The Other Side of the Street: Local Community Members and the Tufts Housing Crisis

How often are narratives from non-student community members of Somerville and Medford centered in our discussions of displacement and housing justice? For the few thousand Tufts students who live off-campus, there are another few thousand community members being actively pushed out of their homes and neighborhoods. Tufts students are not necessarily responsible for the scope of this issue, but rather are a manifestation of the larger Tufts housing crisis that is exerting its pressures on renters and families of all backgrounds in the Somerville and Medford areas. Tufts Housing League (THL) was created by students, for students and local residents, to meet a need for organizing and mobilization towards a problem Tufts hasn’t adequately addressed. We want to take this opportunity, as a student member of THL and a Medford community member of THL, to highlight Tufts University’s housing policies and how they affect residents of Somerville and Medford.

The structural components of Tufts’s housing policies that affect community members most broadly are both the lack of beds available in Tufts housing and the scarcity of different types of housing available on campus. Tufts does not have enough housing to accommodate its steadily growing student body––especially apartment-style suites for upperclassmen, forcing many juniors and seniors out into the local community. Anne Hall, a senior living in Sophia Gordon Hall, says “I’m very lucky to have secured on-campus housing my four years at Tufts. I like living on campus, as I’m spatially close to buildings I visit frequently and can easily stop by my suite during the day for meals, change of clothes [and] time to rest. I prefer living on campus than off campus for these reasons and also to not deal with the various responsibilities that come from renting a house.” Hall’s story is one of few; only 5.3 percent of polled juniors and seniors who applied to live on-campus were awarded housing.

It can be easy to fixate on how a lack of rooms and homes on-campus affects us personally as students, but it is critical that we remember the other side of this narrative. For each individual living in an off-campus house, rent averages between $800 to $900 per month, according to a report in the Tufts Daily. Considering the fact that approximately 60 percent of Tufts students are not on financial aid, and that many come from privileged socioeconomic backgrounds, the decisions by these individuals to rent local homes puts an increased strain on the housing market. Students are already a transient population that is easy for absentee landlords to abuse and extract profit from. And, since the average Tufts student can afford to pay the exorbitant rent cost, Somerville and Medford residents are continually displaced.

Consider for yourself the struggles of finding a room to rent in a quality apartment, and then imagine trying to do the same thing for a family of three with two dogs (a feat that one of the authors of this piece can attest to). Investor landlords—many of whom are large real estate corporations and firms—are moving into the area and purchasing homes for sale with the express intent to rent to students and make a profit. They price out families looking to move into the area, who cannot afford the exorbitant mortgages that large real estate firms can. According to the most recent US Census data, Somerville’s per capita income is $44,399. The average annual rent cost in Somerville and Medford amounts to $10,000—equivalent to nearly a fourth of an average resident’s income.

In response, several local Somerville and Medford neighborhoods have their own neighborhood associations and councils; these neighborhood groups exist to battle the many aspects of the housing crisis seen both in direct correlation to Tufts and larger trends of Boston real estate. Edward Beuchert, a Somerville resident on Conwell Avenue and co-founder of the West Somerville Neighborhood Association, confirmed the rent disparity, stating, “The house across the street from me was sold by the older couple who lived there to an investor landlord who then proceeded to rent it to twelve Tufts students. With students paying approximately $10K per year for an off-campus bedroom, and having little choice to do otherwise, a landlord is able to charge students significantly more money than a family could afford.”

Meanwhile, Our Revolution chapters in both Somerville and Medford build coalitions and organize around community members’ rights in the area. Jess Farrell, a Medford resident and Our Revolution Medford community organizer, echoed similar sentiments to Beuchert. “As a community member, I see the Tufts housing crisis as one of many pressures on the Medford housing market for working people,” she said. “But,” she continued, “it’s the one that can be most easily addressed and the one that comes from an institution whose strategic goals purports to support social change as a core theme. Developers in the housing market don’t have that mission to hold them accountable to; we know that their core mission is to turn a profit, and it’s much more difficult for the community to overcome that.”

Activist residents like Beuchert and Farrell are mobilizing in a variety of ways to try to solve the gentrification Tufts is creating in its backyard.  When asked about what fighting for fair housing entails as a community organizer, Farrell responded: “We need Tufts’ help in fixing the housing problem in Medford, and we know that Tufts is the best-positioned actor to make a huge impact right now. Building a dorm and taking other measures to provide students with what they need on campus will help keep working people in their homes, and Tufts has the power and responsibility to make this impact.”

Residents are more than aware of Tufts University’s rent-hiking effects in their cities and are more than willing to stand with students. “I want to stress it’s not the students [creating the housing crisis]. This is all about how Tufts decides to manage its business,” Katjana Ballantyne, President of Somerville’s City Council and Ward 7 Councillor, said. Beuchert, Farrell, and Ballantyne all attended THL’s November march and rally, and Farrell and Ballantyne both sat in meetings THL members conducted with Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon .

Ultimately, as students, we must keep in mind that building relationships with Somerville and Medford residents is necessary not just for pressuring Tufts to build more housing, but also for remembering that we are fighting the same struggle—and quite frankly, remembering to be more neighborly. We could go much farther as a community if we form closer student-resident bonds. Opening our eyes to the crossover between our Tufts community and the Somerville and Medford community at large has never been more important. It’s never too late to sign a petition or help shovel a sidewalk, especially when the Tufts housing crisis is affecting everyone in the local area. Beuchert’s parting words? “As long as there’s a housing lottery with ‘losers’ who can’t live on-campus as they wish, there is by definition a housing shortage… What we have now isn’t just a ‘shortage’—it’s a full-blown emergency!”

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