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The True Cost of Off-Campus Housing

News & Features | November 23, 2015

After sophomore year, many Tufts students look forward to living off campus. Because housing on campus is only required and guaranteed for students’ first two years, off-campus housing is both a necessity and a significant part of Tufts culture. Between the current junior and senior classes, only 700 students live on campus. This means that the majority must navigate the housing market in Medford and Somerville. Off-campus housing is alluring because it has the potential to become a personal, intimate space for living and socializing. However, this opportunity is not equally available to everyone. As affordable housing becomes increasingly scarce in Medford and Somerville, students with fewer financial resources must navigate higher rent with limited campus resources to help them.

The process of finding a house starts early, is hectic, and results in compromise. As students increasingly sign leases in mid-September and early October, the pressure to commit to a house early can make students feel like they should take whatever housing they can get, even if it means compromising on how much they’re willing to spend. The tighter the time constraints, the harder it is to make an informed decision. Abdisalan Mohamed, a junior, commented, “My group and I are willing to go a little more expensive to get off campus…It’s worth it for me because the house can become a lot more personal than a dorm, I have more control over the furniture, the spaces can be much larger, and I want to get more experience dealing with housing for the future.” However, not every Tufts student can compromise on more expensive housing. And what happens when settling for expensive housing becomes the rule and no longer the exception?

For Tufts students, increasing housing prices mean that finding off-campus housing that is consistent with, or cheaper than the price of on-campus housing is becoming more difficult. Prices are rising each year, although it is difficult to track statistics on rent prices for Tufts students. Census data is only collected from permanent residents and most college students report that they are living permanently with their parents. Nevertheless, it cannot be contested that rent is rising. “I have the lowest rent of anyone I know at $600 a month,” one senior stated, “Everyone else is at least $50 above that, and the landlord has said he plans on increasing the pricing next year.” A quick search on Zillow, a housing website, found rents in Somerville and Medford trending upwards of $925/month.

Somerville and Medford have recently been enforcing housing ordinances that limit how many non-related individuals can live together in one house—no more than three in Medford, and four in Somerville. If households are found in violation of this ordinance, residents can be evicted. With this crackdown, affordability has become even more elusive, as rent gets divided among fewer people, making it even more difficult to find an apartment for a reasonable cost. At the beginning of this year, all Tufts students were forced to include a “local address” on their SIS accounts, and these addresses were then compiled into a directory and sent to the local governments of Medford and Somerville to ensure that students were in line with housing ordinances. This has sparked fears among students that though they signed the lease with the landlord full knowing they are above the limit, they will be found in violation of the ordinances and then evicted, leaving them without housing.

Another obstacle to finding housing is how difficult it is for students to navigate transactions with landlords during the housing search. Often landlords will advertise a lower price, but tell prospective renters a much higher cost in person. One landlord contacted by the Tufts Observer for this article declined to comment on the subject, saying they felt that “Tufts University has its fingers in the housing process and are scared that what they say will be used against [them.]” While the landlord did not specify what Tufts could use against them, this quote reflects concern about Tufts’ heavy influence in off-campus real estate. This in turn can contribute to tenuous relationships between landlords and student renters.

All this particularly affects lower-income students and students on financial aid. On-campus housing at Tufts for the 2015-2016 academic year costs $13,094. This hefty sum is divided into housing and a premium meal plan. If students receive room and board as part of their financial aid, they receive the same amount of money towards their off-campus housing. However, this amount of money is tied to the cost of tuition. Although tuition increases 3 to 5 percent every year and financial aid accounts for the increase, it does not explicitly address rising rent prices. Tufts Office of Financial Aid divides this sum by nine, for the nine months of an academic year, which translates into $1,450/month for rent, utilities and food. However, a lease is rarely nine months, which means that students must find a way to cover housing costs for three additional months. Divided 12 ways, the total monthly allotment of $1,091 for rent, utilities, and food, is hardly affordable in Medford and Somerville.

This tight budget often requires students to earn money on the side in order to make ends meet. An anonymous Tufts student said, “This past summer I sublet an off-campus house usually occupied by Tufts students and had to work two jobs so that I could make rent payments. To overlook these realities is a blatant disregard of students’ needs and the true meaning of student affordability. Furthermore, many students hope to live off campus to reduce their living costs and live affordably, not simply maintain the high cost of life at Tufts.

The Office of Residential Life at Tufts touts extensive resources for students looking to move off-campus, but these resources are largely outdated. The Director of the Office of Residential Life, Yolanda King, said to the Tufts Observer, “We currently provide information and post apartment listings on our website for students to utilize when conducting their housing search off campus. We also participated in the Off-Campus Housing info session that the Sophomore Class Council hosted. Finally, we had an Off-Campus Housing Fair in collaboration with Community Relations Office during Parents Weekend.” However, a quick search of the apartment listing found that the list was infrequently updated and many of the listings were far from Tufts, overpriced, and had leases too long or too short for an undergraduate student’s academic schedule. It becomes increasingly difficult to navigate life at Tufts when one has to accommodate complicating factors such as a commute.

Another student anonymously commented, “The housing workshop was not too helpful to be honest. None of the [panelists] seemed to alleviate any of the ‘myths’ surrounded by housing or relieve any stress. They basically perpetuated the myth that everyone signs in October and that no good housing will be found past the end of October. Though they verbally said “there’s housing to be found after October,” no one on the panel signed after October.” Furthermore, the panel was held in late October, which meant that it was useless to the majority of students, who had already signed in the beginning of the month.

When the Tufts Observer interviewed Amy Piantedosi, Associate Director of the Office of Financial Aid, she said that she has told students going into housing groups that they can try to negotiate a lower cost of living with their housemates and landlord by, for example, “choosing a smaller room” and “offering to shovel the sidewalk in the wintertime” in order to pay less in rent (respectively). This suggestion puts the burden on lower-income students to compensate for factors outside of their control, and furthermore has negative implications for their emotional and mental health. Tufts students are full-time students, and this request ignores the fact that many students are already working multiple jobs and cannot simply take on additional work in order to afford housing. Additionally, even if these negotiation strategies were employed, they would only decrease rent by a few hundred dollars per year at most.

It is this lack of support from the administration that pushes students who would prefer to live off campus into on-campus dorms. Another anonymous student who is currently an Residential Assistant (RA) commented, “I would say that a lot of motivation in becoming an RA stems from people not being able to find or not wanting to deal with finding off-campus housing. It definitely is a main drive for people to take a job they might not necessarily want to take. It’s challenging finding off-campus housing, and being an RA for a year alleviates that.”

However, students on financial aid may need off-campus housing even more. A different student commented, “I’m poor and trans, and so finding affordable off-campus housing is vital for me. Tufts shuts down its dorms during the winter and essentially evicts its residents for about a month, which leaves those of us living on campus with very few options if we don’t want to be homeless. For me, as a trans student, this means returning home to an emotionally distressful and borderline unwelcome environment. Off-campus housing is vital for me to avoid these periods of eviction so that I don’t have to return home, both during the holidays and during the summer, but rent prices make it hard to afford.”

Rachel Powers, the Housing Development Specialist with the City of Medford, agreed, saying, “Housing for students near Tufts is not affordable.” But the extreme costs of housing in the Medford and Somerville area do not just affect Tufts students. They are indicative of a larger trend. Powers continued, “[Housing in Medford] is not affordable for anyone.” The greater Boston metropolitan area is experiencing a housing crisis, and there is an insufficient supply of housing, particularly rental housing. A national trend of migration back to urban areas, coupled with a growing population, has accentuated already limited housing supply.

Powers further explained that that the greater Boston area, an “opportunity rich environment,” was fairly lucky in recovering from the recession. This attracted millennials and kept the job market flowing, further contributing to an increase in population. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which covers the greater Boston area, forecasts that there would need to be 400,000 additional housing units in the region by 2040 to cover changing trends. However, this is highly unlikely, and Powers predicts that housing prices will only get worse in the coming years, particularly if the Green Line does come to Medford.

When analyzing the negative impacts of rising rents in Medford and Somerville on Tufts students, it is also important to consider the gentrifying effects of students in these neighborhoods. As Tufts students rarely rent for more than two years, they are viewed by landlords as a population that can be overcharged. When students pay inflated rents in neighborhoods that are not their own they become complicit in gentrification. Furthermore, when they accept higher rents and the debt that comes with exaggerated costs, they become future victims in a cycle of displacement.

The complexity and inherent inequality of housing can be characterized by Tufts’ lack of purposeful strategizing to make the off-campus housing experience more affordable and accessible to students. This negligence of lower income students will only continue if incoming class size grows as it has in recent years, making it more difficult for upperclassmen to live on campus.

As one of the largest employers in Somerville, second in size to only the City of Somerville, Tufts’ economic prowess is enormous. As Tufts expands and students continue to move off campus, it is Tufts’ responsibility to combat the gentrifying and invasive effects of this growth and work in collaboration with the surrounding communities, for the benefit of both students and permanent residents. The city of Medford is currently looking into partnerships with public, non-profit and for-profit developers in order to negotiate affordable units. In addition, Medford is attempting to develop inclusionary zoning, which would make affordable housing a policy, rather than a continued negotiation. Tufts must be held accountable for collaborating with the surrounding communities and supporting affordable housing policy changes. It must take concrete steps towards additional on-campus housing options, while also being conscious of the impacts of its expansion. But most importantly, Tufts must not only enact structural long-term changes but also develop compassionate practices to assist lower-income students in navigating the difficulties of off-campus housing.