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The Shadow Of Our Light: Tufts’ Expansion into Chinatown, Medford, & Somerville

Campus | April 27, 2015

Visit the Tufts website and the history page “Get to Know Tufts” will tell you that the Universalist Church founded Tufts in the 1840s with a gift of 20 acres of land from Boston businessman Charles Tufts. Tufts’ land was located on one of the highest hills in the Boston area, Walnut Hill, between Medford and Somerville. As local lore goes, when a relative asked Tufts what he would do with “that bleak hill over in Medford,” Tufts replied, “I will put a light on it.”

However, what Tufts’ website conveniently leaves out is that Tufts’ inherited land, on which our university resides, is colonized land that was taken from native peoples, later becoming a plantation. People of the Wampanoag tribes—including the Massachusett tribe for which the state is named— once lived around what is now called Massachusetts Bay, which encompasses Boston. As the Wampanoag tribes were forced onto smaller and smaller portions of land, millions of African slaves were concurrently sold and enslaved to work in the United States. Massachusetts was one of the first states to legalize slave ownership. Tufts is built on a former slave plantation, Ten Hills Farm, which was owned by Isaac Royall. Today, the old Royall House and slave quarters “museum” is located in Medford, a short walk from campus. In addition, the Tufts family owned slaves up until the late 1700s, which contributed to their wealth, Tufts’ inheritance, and the founding of our university.

It is in this context of Tufts’ own violent history and establishment of its borders that we speak out about its current institutional expansion, which continues to uphold its wealth and power by displacing people in surrounding communities. Over the past 30 years, community members and students have spoken out against Tufts’ expansion into Chinatown, Medford, and Somerville. This expansion is characterized by the increasing number of Tufts-owned administrative buildings, a growing student body, and the subsequent displacement of residents living in these immigrant, working-class neighborhoods hosting Tufts.

First, in Boston’s Chinatown, land is being gradually consumed by Tufts University Medical School and New England Medical Center, also known as Tufts Medical Center. Together, the institutions occupy over one third of Chinatown’s land. In the 1990s, community members, activists, and organizers protested New England Medical Center’s decision to build an eight-story, 455 car garage that would displace a local community center and preschool and create health and safety concerns for the local neighborhood. After a decade-long struggle, local organizers halted the development project and instead built residential units as well as community space on that land parcel. However, Chinatown’s fight against gentrification and displacement continues, due in part to the dental school and medical center’s heavy presence, influx of students, and need for facility expansion.

The tension between residents and Tufts students isn’t unique to the Chinatown campus. In September of last year, Medford resident Kim Costa addressed Boston students in a video that later went viral: “Real quick reminder to all the college students coming back to Boston to continue their higher education… nobody likes you, you’re a visitor here; an interloper.” In a later interview, Costa comments, “I meant it. I grew up near Tufts, I worked in Davis Square for 10 years—these kids suck. They don’t tip, and they’re the ones flipping cars during the fucking World Series.” Judging by the 4,000 times the video has been shared and the many supportive comments from people in other college towns and touristy areas, it is clear that college students can be perceived as outsiders and invaders to their host communities. Many students are unaware of their impact on local residents and view them as “townie” outsiders, which demonstrates the elitist attitude Tufts students have about the people whose neighborhoods we occupy and enjoy.

As Tufts extends its unofficial borders into our surrounding neighborhoods, local residents and businesses are concurrently being pushed out of their long-time communities. In Medford, and Somerville, Tufts students are living in local housing units, taking up the housing stock, and contributing to rising rent prices. Rents in Somerville and Medford have consistently increased over the past few years, and are expected to continue rising with the MBTA’s Green Line Extension (GLX) to College Avenue. Currently at the forefront of Tufts’ development, the GLX project will extend the T into Medford and reach Tufts’ campus by the year 2020. The GLX stop in Ball Square is slated to force two long-time Medford businesses to abandon their current location because they are in the way of construction. While the GLX is relocating local businesses, driving up rent prices, and displacing long-time residents, Tufts stands to benefit from the GLX’s convenient T stop on campus at College Avenue.

Historically, new transit stops are associated with increasing rent prices. According to a 2014 report by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), “Dimensions of Displacement,” rents within a half-mile walking distance of the College Avenue stop could rise by nearly $300. The creation of the Red Line’s stop in Davis Square demonstrates this phenomenon. Before the extension of the Red Line to Davis in the mid-1980s, the area was largely working class, but today it is has some of the highest rents in the city.

The GLX is just one example of how Tufts benefits from local resources in Medford and Somerville. Tufts does not have the housing stock necessary to house its undergraduate population. As a result, almost one third of Tufts undergraduates live off-campus and benefit from local housing. As previously mentioned, these students both suffer from, and contribute to, rising rents in the area. They are desperate to find off-campus apartments, leading many to sign leases that start in June as early as September and October. Landlords are able to take advantage of students’ urgency and ability to pay, seeing as many Tufts students living off-campus come from privileged class backgrounds.

In response to these circumstances, a shock to the local housing market may be in the near future. Due to a proposed Somerville law, Tufts may soon have to provide the city with the addresses of students living off-campus. This law is part of an effort by the city to enforce a zoning ordinance that allows no more than four unrelated people to live together in a single apartment. Medford has a similar law with a maximum of three unrelated people per dwelling. If this law goes into effect, it could increase the demand for four and three-person apartments, and subsequently increase rent prices for those units. Additionally, the law increases pressure on the university to provide more on-campus housing options for students. Tufts has indicated a desire to provide more on-campus housing; however, it must make sure it does so in a responsible way that doesn’t negatively impact the Somerville and Medford communities. Tufts should try to utilize its existing property and work with the city if property purchases seem necessary, in order to diminish its negative impact on the surrounding communities.

Within the past two years, Tufts has also made multiple efforts to expand its campus and purchase properties in Somerville. First, in August 2013, it was announced that Tufts had been selected to develop the Powder House Community School on Broadway at the intersection of Packard Avenue. The site is particularly valuable to Tufts because it is adjacent to the existing Tufts Administrative Building (TAB) on Holland Avenue. According to a March 2014 article from The Somerville Journal, the university had hoped to purchase the property for $2.7 million dollars so it could demolish the existing building and construct an office complex and a small residential building. In March 2014, after some planning sessions, Tufts and the City of Somerville ended negotiations because they failed to agree on a project timeline—Tufts was not planning on developing the property for about 15 years. According to a university official quoted in the Journal article, the inability to meet a reasonable timeline was due to other expenses.

More recently, it was made public that Tufts considered buying a 41-unit apartment building at 119 College Avenue in Powder House Square. As demand for housing and rents rise in Somerville, there has been more pressure for Tufts to provide affordable housing for its students and faculty. This move, however, was unknown to the City of Somerville and subsequently angered some aldermen— members of the city’s legislative branch, with one alderman for each ward and four at large—who feared that if Tufts were to acquire the building, it would exacerbate the existing shortage of affordable housing for Somerville residents. Tufts has since canceled plans to purchase the building because it failed to match up with the city’s housing goals.

These expansion attempts, especially the 119 College Avenue apartment building, have resulted in pushback from some elected officials in the City of Somerville. Most notably, Alderman Vice President Katjana Bellantyne of Ward 7—the westernmost ward of Somerville, close to Tufts—was angered by the move, causing her to call into question the relationship between the city and the university. As a result, the Board of Aldermen is considering a law that would require Tufts to provide the city with a master plan describing all future plans for expansion. Bellantyne believes that the university’s actions in recent years demonstrate a lack of partnership and difference in values.

If Tufts wants to be a less invasive force in the local community, it should consider more avenues for collaboration with and contribution to the city. In addition to the Aldermen’s consideration of a Tufts master plan, local legislators have also fought for increasing Tufts’ payments to the city. Tufts is considered a non-profit, which means that instead of paying real estate taxes on its property, it pays a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT). Interestingly, Tufts does not call its payment a PILOT and there is no record of the term on Tufts’ websites. In general, a PILOT is justified because the city provides street cleaning, snow removal, police protection, firefighters, and other services that the university uses but does not pay property taxes for.

There is no standard formula for how much a non-profit must pay toward its PILOT. In the past, Somerville representatives have tried to make PILOTs mandatory for all institutions of private education, but the bill did not pass. According to Somerville Neighborhood News (SNN)—a Somerville Community Access Television (SCATV) production—Tufts owns about $286 million dollars of tax-exempt property in Somerville, and if it had to pay taxes, it would owe the City $5.8 million dollars in 2014. In 2013, Tufts announced a new five-year agreement with the city of Somerville under which it will pay the city $275,000 per year, which is $100,000 more than 2012. While this may seem like a huge increase, it is less than five percent of what Tufts would owe if it paid property taxes. In Boston, a task force determined how much a non-profit should pay the cities in which it operates. This task force recommended that all non-profits should pay 25 percent of what they would pay if they were property taxable, which includes services provided by the institutions into that percentage. If Tufts paid this full 25 percent, it would have paid the city of Somerville $1.4 million dollars in 2014.

While Tufts benefits from city services, the GLX, local housing stock, and other community resources, it is coming up short in contributing back to its host neighborhoods. It does provide local benefits like library access, fields for community use, community service projects, and reduced application fees for Somerville High School students. However, its primary objective of educating students and producing innovative research has wide effects not limited to the local community. It is the local community that must shoulder the cost of the would-be property taxes of Tufts’ occupation.

Since our university’s founding, our establishment and borders have been defined by a history of colonization, slavery, and exploitation. Today, our borders continue to extend into our host communities of Chinatown, Medford, and Somerville as our institutions grow larger and require more space. As Tufts expands, the people who are outside of and excluded from our borders are negatively affected by our growth and are at risk of being displaced. Tufts is buying local property, forcing students to take up local housing stock, and refusing to pay recommended taxes to the city. Though one could argue that an institution as historically and systemically advantaged as ours can never actually integrate with or benefit our surrounding communities, the least we can do is cause less harm and be less invasive. We as students, and Tufts as an institution, have a shared responsibility to acknowledge our privileged position and work to counteract the negative effects our expansion inevitably creates.