Analyzing the Draft Report by the
Graduate Student Housing Working Group
The draft report by the Graduate Student Housing Working Group does a very good job of providing data which documents the escalating cost of off-campus housing which threatens the quality of life of 5000 graduate students and post-docs who cannot currently have on-campus options. It makes clear the imminent threat posed by the need to renovate or replace 1000 of the existing 50-year-old on-campus units within the next 10 years. The report also notes the desirability of the Kendall/East Campus area as a location for new graduate student housing, and the urgency to locate a substantial number of units in the Kendall area before other development closes this option. The observation of the report that 500 to 600 units are needed to satisfy the current wait list, and 400 units to provide swing capacity to deal with the rehabilitation or replacement of 1000 units would without question be immediately filled provides a basis to immediately initiate design and implementation of at least 1000 units as part of the Kendall Square design and planning process already underway.
But dealing only with the need that has been visible and urgent for the past several years is not adequate to deal with the rapidly escalating rent level crisis documented in the report which threatens the entire off-campus population, especially the 2500 who live in the nearby Cambridge neighborhoods, where prices have risen 30 percent in the last three years and are continuing to increase at an exponential rate. These same pressures affect the ability of MIT junior faculty to find suitable housing.
The report also documents that the rapid escalation of rents are a severe threat to the quality of life for all Cambridge residents, and that 1600 to 3200 units of Cambridge housing are likely to be sought by some of the 4000 to 8000 new employees required to staff the new commercial development on land which MIT has secured permission to develop commercially and at greater density, further intensifying the pressure.
Recognizing that this crisis will continue over the next several years, I believe that it is necessary for MIT to commit now to develop enough housing at Kendall Square and at West Campus to provide 5000 net new housing units for the entire graduate student and post-doc population, and to prioritize planning for the Osborne triangle to develop affordable housing options for junior faculty and to accommodate some of the new employees MIT actions are attracting to the area.
The draft report provides essential basic information to understand the severity of the situation. Below are comments to suggest ways the information can be organized to make the most essential factors more visible. They also include the following details on errors and omissions in the generally high quality report.
1) On page 57, the report notes that the number of grad students (and post docs, who play very similar roles) has grown consistently by about 800 per decade, and about 1000 in the past five years, and that this growth has been critical to increasing the productivity of MIT research per faculty member, which is vital to maintaining the competitiveness of MIT for research funding.
Quite inconsistently, the report asserts that the number of graduate students is unlikely to grow in the next decade, (although this may be an assumption that the growth will be in post docs instead). Even if the recent five years are viewed as unsustainable, it seems prudent to assume that the number will grow at its traditional rate of 800 in the next decade.
The issue of the importance of the graduate students to the productivity and relevance of MIT to research and professional practice is a fundamental aspect of the MIT brand of education, which requires that the quality of life of graduate students be recognized as a core issue essential to the future of MIT. Because of the importance of this point, it should be discussed much more visibly in the beginning of the report.
2) On page 62, in Section 2.5, the section Graduate Housing at Peer Institutions makes a false comparison. Because MIT is uniquely reliant on research and graduate students to maintain its special brand of education, it is much more vulnerable to the threat to quality of graduate student life posed by the extreme rental market in Cambridge.
3) On page 52, the report cites the Bush-Brown recommendation of 1962 that MIT should provide for on-campus housing for 50 percent of graduate students. It then makes a celebratory comment that in the period 1960-2008 MIT has made "significant strides" by reaching 40 percent (excluding post-docs). This does not seem like such significant progress in 48 years. If MIT had reached the 50 percent recommendation there would be approximately 1,835 added units on campus, built at less inflated construction cost, shielding a large number of students from the escalating market prices, and reducing the pressure on Cambridge rents. Elsewhere, in the recommendations section on page 70, the report denies that there ever was a 50 per cent "officially adopted goal," which contradicts not only the public statements of former MIT Planning Director Bob Simha, but also contradicts the reference to the 1960 recommendation of Bush-Brown cited on page 52 of the report itself. It undercuts the credibility of the report to engage in semantic distinctions of whether the 1962 Bush-Brown recommendation was ever an "officially accepted goal" (as Bob Simha insists to be the case).
The more significant issue is that the Bush- Brown recommendation that was made in 1960 was intended to deal with an issue of building a greater sense of community and collegiality among the graduate student population, an issue that remains important today. But in 1962 there was no housing affordability problem in Cambridge, MIT had not yet acquired so much land in Kendall Square, rapid economic development was not filling all available land with significant investment substantially foreclosing land acquisition options, and MIT was not entertaining using scarce Institute land for commercial purpose. In light of the severely escalating prices in the Boston area generally and most extremely in Cambridge, the policy issue confronting MIT is how to protect the quality of life of the essential graduate student population from the unprecedented price spikes now occurring which are likely to worsen.
4) In light of the strong case that the report makes that increasing stipends is not a reasonable option, as it would price MIT research out of the relevant market range, and would actually exacerbate the rental price escalation in Cambridge, (see the Recommendation section on page 70), the only remaining option to protect the graduate student quality of life is to build affordable housing on campus for the entire population of 5000 graduate students and post docs now facing escalating prices off campus.
5) On page 44, the report cites the number of new employees expected in the Kendall area, (4000 to 8000) of whom 1600 to 3200 are expected to seek Cambridge housing, and price out students and current residents, based on past experience. (The report erroneously discounts this number by 50 percent because many of the employees will be graduates already residing in Cambridge, but this ignores that the graduating students will be back-filled by new students.)
The report does not make any calculation of the impact on the 100,000 net new employees it expects Boston-based development to attract, and the number of these who will seek Cambridge residence, nor the impact on rental prices in the entire transit oriented Boston economy.
These factors all lead to a conclusion that the extreme tightness in the Cambridge and Boston area rental market is certain to worsen in the future, posing extreme hardship on students and other residents alike, who are now already spending disproportionate proportions of their disposable income on rent.
The report expresses some sympathy for the plight of junior faculty and Cambridge residents, but does not link the superheated condition to MIT actions, nor propose that MIT take any action to help residents of its host community to deal with these pressures. It would seem that the redevelopment of the Osborne triangle would be an appropriate location for MIT to undertake to create some affordable options to absorb junior faculty and new economy worker demand.
6) The report does not consider the possibility that there is some element of exuberance in the upward spiral of rents, as speculators bid up the price of housing, nor of the possibility that a significant commitment by MIT to build housing might dampen this exuberance.
7) The report makes some useful suggestions about the beneficial impact that graduate student housing would have on the emerging Kendall area, and suggests some interesting urban design concepts that might mix affordable graduate student housing on lower floors, with possible commercial high rise space above. But this report was not available to the urban design and landscape team working on the Kendall area who recently presented their concepts to the public.
It is urgent that the urban design team be authorized and directed to integrate scenarios of a minimum of 1000 to several thousand housing units, recognizing the limits of other campus options at Westgate and elsewhere.
The report includes a wealth of important information, which makes clear the urgency of the situation, but it is written in a manner to consistently understate the severity of the situation. It is understandable that the challenge of funding the construction of thousands of units of affordable housing to support graduate students, post-docs, and junior faculty facing this hostile market is daunting. But it is not appropriate to camouflage the facts. Only by stating clearly the nature and dimension of the problem can it be possible to summons the energy and creativity to define and implement solutions to deal successfully with it. The draft report is a very good beginning, but it needs to be significantly strengthened, particularly in terms of the recommendations, to be a really useful document.