MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVI No. 5
May / June 2014
A Letter to the Class of 2014
Faculty Establish Campus
Planning Committee
Remarks Occasioned by the Draft Report of the MITx Subcommittee of the FPC
Governance Highlights: Year in Review
OCW Educator: Sharing the "How" as well as the "What" of MIT Education
What's Old is New: Learning from the Past
Frank P. Davidson
The Mens' Kick Line
Part of MIT Strong!
from the 2014 Senior Survey
from the 2014 Senior Survey
Printable Version

What's Old is New: Learning from the Past

Catherine V. Chvany

The May 2014 Faculty Newsletter was especially interesting, even if it addressed only narrowly local problems. The issue of student housing cannot be looked at only in terms of MIT's Cambridge neighborhoods, as is obvious from the Globe's Spotlight series that ran in three issues of early May 2014. Greater Boston has over 30 expanding institutions whose students compete for a shrinking number of often unsafe apartments. The present market has made most of those apartments unaffordable. 

I'm probably not the only reader shocked at the news that MIT had not purchased 100 Memorial Drive long ago!

Student housing has been a problem since I first came to MIT in 1967. Even then a few homeless undergraduates slept on all-night-library couches, with a small package of notebook and toothbrush on the floor.

Dorm spaces (including the new Tang Hall) were even then more expensive than sharing an off-campus apartment. Why were (or are) dorms so expensive, when they are on donated land, built with donated money, and not taxed as are rental apartments? Living outside the dorm system with responsibility for shared expenses was a valuable experience. Should MIT have a few cooperative or "co-living" houses to encourage such learning?

Today, the affordable options for off-campus rentals have nearly vanished. Most graduate students and postdocs come to MIT with debts, perhaps with debt-ridden spouses who are also students or postdocs. To rent a two-bedroom apartment at over $2000 a month, they must have enough capital to pay first and last month's rent, plus a security deposit, perhaps also a commission for the real estate agent who found the apartment, plus smaller deposits for those utilities that are not included in the rent, plus moving costs. Only a few come from families who can help them buy an apartment that can be resold after Commencement.

True, many students come to college today who have never had to share a bathroom, let alone a bedroom. Many expect excellent facilities for the high price. But there are plenty of others who would prefer fewer amenities in exchange for smaller debt. Normally an off-campus two-bedroom apartment actually rents four or five rooms to four or five students, who use only the kitchen and bathroom as common spaces. But such an apartment is very hard to find today.

One of the FNL authors remarked on the absence of Urban Studies faculty from the recent study groups. The housing crisis is as much of a world problem as the energy crisis, or climate change. We need to involve not only the faculty of Course IV, but encourage prize competitions among students and alumni. What if present and past occupants of Westgate submitted plans for a temporary village for Westgate occupants while a new Westgate (another design contest) is being constructed? Who knows, the temporary village might well lead to a new and better version of today's Syrian refugee camp or Arkansas disaster shelter. Remember the Montreal Expo of 1967 and its innovative apartment house? What's happened to it? Can we do better this time?

Teams of researchers should also reexamine obsolete zoning conventions that encourage sprawl, with acreage requirements and prohibitions against in-law apartments that could be rented to students. Instead, we have large houses in nearby suburbs inhabited by a lone senior citizen, for whom converting former au pair rooms to "legal" is too daunting and too expensive. Could a university or other institution help screen possible tenants for former au pair or in-law suites? Are some codes too unrealistic (few 3rd floor suites have a second exit staircase), but unenforced codes still allow landlords who own hundreds of substandard units to profit from illegal conditions. Some middle-aged homeowners might also build an apartment that could be rented to pay for the rehab, to be later occupied by a home health aide as the owners age.

The Globe pointed out that Northeastern rents several apartment houses from neighboring slumlords, maintaining them better than do the owners. Perhaps the cities should condemn such houses and use them for teaching students and local teens how to bring them to code, how to use new materials, with some cooperation from various trade unions. Such a project could involve not only Urban Studies, Architecture, and Materials Science, but also Management, Political Science, law, and finance, as well as the urban communities. 

Jonathan King mentioned the need to accommodate temporary visiting staff. Such colleagues can rarely sign a September-to-September lease. In 1999, when I was a visiting professor for a quarter at the University of Oregon, I was provided with a nicely furnished one-bedroom apartment in the same building as a big cafeteria and laundry, within a short walk to my office and classes. MIT should have several such facilities. While on a visiting appointment in Paris (1991) I had a room in a large apartment shared with the landlady and another visiting fellow. 

In the 1970s, when I had a big old house in Watertown, with two rooms and a bath on the third floor, I'd get a call from MIT or Harvard, asking if those rooms were available, e.g., for a visiting professor staying only for 7 months, with a visit from his wife for one of those months.

Since we were not in the business of renting rooms, i.e., we were not dependent on the rental income, we were happy to oblige. We charged only a share of the taxes and heat. The visiting professor used a small fridge and electric teakettle, ate a midday dinner out. For supper, he was often invited out, or he ate sandwiches or take-out. Before leaving, our guest had a big party in our house for those who had entertained him. Another time we had a man who was finishing a Brandeis thesis. He had his meals at a nursing home where he worked part-time as a cook.

One time we got a call from MIT's Sloan School. A French grad student had been mistaken for an advanced executive, and housed in a pricey hotel. We took him into one of our rooms and told him he could share the rent with a roommate in the second room, if he could find one he could live with, which he did. So for a year or two we had two MBA students from France. 

In the old days, pricey suburbs like Weston or Lincoln didn't worry about housing their employees, for their young teachers or police recruits could find affordable housing in Waltham or Maynard. But now the industrial suburbs have also gentrified, and rents and home prices in Arlington, Belmont, Waltham, Watertown, or Somerville are no longer affordable for younger workers, including graduate students or postdocs. Those pricey suburbs should suspend their NIMBY rules to provide enough affordable housing to accommodate a number of tenants equal to the number of their necessary employees. Their "streetcar suburb" neighbors can no longer subsidize the Westons or Lincolns.

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