfield-Pearson [Hall].”
Goldman expressed disappointment in the decision.
“I’d feel better about it if they were turning it into high-density residential housing,” she said.
Short-term solutions for first-years
After the size of the Class of 2025 exceeded expectations, Tufts scrambled to find space to accommodate all incoming first-years for the 2021–22 academic year. ORLL announced last fall that it would house approximately 100 first-years in the Hyatt Place in Medford Square, marking the first time Tufts used a hotel for housing since 1977.
Josh Hartman, former senior director of residential life and planning, told the Daily in September that this decision does not indicate any form of housing crisis, despite Tufts’ consistent and long-standing inability to meet the demand for campus housing.
Hartman stated at the time that the Hyatt offers superior housing accommodations, including luxury bedding, free laundry services and complimentary room cleaning. But many first-years have faced challenges living in atypical first-year housing.
Rhys Hitzig-Santamaria, a first-year assigned to the Hyatt, explained that he felt distanced from life on campus while he was at the Hyatt.
“[There is a] disconnect between … where I’m living and where everybody else is living and where everything’s happening,” he said. “It is just a hotel. … There's one common room downstairs for three floors, whereas when I’m in Houston or Miller, there’s common rooms on two sides on each floor. So whenever I get home, I actually feel like I’m getting back to a hotel and that I’m disconnected from everybody else. I never see anybody else. I don’t know what my neighbors look like.”
When Hitzig-Santamaria found out that he would be living in the Hyatt over the summer, he did not anticipate to feel so far away from Tufts.
“They really made it seem like the Hyatt was pretty much on campus in their emails,” he said.
Hitzig-Santamaria said that even though there have been attempts to build community at the Hyatt, it can be difficult to balance events on and off campus. “You’re doubling your commitment to build this community at the Hyatt,” he said.
In order to stay near friends and avoid traveling back and forth on the shuttle between classes, Hitzig-Santamaria said that he stays on campus all day.
“I pack my bag — it’s always very heavy — and I come to campus usually around 9:30 or 10 a.m.,” he said. “And depending on the day, I come back sometime between 1–3 a.m.”
Without a strong sense of community at the Hyatt, Hitzig-Santamaria forged a de facto community in Houston Hall.
“I’ve basically made a home in the second floor common room of Houston Hall, and most people [who] actually live in Houston think I live at Houston,” Hitzig-Santamaria said. “One of the big annoyances is that when everybody else is saying ‘Oh, you know, I’m tired, I’m going to bed,’ I’m like, ‘Alright, hold on, let me call a Lyft,’ or, ‘Let me go find the shuttle schedule.’”
Hitzig-Santamaria said that though the sometimes unreliable shuttle schedule is compensated by the Lyft vouchers given to students living in the Hyatt, university strategy seems like a very “cobbled together strategy to patch every mistake and error.”
When local resident Edward Beuchert got notice of Tufts’ plan to house students in the Hyatt, he was disconcerted.
“When I first saw the story about people living at the Hyatt, I just thought, ‘Oh, wow, they really did screw up,” he said, referring to the university.
Although students will not be living in the Hyatt again next year, Tufts announced in an email on April 8 that, because this year’s incoming class was larger than expected, they will instead be housing 150 first-years in temporary modular housing. The buildings will be located at 91, 93 and 95 Professors Row — on the university’s Vouté Tennis Courts, the site of the current mods.
The ‘luxury Mods,’ as some have called them, will include upgrades from the current modular housing units, which consist of small single rooms with a desk, bathrooms and a pantry. Each renovated building, in contrast, will include a kitchen, a common area, a study space, numerous bathrooms and a laundry room.
When incoming first-year Trevor Wallace applied to Tufts this year, he was unaware of the possibility that he could live in modular housing.
“I had no idea about [the first-year modular housing] until they mentioned it at the tour [on a ‘Bo Day in April],” Wallace said. “Part of me is kind of like, I wish they had said something when I was applying. But on the other hand, I feel like they probably didn’t really know.”
As a high school senior and college applicant himself, Wallace acknowledged that universities across the country have had to adapt to the “crazy” changes in the college admissions process.
“I understand that it’s the way it has to be in order for these schools to have this many kids attend there and have this many kids get this education,” he said.
At the same time, Wallace said that living in modular housing would not be his first choice.
“I mean, it kind of sucks,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to live in temporary housing if I had the choice between living in a normal dorm and living on the tennis court.”
Wallace still managed to make light of the situation. “There’s going to be 150 kids living in there — I feel like it’ll be kind of like a camaraderie, and then it’ll be a good conversation starter.”
Competitive housing lotteries
More than 500 juniors and seniors were given lottery numbers this year, according to Angy Sosa, associate director for residential operations. Because ORLL has not yet finished assigning housing for juniors and seniors this year, it is unclear what portion of applicants will receive on-campus housing. ORLL anticipates, however, that they will be able to accommodate some of the students on the waitlist.
Sosa said that a large number of students who receive lottery numbers end up not opting in to the on-campus housing process, possibly because of the time that placements become available. While details for on-campus housing often do not get released until March or April — or even later on in the summer, for some — the swarm of students toward the off-campus housing market can begin as early as July or August of the year prior to moving in.
“Let’s say 10 years ago, when it came time to rent the apartments I used to get calls right after the winter break. So late January, early February, I would get sophomores calling me up saying, ‘Hey, I need a place for September,’” John Kourafalos, a landlord of two off-campus student houses, said. “Now I’m getting them in September.”
Sosa said that in past years, the university has been able to offer housing options to many, if not all, of the students on the housing waitlist, and that patience, along with on-time applications, resulted in the best outcomes for those students.
Nevertheless, many upperclassmen continue to experience uncertainty regarding whether or not they can secure a spot on campus.
When Gomez tried to apply to live on campus for his upcoming junior year, he was denied a lottery number and was placed in the 90th spot on the waitlist for on-campus housing. Gomez was hesitant to sign a lease off campus before hearing back from ORLL about on-campus housing options. He said that it would have been easier to make a decision between living on or off campus if Tufts had given him a concrete answer sooner.
Rising sophomores also faced uncertainty about their future housing assignments in April, when they selected housing for next year. When students with lower lottery numbers tried to select housing, the housing website showed no beds available, leaving applicants confused and with no indication of when their housing would become available.
As Beuchert and others have previously argued, increasing class sizes has adverse effects on other parts of campus life — from longer lines in dining halls and crowded study spaces to safety concerns and difficulty getting into required classes.
“It seems like the resources that are necessary, … we’re really pushing close to running out of them,” Beuchert said.
While Tufts denies the existence of a housing crisis of any kind, and claims that the problems facing Tufts are due to “unexpected” factors, students and activists have long worried about the exact situation that is emerging. Nathan Krinsky, a co-founder of Tufts Housing League who spearheaded major protests in 2018 and is now an engineer working in New York, is one activist who is not surprised.
“The problems that Tufts is running into now are in no ways unavoidable or unpredictable,” Krinsky wrote in a message to the Daily. “It’s exactly what we and our off-campus coalition partners were saying would happen years ago.”
Constructing a new Tufts dorm
After years of demands from students and community members to build a high-capacity dorm on Tufts’ campus, Tufts announced on April 29, 2021 that it would apply $250 million in bonds toward funding an on-campus, high-capacity dorm for undergraduates.
About a year later, Dean Lizarríbar wrote in an email to the Tufts community that the university is “actively planning a new residence hall with apartments and suites for 370 junior and seniors by fall 2026,” 20 years after the opening of the last dorm built, Sophia Gordon Hall.
According to Barbara Stein, vice president for operations in the Office of the Trustees, the university conducted a programming study last summer to help determine the residential hall’s optimal location, the ideal number of residents and the style of units, amenities and other requirements.
The study resulted in the creation of a space program, which allows an estimated 350–400 students in apartment-style housing. The dorm, which would exclusively house juniors and seniors, will feature a combination of four-to-six-bedroom apartments with single bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms and a few larger suites.
During its next phase, the university will complete a design for the building, incorporating feedback from stakeholders such as the student advisory council, a group of resident assistants, and local community members.
Rocco DiRico, executive director of government and community relations at Tufts, said that the university will be soliciting input from its neighbors, elected officials and city department heads regarding the construction of a new dorm.
“Before we submit any plans for a new residence hall, we’ll share our plans with the community at a public meeting,” DiRico wrote in an email to the Daily. “After we submit our plans to the city, we will follow the city’s thorough procedures for meetings, hearings and public feedback.”
The university has not hired a builder for the project yet.
Tufts will also be investing in dining infrastructure and other capital projects to position the university for the future, according to Stein.
Community members were relieved after hearing the announcement but not entirely satisfied.
“That’s what they gotta do, because students are here and they gotta live someplace,” Beuchert said. “That’s really my reaction to the building of this new dorm. It’s not joy, … it’s not solving a problem, it’s just beginning to solve a problem that should have been solved more in the past.”
“This would have been great 10 years ago,” Kit Collins, a Tufts alumna and Medford city councilor, said. “I applaud Tufts for taking on this new development. At the same time, it’s scratching the surface. … If Tufts wants to be a leader, Tufts should take full responsibility for housing its students, full stop.”
Goldman shared Beuchert’s and Kit Collins’ reactions. “That’s great,” she said in regard to the announcement, “but we need more of that.”
Goldman also noted that the construction of a new on-campus residential hall does not necessarily resolve the existing financial accessibility problems with on-campus housing.
“I hope that [accessibility of the new dorm] is considered in how the university is subsidizing them,” she said. “There are equity issues within. … The price tag of a Tufts tuition is very high in and of itself, and then you add that to the cost of living.”
Protracted effects on Tufts and its host communities: Rising rents, cultural displacement
Tufts has fulfilled some community demands with its decision to build a new dorm, but concerns about the impact of Tufts’ expansion on the surrounding Medford and Somerville communities persist.
Increased student demand off campus could raise rents in surrounding communities, displace residents
The Class of 2025, which is over 250 students larger than the Class of 2022, will move off campus before the new upperclassmen dorm is slated to be completed — likely driving more juniors and seniors to seek off-campus housing than ever before.
This potential pressure on the off-campus housing market would coincide with an already burdened one in Somerville and Medford.
“There is a housing scarcity crisis, and there is a housing cost crisis,” Kit Collins said. “And that has a domino effect of many other macro and micro crises that can affect … the people who want to join and stay in our community.”
Even before the pandemic, it was clear that the Metro Mayors Coalition, a group of cities and towns in the urban core of metro Boston, was well behind its goal of creating 185,000 new housing units — especially near transit — between 2016 and 2030.
Problems facing low-income households have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The situation was bleak, even before the pandemic, and it’s certainly only gotten worse,” Shomon Shamsuddin, an associate professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, said. “I think it’s going to be even more difficult for low-income households to be able to make it in these towns.”
Somerville town officials attempted to alleviate economic pressure on residents by implementing a residential eviction moratorium, which prohibits the removal of tenants for not paying rent. Even though the moratorium was recently extended to June 30, 2022, many residents continue to fear eviction and foreclosure.
“In a lot of places, landlords were able to remove tenants by bypassing the traditional means of the eviction moratorium,” Shamsuddin said. “Sometimes tenants aren’t aware of their rights. Sometimes they miss out on being able to file the appropriate paperwork.”
According to Shamsuddin, increased student demand for off-campus housing without a corresponding increase in the number of housing units off campus will likely result in increased rents in the area.
“Those rents will go up for everybody, not just students but also for people living in the community,” Shamsuddin said.
Increases in rent prices are especially seen when there is increased student demand around a college campus, as landlords tend to charge higher monthly rent rates to units occupied by groups of students than to a single family. This has ripple effects on rents in the community, according to David Gibbs, the executive director of the Community Action Agency of Somerville, which is the federally designated anti-poverty agency that helps local families and individuals achieve financial security in the Somerville area.
“When you’ve got a population of people who can afford market rents that are much higher than what most residents of the city can afford, that tends to drive prices up, as landlords respond to that,” he said.
Kourafalos, a landlord of two off-campus houses on Winthrop Avenue and College Avenue, explained that while increasing class sizes benefit his business, he is not looking to take advantage of his tenants.
“I’m not looking to gouge people,” he said. “I have bills to pay, I gotta pay them. And I don’t like to be gouged either.”
Kourafalos explained that while rent prices might increase as a result of rising demand, his income would not be increasing as much, as his own expenses — such as property taxes — would be increasing.
“There’s things outside of us. For instance, the interest rates are going up already. So if the interest rates go up, the price of houses has to go down.”
Kourafalos agreed that when rent prices go up, it affects residents more than it affects landlords, because landlords may be paying more in property taxes.
Residents of Medford and Somerville have already witnessed the effects of increased student demand for off-campus housing.
“People specifically in — just to name a few — South Medford, Hillside community, were really noticing the impact of college students competing with other types of residents for the scarce housing that we have in those neighborhoods and others,” Kit Collins said.
Kit Collins made it clear that residents’ concerns about competition were unrelated to their opinions on Tufts students in general.
“It is not an issue of ,‘We don’t want to live alongside students.’ It’s not an issue of, ‘We don’t want these people in our community,’” she said. “You have a major institution that is bringing more residents to an area and not taking … full responsibility for what that’s going to do to a very, very scarce resource [of] housing.”
Because of the nested nature of the university in the surrounding community, housing prices on campus react to and reflect off-campus rent prices. According to Patrick Collins, the price of on-campus housing options, which include utilities and amenities such as water, electricity, cable and support, are set to be competitive with the off-campus housing market.
“Tufts student surveys have indicated that the total cost of living off campus is on average similar to the cost of living on campus,” Patrick Collins wrote in an email. “As a result, financial aid awards are the same whether a student lives on or off campus.”
Patrick Collins said that while the university cannot offer additional grant aid to students who have higher off-campus living costs, they are able to provide assistance in securing student loan funds to meet these additional costs as needed on a case-by-case basis.
Green Line Extension adds to community fears of displacement
Rents in the areas surrounding Tufts could further increase in response to the construction of the Medford/Tufts station on the GLX, potentially posing more barriers to accessing affordable housing in the area.
“Real estate prices are just allowed to skyrocket around new public transit stations,” Gibbs said. “As a community, we have not figured out how to really capture the added value of public transportation and transmit that added value to the people most in need of it.”
“I would wager to say there’s probably not a renter in the greater MBT community areas of Medford … who doesn’t feel trepidation for what their rent increases are going to be like next year,” Kit Collins said. “We already saw a huge leap from this time in 2021 to this time this year — a double digit increase in rents — and our Green Line [Medford stop] isn’t even open yet.”
As a renter in South Medford since 2017 and a resident in the area since she first enrolled at Tufts in 2011, Kit Collins fears that even her and her housemates will eventually be displaced.
“It’s been something that my housemates and I have — I hesitate to say joked about because it’s really extremely dire … now that [the Green Line] is finally here. We’re like, ‘Well, … I guess we’ll just stick around until we get priced out,’” she said.
Leading up to the completion of the GLX Union Square station, located five stops away from the new Medford/Tufts stop, residents in the neighborhoods surrounding the station shared similar worries that the development would displace residents. Goldman, who was involved in the campaign to protect low-income residents in Union Square, said that a movement for “development without displacement” emerged.
After nearly eight years of Union United’s advocacy, the Union Square Neighborhood Council and developers reached a community benefits agreement, which captures some of the profit reaped by the developer and redistributes it to the community in the form of affordable housing and other benefits. Some of the benefits include an increase to the housing linkage fee as well as both job creation and training secured by the Job Creation and Retention Trust Fund.
Even with all of the tools put in place to secure affordable housing in Somerville, people are still being displaced. Displacement, according to Goldman, does not only look like people who want to stay being forced to leave. It can also look like people who are unable to move to Somerville because housing has become too expensive.
“[These potential residents] can’t be with their families,” Goldman said. “They can’t take advantage of the kind of diverse community that we have always had in Somerville, as a working class community of immigrants.”
More than 50 languages are spoken in Somerville schools, and over a quarter of the population was born outside of the country; Somerville and Medford are socioeconomically diverse. Cultural displacement — a potential result of rising rents — in addition to displacement of lower-income residents, could threaten the diversity of Somerville, according to Goldman. Kit Collins also shared this concern for the demographic composition of Medford.
“When you have a community that is diverse, that is socioeconomically diverse, that is diverse in terms of national origin, that is racially diverse — that is really a treasure,” she said. “When you make a community very financially inaccessible, through things that you do, or things that you fail to do, you’re saying, ‘I don't care about maintaining this diversity.’”
Goldman said there was a lot to be learned from the case study of community organizing in Union Square. When asked if a similar agreement could come to fruition in Medford, Goldman was doubtful.
“I think it’s harder [to reach a community benefits agreement] in Medford for a few reasons,” she said. “One is that Medford doesn’t have the organizational capacity that Somerville has had.”
Due to budget-conserving mechanisms that turn stations along the GLX into stops, Goldman explained that there would not be as much commercial development surrounding the Medford/Tufts stop, making the payoff for community activists smaller.
“It doesn’t mean it’s impossible. In fact, there have been several small, much smaller-scale agreements signed between more modest developments in Union Square or the abutting areas to Union Square with the neighborhood council,” she said. “But it won’t solve all of our problems.”
What can town officials and the university do to protect the interests of residents?
Community members pointed to Tufts and Somerville officials to prevent the further escalation of this crisis and protect vulnerable residents in the area.
Gibbs noted that while transient populations like university students tend to have less incentive to get involved in their surrounding communities, university institutions themselves have a responsibility to find sustainable solutions.
“[Students] don’t see themselves as long-term residents. In my mind, that creates more of a responsibility on the part of the university to provide housing for their student population,” he said.
Goldman also emphasized the responsibility that Tufts could use its power and influence to play a larger role in responding to the needs of surrounding communities.
“Universities are key anchor institutions and have responsibility for leading the way,” she said.
A major theme of the solutions that students, residents, organizers and officials proposed was a demand for a longer-term, sustainable plan to guarantee housing for most, if not all, students.
“It’s Tufts’ responsibility to house a significant portion of their student population. … We know that there is definitely demand for students to be living on campus,” Beuchert said.
Beuchert suggested that while there should be a lottery for choice of housing, every student who wants to live on campus should be able to.
“We’re going in completely, utterly, the wrong direction on that,” Beuchert said.
Goldman also affirmed Tufts’ responsibility for housing more students on campus, arguing that the construction of more on-campus housing, if well designed, could be very beneficial to the Tufts community and to its relationship with the broader Medford and Somerville communities.
Due to Tufts’ location in the community, Goldman and others emphasized that these responsibilities extend beyond campus borders as well.
“Tufts needs to be as vocal as [organizers] are about the desirability of truly affordable housing right next to Tufts,” Gibbs said.
One way that Tufts could do this, Gibbs argued, is to support policies like rent stabilization, rent control and a statewide transfer fee proposed by organizers and town officials.
“Tufts, as an academic institution, is well positioned and has the resources to do the kind of research that would back up some of these ideas and add weight to the arguments that the policymakers and the activists are putting forward,” Gibbs said.
Shamsuddin also backed university collaboration with local government officials, citing mutual benefits.
“Even things around planning, around growth, there’s ways for the university and the city council and the mayor to really coordinate on some of this stuff, because ultimately, it’s going to be an interest of both sides to be able to make this work,” he said.
A field project in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning titled “Priced Out: The Future of Graduate and Faculty Housing at Tufts” offers several recommendations to Tufts on how to maintain affordable rents for graduate students in the area, including leasing units in an existing apartment building and establishing a partnership with a private student housing developer.
“A private partnership could produce cost-competitive apartments for graduate students at no cost to the University through a long-term ground lease to a developer, who would build and operate the housing,” the report explains.
Others identified payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) as another avenue for Tufts to maximize its community impact. Goldman argued that the university could pay more in PILOT than it currently does, and Kit Collins agreed that these payments are not enough. As of 2021, the university paid $1.415 million in PILOT to its host communities, meeting 87% of the payments requested by the Boston PILOT program.
“I think that’s not enough. I think that that’s another area where Tufts should say, ‘We're a global leader. Let’s start right here in the community,’” Kit Collins said. “I’d like to see that equitable, equal amount of tax paid to the community, commensurate to what everybody else pays back into the community. … Step one is Tufts needs to pay its fair share.”
Kit Collins explained that more investments into the community could be earmarked for affordable housing projects, climate change real estate projects and a municipal affordable housing trust.
Proposed legislation has advanced such demands; bill H.3080, filed by State Representative Erika Uyterhoeven last year, would require Tufts and other nonprofit institutions with property valued over $15 million to pay 25% of the taxes that would be required of them if they were not tax exempt. The Massachusetts Senate concurred with the bill in March.
Gibbs and Goldman underscored the importance of addressing the problem upstream by directing efforts toward the job market. For Gibbs, an even bigger issue than housing inaccessibility is wage inequality.
“Is it reasonable and right that senior Tufts administrators make $400,000 or $500,000 a year when somebody who’s working long hours in the kitchen is making $25,000 or $30,000 a year?” Gibbs said. “Tufts needs to get on board with paying people better wages at all levels of the university.”
Gibbs explained that if wages do not rise in tandem with area rent prices, the staff members that Tufts relies on — janitorial, kitchen staff and landscaping staff — will need to relocate to and commute from areas much farther from Tufts, such as Lawrence and Lowell — a trend that is unsustainable.
Goldman echoed Gibbs’ call for a workforce development infrastructure on and off Tufts’ campus.
“We could be doing so much more to make sure that more residents who live in places like Somerville and Medford have the kinds of training and related supports to find employment that pays a living wage,” she said.
Community organizing is another essential method of inciting change on a grassroots level, residents said. Goldman said that we need to build the organizing capacity of community organizations, such as the Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville network, in order to enact progressive, institutional change.
Kit Collins also said that Tufts students could also play a role by getting involved with organizations like MAMAS and Our Revolution Medford.
Ultimately, Goldman believes that the Tufts community should assume a collective responsibility to preserve university-community relations.
“We have some responsibility to be movers in how we shape the built environment and the way we live in it, beyond the footprints of our campuses and beyond the individuals who are the students and the faculty and the staff,” she said. “We’re part of the fabric of all of this and an important and influential part. And that comes with responsibilities. The responsibilities [to be] creative.”