By Rowan Walrath, opinions editor
Student housing numbers suggest Northeastern University has not created housing at the same rate at which it accepts students, according to data obtained from Off Campus Student Services. News analysis of the data, which cover the five-year span between spring 2011 and fall 2015, shows that trends in the number of students living off campus mostly correlate with those in total undergraduate enrollment.
“We’re accepting more students than we can possibly host,” said Joe Taché, a junior entrepreneurship major. Taché, who helps lead an anti-gentrification campaign on campus, had independently reviewed the data.
There were 1,140 more NU undergraduate students living off campus in Boston in fall 2015 than in spring 2011, an increase of 25.7 percent. In the same period, the total number of undergraduates increased by 2,055, or 16.8 percent.
The percent increase in the proportion of students living off campus changed only slightly over the five-year period, growing from 36.3 percent in spring 2011 to 39.1 percent in fall 2015. That’s a difference of 2.8 percentage points, but it’s a 7.6 percent increase. This analysis tells us that most of the change can be attributed to an increase in enrollment rather than merely an increase in off-campus students.
The slideshow below shows a progression of the population density of Northeastern students by zip code. The key shows percentage of population. Fall 2014 was the first semester in which Northeastern was required to collect student addresses. News analysis using summary data and a list of addresses revealed that 1,716 addresses were not recorded for that semester. They are not reflected on this map.
Population density statistics were calculated based on 2013 population estimates by zip code from City-Data.com. The two areas that saw a rapid increase in students living off campus were Mission Hill and Fenway/Kenmore. The highest period of growth in Mission Hill occurred in spring and fall 2015.
Such growth isn’t limited to Northeastern. With dozens of higher education institutions in the Boston metropolitan area, students are overwhelming the city. According to a report from the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, during the 2015-16 academic year alone, Boston’s off-campus population included 24,359 undergraduate students, of which nearly 20,000 lived in rented units on the private market. 3,218 students lived at home, while another 1,169 lived in university-affiliated off-campus housing.
Jumpshell data from 2015 lists the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Roxbury at $1,450 a month. In Mission Hill, that number is $1,500. One-bedroom units in the South End cost $2,300, while Fenway/Kenmore units are $1,940.
Gerald Autler, a senior project manager/planner and contact for Northeastern projects with the Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA), explained the impact students have on Boston’s rental market.
“The number of students living off campus has been a flashpoint between Northeastern and its neighbors for a number of reasons,” Autler said. “They’re those who tend to cause disruptions in the neighborhoods. Particularly in Mission Hill, you’re increasing property values. Owners are able to make a lot of money by renting to students, renting their places for way beyond what a family or group that’s not paying by the bedroom, as students often do, could pay.”
Additionally, because undergraduate students tend to rent for relatively short periods of time, owners have little incentive to maintain a property correctly, Autler said. A 2014 Boston Globe Spotlight report, entitled “Shadow Campus,” found that students often live in overcrowded, deteriorating apartments due to a lack of on-campus housing. The Globe found Northeastern students to be chief among these, as enrollment soared—and bed space did not.
Administration scrambles to house new students
Northeastern University has more undergraduates living in private market housing than any other non-commuter school in the area, according to the Department of Neighborhood Development report, although that statistic is based on individuals rather than on proportions of student populations by school. Additionally, most of the net growth in enrollment in Boston colleges between 2013 and 2015 can be attributed to Northeastern alone—an increase of 2,226 students. If Northeastern’s growth is excluded from the enrollment figures, the net enrollment trend from 2013 to 2015 would be effectively flat, growing only by 69 students.
The city has taken steps to alleviate the impact of off-campus students on Boston’s neighborhoods. In 2014, Mayor Martin J. Walsh outlined three strategic goals regarding student housing: Create 18,500 new student dormitory beds by 2030; reduce the number of undergraduates living off campus in Boston by 50 percent; and ensure all students reside in safe and suitable housing.
Bonnie McGilpin, director of communications for the BPDA, affirmed the municipal commitment Boston has to students and residents alike.
“The City of Boston understands the pressure that off-campus student housing puts on Boston’s workforce and middle-class housing stock and has worked closely with Boston’s colleges and universities to create a plan to create and maintain safe housing for the thousands of student in our city,” McGilpin said in an e-mail to The News in response to a press inquiry to the Mayor’s Office.
Since Walsh’s original student housing plan was released, Northeastern has created 720 beds with the opening of East Village in January 2015. The university’s 2013 Institutional Master Plan (IMP) proposed 11 new projects to the BPDA and named one area of interest as well as one community/public benefits focus. Some of those proposals had residential intentions: 1,000 new student beds could be created by development at Burstein and Rubenstein Halls, Ryder Hall and Ryder Lot, Burke Street, Cabot Center and Forsyth Hall.
Northeastern submitted a notification form amending its plans for the Burke Street property to the BPDA, then called the Boston Redevelopment Authority, in January 2016. The square footage of the building was increased by 55 percent, creating around 800 beds rather than the 350 to 600 initially proposed, according to the amendment.
While the development of East Village was largely praised, the proposal at Burke Street has reignited old arguments. Protests erupted outside City Hall in September, with local politicians and community activists voicing their express displeasure with what they believe is Northeastern’s encroachment on lower Roxbury.
Councilor Tito Jackson (D-7), whose district includes much of Roxbury, does not believe that Northeastern has fostered a positive relationship with local residents.
“To have a tower built in lower Roxbury that has 800 student beds that has no affordable housing and no attachment to the community around it is a total slap in the face to lower Roxbury and to residents, and, in fact, to the many sympathetic voices of students on the Northeastern campus,” Jackson said.
One of those sympathetic voices belongs to Taché. He is one member of Students Against Institutional Discrimination (SAID) working on an anti-gentrification campaign. Taché acknowledged that while universities’ encroachment on local communities is a citywide problem, it is students’ responsibility to hold institutions to account.
“We don’t think it’s our job as students to dictate how developers should work, but to open up channels for the communities to dictate that,” Taché said.
On Thursday, March 16, Student Government Association (SGA) direct elections opened to voting on myNEU. SAID created one of three referenda questions on the ballot, available to vote on through Thursday, March 23, which aims to give residents final decision-making power regarding community-facing Northeastern initiatives.
According to the Northeastern University Political Review, during the first 14 hours of voting, the full referendum question was not displayed on myNEU. The issue has since been addressed, although options regarding the votes cast during that window have yet to be discussed in a hearing. SGA has pledged to issue a public statement and apology once the results of the hearing are announced.
If passed, SAID’s anti-gentrification measure would ensure that community members would have seats on university councils. These members would be appointed and confirmed by neighborhood residents rather than by Northeastern, the BPDA or the Mayor’s Office.
“Northeastern has a couple of committees created to get communities involved, but these don’t have institutional power, and members are appointed by Northeastern,” Taché said. “The power needs to be institutionalized.”
Rebecca Riccio, director of Northeastern’s Social Impact Lab, pointed out that Northeastern’s interaction with the City of Boston exemplifies a problem that has existed since universities began to be developed in urban areas.
“I think it’s important to recognize that there are different stakeholders in this equation,” Riccio said. “There are the universities. There’s the city itself. There are the students. There are the community members. What we have to remember […] is to identify the needs and responsibilities all four of them have to themselves, and to each other, to figure out how to optimize them and make them work together.”
Riccio also advised against treating other parties like enemies, stressing instead the importance of searching for a mutually beneficial solution.
“The intersection of these four stakeholders’ needs […] is a quintessential illustration of a complex social problem,” Riccio said. “And in that kind of problem, it’s easy to vilify each other. It’s easy to become entrenched in our positions. And then it’s easy to create even more challenges within the system than already exist.”
Community relationships strained by development
Last Sunday, Mar. 12, Councilor Jackson took to Twitter after a user shared a July Globe article and claimed Jackson said the planned Burke Street residence hall would be “too tall.”
Northeastern should be building densely on their own campus not in the lower Roxbury Community. https://t.co/4UXMNqgpB1
— Tito Jackson (@titojackson) March 12, 2017
Jackson believes Northeastern has reneged on its commitment to surrounding neighborhoods.
“Northeastern has not negotiated with the community in earnest,” Jackson said. “What I would like to see from Northeastern is for them to keep their word. I’d like to see, when we make our agreements for them to develop on their campus, is to have them actually develop on their campus and not push into the community.”
However, university spokesperson Matt McDonald emphasized that Northeastern’s physical presence in Roxbury, particularly near Columbus Avenue, is not a new development.
“The university is not ‘expanding,’ but rather, is building on land that it has owned for decades, with the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex and the Burke Street residence hall being examples,” McDonald said in an e-mail to The News.
McDonald also cited several instances of local support for the Burke Street development, a project Autler also said was initially met with no opposition.
“The university hosts community forums around specific facility enhancement efforts,” McDonald said. “For example, the university hosted four community meetings about the Burke Street residence hall project, providing an open forum for broad community input, and has worked closely with the [BPDA]. The project was unanimously approved by the BPDA by a 4-0 vote and received widespread community support from residents who attended the vote. The project then was unanimously approved by a 9-0 vote of the zoning commission, and has the strong support of Mayor Walsh.”
Northeastern provides a Community Benefits Annual Report each year, with the most recent one released in December. In the report, President Joseph E. Aoun affirms a commitment to integration and partnership with the community. The document also provides a summary of actions by the Center for Community Service, the Northeastern IMP Advisory Council and Northeastern Crossing.
For Jackson, those programs benefit the university more than the district he represents.
“I think it’s critical that Northeastern begin to think about how they can uplift the community with jobs and procurement,” Jackson said. “Northeastern could actually have a very positive impact on their local community, but it seems as if Northeastern is only interested in a self-serving relationship with the community.”
When Northeastern Crossing opened in October 2015, it was touted as a bridge between Northeastern and the surrounding community. According to the Northeastern Crossing website, the center, located on the same block as International Village, is intended to provide a platform for Boston residents and neighborhoods and to give residents access to university resources.
Rachel Domond, a sophomore sociology major and a project leader on SAID’s anti-gentrification campaign, pointed out that Northeastern Crossing’s hours are only 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, with the exception of some programming on weeknights, which prevents working Bostonians from accessing it. Additionally, children are only allowed in the center when accompanied by an adult.
“It’s a stand-in for Northeastern to say, ‘Oh, we’re doing this, oh, we’re handling this,’” Domond said.
On-campus prices drive out students
For many Northeastern undergraduates, one major reason to move off campus is affordability. Many spaces available on campus follow an enhanced pricing structure, including the West Village residence complexes, International Village, Davenport Commons and East Village. When completed, the residence hall on Burke Street will join those luxury bed spaces.
The cheapest bed available to freshman undergraduate students is an economy quad, which costs $3,110 per semester and has limited availability. Given a four-month semester, that’s the equivalent of $777.50 in monthly rent. The most expensive option for freshmen is $5,350 for a semi-private enhanced single, or $1,337.50 monthly.
For upperclassmen, the cheapest option is $3,470 per semester for an economy triple, or $867.50 a month. The most expensive option, with the exception of special housing for students with documented accommodations, is $6,970 per semester for an enhanced studio single—$1,742 a month. Many students are also required to buy meal plans, which range from $1,475 to $3,600 a semester.
“$1,600 a month—for like, a dorm—is wild,” Domond said. She also pointed out that many students take out loans to pay for housing, which can perpetuate a cycle of student debt.
While housing prices are deeply felt by individuals, however, Northeastern’s housing process has yet to create problems at an institutional level.
“To my knowledge, Northeastern doesn’t have any trouble filling the dorm beds that it’s got,” Autler said. “Certainly, the university is not going to want to build additional student housing, or partner with developers such as they’ve done with the Burke Street one, if it’s not going to be financially viable. If we ever get to the point where they have trouble filling dorms, that’s problematic. […] It may be an issue for individual students. I’m not sure it’s an issue for the campus housing system.”
Autler also suggested that for students spending summers at home, living on campus may be more affordable. Those students can avoid paying for a 12-month lease by paying for housing on a semesterly basis.
Ultimately, Autler stressed that the addition of more on-campus units is critical.
“[Students are] contributing to housing demand,” Autler said. “The more students [universities] can house, the more housing they can create, the less students will compete for rental housing on the market. That’s the single biggest thing that Northeastern can do.”
Bringing the commitment to inclusion back home
Northeastern began as a small commuter school in 1898. By 2015, it had grown to a university with more than 19,000 undergraduate students in Boston, a wealth of international programs and four campuses in total. Many believe, however, that Northeastern’s expansion has left behind the neighborhoods where it started.
“Northeastern prides itself on being a global university, but that completely negates the community here,” Domond said.
Data analysis performed by Jacqueline Ali Cordoba. News graphics by Jacqueline Ali Cordoba.