Neighborhoods Feeling the Brunt of Housing Off-Campus Students

March 1, 2018

Everywhere you go in Boston, there is no question that students are a major part of what makes this city tick. But as colleges and universities continue to increase enrollment, bringing in students from across the nation and around the world, the amount of housing needed to support them is not entirely there.

One neighborhood that has been dealing with the influx of students on the private housing stock for decades is the Fenway. Home to many colleges and universities such as Berklee College of Music and Northeastern, the neighborhood at times can feel inundated by young students.

“We are a victim of our own success,”said Richard Giordano, director of policy and community planning at the Fenway CDC. “We have great schools, institutions, hospitals and everyone wants to be here, but it makes it impossible to afford to stay here.”

Despite the growing number of dorms being built in Boston, the city has not seen a reduction of students living off-campus in residential neighborhoods.

Due to the increasing enrollment, especially seen at the graduate-school level, the pace of constructing new dorms is enough to not make the burden on the current housing worse but hasn’t seen an improvement in opening back traditional housing to working-class families.

“It’s an ongoing problem,” said Giordano. “When you have an abundance of college students packed into apartments it keeps the rent price high. There’s no way around it. There’s no way a family or a young couple or even a few young adults can afford to live here; there’s no way to make roots and stay in the Fenway neighborhood anymore.”

Of the 30 universities and colleges in Boston, the total enrollment of students from is 147,050, an increase of 3.7 percent from 2016 to 2017.

The Department of Neighborhood Development used zip codes as a proxy for neighborhoods to show the geographic distribution of undergraduate and graduate students by neighborhood.

At this time, the City is not able to show trends in the distribution of students by neighborhood over time as a result of inconsistencies in data reporting from previous years.

In the 2017 to 2018 academic year, the zip codes with the greatest number of students are 02115 (Fenway/Kenmore), 02120 (Mission Hill), 02134 (Allston), 02215 (Longwood/Mission Hill/Fenway), and 02135 (Brighton).

Using the Boston Planning and Development Agency’s districts, Fenway outpaces the pack with the most undergraduate and graduate students in the neighborhood at 7,147 students or 20 percent of the overall off-campus students living in private housing stock. This is followed by Mission Hill with 4,808 students or 13.6 percent and Allston with 4,746 students at 13.5 percent.

“We have to figure out year to year if the total enrollment of students has gone up as it appears it has in the latest University Accountability Report, but it is hard to say what the real numbers are,” said Giordano. “On the ground it is causing a problem.”

Giordano said when the schools changed their business model from serving primarily commuter and regional students to national and international students, the students had to live somewhere and, in many cases, went to the traditional housing stock closest to their schools.

In quarter four of 2017, the City permitted 5,840 dorm beds surpassing the target set forth at 107 percent. To date, 3,219 beds have been completed, and are online.

“One thing we are excited about is that the undergraduate enrollment has gone up by 2 percent, but the beds that have come online integrated the impact those students would have on the housing stock,” said Lisa Pollack, director of media relations at the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND).

Based on the current pace of dorm bed development, the City is on pace to meet the 18,5000 dorm bed goal by 2030. However, significant increase in enrollment, particularly at the graduate level, are preventing the dormitory construction trend from reducing the overall number of students living in off-campus housing.

Overall, it is positive that the number of students living in the off-campus private housing market has not increased during this period of enrollment growth. In order to do so, student housing creation must significantly exceed enrollment growth in order for the overall number of students in the private housing market to decrease.

One solution might be by following the national trend of private dormitory creation to unlock faster student housing production, particularly at the graduate-student level.

“Although the enrollment pace is higher on the graduate level, the bulk of enrollment is still undergraduates,” said Pollack. “At this point, we are still focusing more on housing undergraduate students on campus and building new dorms for undergraduate students to take the pressure off the housing market.”

In addition, undergraduate students face more quality-of-life issues, such as landlords taking advantage of them and living in packed corridors. Many residents complain of undergraduate students having late-night parties and causing unwanted disruptions in the neighborhood.

“We will keep an eye on the rate of graduate students being enrolled but in terms of the scale, the main focus is on getting undergraduates out of the neighborhoods,” said Pollack.

As required by the University Accountability ordinance, which was past in 2013 by the Boston City Council, all Boston-based universities and colleges must submit a report to the City each year providing data about the students enrolled in their school. The data includes information on where they are living (on-campus or off-campus).

The overall quality of the reporting has improved with each report but, this shift has created some complications in analyzing trends over time, including any migration shifts between Boston neighborhoods.

“If you go year by year in the reports there are a lot of re-classifications,” said Pollack. “You are not comparing apples to apples anymore because of the major shifts in the data.”

The “Greater Boston Housing Report Card,” by Barry Bluestone and James Huessy, have been monitoring the housing stock in Boston for close to 15 years, noting similar trends in student housing.

“The real growth in students are not the undergraduates (which has actually gone down a little because of a demographic change) but, in the graduate student population,” said Barry Bluestone, Northeastern professor and author of “Greater Boston Housing Report Card.” “More and more students are looking to further their education by getting a master’s, doctorate or furthering their education.”

According to the “Greater Boston Housing Report Card 2017”, the real pressure on the Boston housing market is now coming from graduate students who make up an ever-larger share of university enrollments.

Between 2013 and 2016, undergraduate enrollment declined by 440 students, but this was more than offset by an increase of nearly 3,000 graduate students. Of the nearly 57,000 graduate students living in Great Boston, only 5,570 are housed on campus.

From 2013 and 2016, Northeastern increased its undergraduate enrollment by 261, but its graduate enrollment swelled by 2,801. Boston University reduced its undergraduate student body by 68 while adding 450 graduate students.

“With the exemption of Harvard and MIT, the schools have done nothing for [the graduate students],” said Bluestone. “The students tend to live in triple deckers, with about two to three other people and are living as interns and graduate students. They’re pre-marriage and pre-kids. Typically these houses would go towards families.”

Bluestone noted that the along with the graduate student population, another demographic is also moving into the city in large numbers – older people.

“My solution is to create a 21st-century village where young people and old people can live together,” said Bluestone.

He suggested that Universities and teaching hospitals create a master lease together and share the occupancy.

“With 7,000 graduate students looking for housing, there will be 100-percent occupancy,” said Bluestone. “Plus graduate students are essentially adults. There is less resistance having graduate students and older people like myself when you are trying to move into a neighborhood.”

Bluestone said the City of Boston has lead the way in trying to create more housing to help solve the affordability problem. Recently, Gov. Charlie Baker and other nearby cities and towns are starting to follow suite.

Working class families that once lived in Boston are now moving further and further out, pushing rents up in cities that traditionally have been known for very low rent costs.

“Lawrence, which is known as a working-class, poor city, saw rents increase this past year faster than Newton, MA,” said Bluestone.

But, Bluestone said, the real key to getting students out of the housing market is to focus on the undergraduate students because not only are they a pain to have in the neighborhoods, with the noise, parties and all that comes with that, it is also a win for the schools.

“When universities and colleges house undergraduates they are not only taking the pressure off the housing stock for the city they are also making money from the students in the additional rent and food costs,” said Bluestone. “It’s a win-win situation.”


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