MIT's Responsibility to Provide Additional Affordable Housing for Grad Students, Postdoctoral Fellows, and Staff
It has been argued for some time that lack of affordable housing in the Boston area is impeding the ability of the Boston economy to grow. It is now becoming evident that the lack of affordable housing for graduate students and postdocs is becoming a problem at MIT, and that MIT is becoming both a cause and a victim of the affordable housing shortage.
Many of the graduate students I work with find that by teaming up with one or two other grad students, they can find more affordable housing off campus, rather than competing for the scarce, and somewhat expensive on-campus housing available. But over the past several years, as the supply of housing in Cambridge has become tighter, they are traveling farther and farther afield to find housing that they can afford, in communities like Somerville, Brighton, and Allston. The round trip by public transit to Brighton requires at least one and a half hours per day, time that a graduate student needs for studying. Confronted by the long commute, many use bicycles, much celebrated as the green alternative, but also dangerous, particularly in harsh weather.
Each year the problem gets more acute as rental prices keep rising in response to rising demand and a finite supply. Beyond Brighton lies Newton, too far and not affordable.
The supply of wood frame two- and three-story housing that has served as an affordable housing stock for working class families for over a century is saturated. The owner-occupancy and self-help maintenance that has preserved that housing stock in reasonable condition for this length of time are giving way to absentee ownership and either poor maintenance or higher expense paid maintenance, and each year the finite and aging housing stock becomes less affordable.
The problem is becoming more acute as a new demographic phenomenon is occurring driven by the economic growth in the Kendall Square area, stimulated in part by the presence of recent MIT graduates drawn to Cambridge and Boston to work in the new economy. These recent graduates have income to bid the price of the limited available housing even higher. This is not to decry the economic growth of which MIT is justifiably proud, nor to decry that the new demographic is being attracted by economic opportunity. New demographics have been attracted by economic opportunity to settle in Boston at least since John Winthrop, followed by Irish, Jewish, Italian, Syrian, Polish, Caribbean, Puerto Rican, Brazilian, and Haitian arrivals – and that is good.
MIT has an obligation to recognize the reality that these new factors mean that the future will be different than the past, that housing prices in and near Cambridge will continue to rise, and that MIT is a big part of the reason that is occurring. I believe that, at a minimum, MIT has an obligation to shield its graduate students and postdocs from the rising prices by providing one hundred percent on- or near-campus affordable housing for MIT grads and post-docs.
The primary reasons this policy makes sense include:
There have been proposals recently that the way to ease the housing shortage in Boston is to build micro units (small units, with no expensive off-street parking). These proposals leave many observers in doubt as to the lasting market for such housing, questioning how long the new settlers will want to stay in such units. The one group who provide a long-term reliable demand for such units is the graduate students who come for two-to-five years, and will value the walk to university convenience if the units are well located at or near campus. By taking responsibility to provide one hundred percent of the units required by its own grad students, MIT can secure a housing resource for this essential and growing component of the MIT education and research community, and simultaneously reduce one of the factors causing the housing shortage to the detriment of the wider community.
It takes three components to get housing built – land, zoning permission, and money. MIT has land on and near campus; money in its endowment, in part because of the increasing in value of its Cambridge real estate providing some of the technology growth; and the Cambridge City Council has approved the MITIMCo petition for a major increase in zoning density in and near the MIT campus.
Though some MIT graduate students may prefer to live off campus, the evidence of unmet need is clear.
1) According to former MIT Director of Planning Bob Simha, there were over 1000 units of graduate student housing ready to go when MIT decided to stop pursuing a goal of housing 50% of its grad students on or near campus. Out of the 5000 graduate students and postdocs estimated to not have on- or near-campus housing, I do not believe that there is any serious question that if those units had been built (at more affordable construction cost than available today) the units would have been filled with students pleased to get them.
1) Charity begins at home. If MIT will not provide reasonably for the needs of an essential part of its own community, it is unlikely to fund more than tiny, token amounts of affordable housing for others.
2) Building for the 5000 unserved members of its grad student and postdoc community is the most cost effective way to add housing units and removes a significant amount of competition from the limited supply of available housing.
3) I would love to see MIT recognize that the economic success in Kendall Square which it is proud to have contributed to has had the effect of increasing pressure on the housing supply, so there is a moral obligation for MIT to help with affordable housing in Cambridge over and above its obligation to provide for its own graduate students.
Finally, I want to return to the issue of the large but finite amount of land which MIT controls. I believe that MIT needs to have a serious plan showing how it can provide adequately for its core responsibilities to provide space for teaching, laboratories, libraries, and housing, before entering any more agreements with the private sector to commit its land resources to non-MIT activities.
According to Bob Simha, MIT committed to HUD that the land near Kendall Square would remain in university use, as part of the Kendall Square plan. There is a moral obligation to keep your commitments. I have no objections to high density, and if MIT can produce a plan to fully meet its educational and grad student housing responsibilities, and in addition provide for some partnerships with the private sector through the use of land near Kendall Square at much higher densities, that could be a reasonable outcome. But before any further commitment of MIT land resources to private activities there should be a serious financed plan to provide first for MIT's educational and student housing responsibilities.