No Vacancies: The Tufts Housing Crisis Continued

Of the 150,000 students completing their higher education in the Boston area, nearly half of them were living in privately-owned, off-campus housing as of Boston’s 2020 Student Housing Report. Tufts hasn’t built a new on-campus residence since the 2006 construction of Sophia Gordon Hall, even though they are in the middle of a plan to increase the student population to 6,600 undergraduates by 2026, in contrast with a 5,483 undergraduate student population in 2018. 

In response to Tufts’ growing student population, administration announced via email on April 8, 2022 they plan to build new modular housing for incoming freshmen and a new dormitory building by 2026. With recent developments such as the Joyce Cummings Center and the Medford/Tufts Green Line extension, Tufts is navigating their campus projects amidst local regulations and an urgent need for high-density housing.

Over-enrollment has been a difficult problem for Tufts and its peer institutions to tackle. “Predicting yield is always a difficult task, and the pandemic has certainly made that more challenging,” said JT Duck, Tufts’ Dean of Undergraduate Admissions. “When coupled with a new test-optional policy, significantly reduced campus visits, and potential changes to applicant decision-making during this period of uncertainty, there are far more unknowns than ever before,” he continued. 

To combat their underestimations in the last couple of years, the admissions office has reduced the number of admitted students for the Class of 2026. Still, 100 first-year students lived in the Hyatt Place hotel in Medford this year, and, according to a recent email from Camille Lizarríbar, Tufts’ Dean of Student Affairs, 150 incoming first-years are now scheduled to live in temporary housing modules located at the site of the current COVID modular housing.

There have been a variety of reactions to this new plan, ranging from outrage to neutrality to acceptance. Jake Pryor, an incoming freshman, explained, “Is it going to be the end of the world if I get a mod? No. Would I prefer to be in regular housing? Yeah for sure.” He continued, “I understand the rationale behind why the school is [housing some first-years in modular housing]… bigger class sizes [and] all the COVID mess when it comes to admitting students.”

Barbara Stein, vice president of operations and member of the Campus Planning Committee, stated, “The temporary housing will be custom-built, suitable for semester-long residence, and is in a fantastic location on campus.” Similarly, Timothy Jordan, associate director for residential education, said, “These buildings will serve as another first-year hub on our campus… We are confident that once students live in these spaces, they will see them as a great place to call home.” 

In contrast to the Hyatt, the location of which was not ideal according to Stein, these units are expected to be a step up, and Patrick Collins, Tufts’ director of public relations, agrees, “Last year, we didn’t have sufficient time to bring in this kind of housing because it couldn’t be built on short notice. As a result, the Hyatt was the best available option at that time.”

However, some students disagree that the modular housing units are a better solution than the Hyatt. Justin Deberry, a freshman who currently lives at the Hyatt, said, “I feel like for freshmen next year trading [the Hyatt] for a mod-style living dorm is just not the right move on Tufts’ part.” Deberry explained, “Being at the Hyatt I was still able to have a dorm-like experience, even though I was off-campus, and plus, the perks that I have being at the Hyatt outweigh my need to be on campus because I could stay on campus… for as long as I need to be and then go home.”

Eden Sekwat, another first-year living at the Hyatt, emphasized the close friendships that she developed with other residents as a result of their unique housing placement. When asked if she would have rather lived on campus, she said, “Honestly, no, I think I’d rather live at the Hyatt. I think my experience was just so specific, and I feel like the friendships I made would have, of course, been close if we lived on campus, but we had this shared experience that created a closer bond.”

Somerville has an ongoing housing crisis of its own. After the addition of the Davis Square station in 1984, nearby housing prices increased significantly and displaced a number of lower-income families that used to live there. As a result, the racial and ethnic diversity that the city has long cherished is being lost. Around Tufts, the extension of the Green Line to College Avenue is expected to increase rents by at least another 30 percent, furthering issues of displacement and gentrification in the Somerville area at the hands of Tufts. In a Tufts Daily article, 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.” 

While Somerville has been attempting to improve their own housing crisis by pushing for affordable housing through campaigns like SomerVision 2040, Tufts’ inability to complete high-density housing projects and reliance on off-campus expansion have resulted in limited capacity for locals and the displacement of families and working-class residents. Tufts has struggled to fund and build new dorms partly because the administration has put off investing in residential projects to instead invest in academic facilities, and this decision aligns with the operations of many universities around the country. For example, Tufts describes the Joyce Cummings Center as, “critical to [their] growing academic programs,” and that, “[it] will also offer the opportunity to create event spaces on a scale that is competitive with peer universities.”

To combat the lack of funds allocated to constructing new housing, Tufts introduced Community Housing (CoHo), a more community-centered approach to off-campus housing in 2017. Justin Hollander, a professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP), shared that CoHo has not panned out as intended. Phase two of the project which intended to transform more local houses into residences for juniors and seniors never came to fruition. Instead, according to Hollander and his colleague, Dr. Laurie Goldman, Tufts plans on moving department offices, including the UEP department, from wood-framed houses on Professors Row to make space for students. Dr. Goldman, though, sees this as yet another temporary solution, “What could [instead] happen in [Professors Row] is higher density housing, which is a lot more units.”

Building new dorms, though, is not so simple. When planning and constructing any building, Tufts must get approval from the municipality in which they wish to build. Each city has their own zoning laws, which require structures to abide by parking, height, and proximity regulations that often preserve the aesthetic and feel of a neighborhood. According to Hollander, while Tufts gets a great deal of leeway with these regulations in practice, neighbors are off-put by substantial violations. Goldman, though, said that these protests, while understandable, make it difficult for non-profits and their local governments to act upon progressive legislation and build high-density, affordable housing. “People are afraid of density, and that’s something that we have to work on,” he continued.

Tufts and Somerville are under similar pressure to offer more housing, and Goldman urges the administration to work with surrounding neighborhood organizers to find an optimal solution. Whether it’s building more on-campus dorms or providing the town with public and accessible shared facilities, they must focus on uplifting the community that hosts them. “We need to have new ways of thinking about what is precious and how we have a wonderful life in the [already] built environment that accommodates the people that we have.”

She also explained that Tufts’ housing crisis is not just a Tufts problem, nor just a Somerville problem, but a federal issue that must be addressed by all levels of government, starting with the mobilization of local bodies.