The city launched a pilot program Monday, July 13, to ease restrictions on off-campus housing for colleges and universities, and to help alleviate the city’s housing crunch during the pandemic, which has prompted Northeastern University to pursue leasing all of the Midtown Hotel and entire floors of the Westin Copley Place to provide additional student beds.
Nupoor Monani, senior institutional planner with the Boston Planning and Development Agency, said during a virtual hearing of the City Council’s Public Health Committee on July 9 that participating colleges and universities must submit an application found on the agency’s website at www.bostonplans.org to request off-campus housing outside of their specific, individual Master Plans. The applications would outline plans for safety precautions that the schools would be taking against the spread of COVID-19, as well as for off-site housing management. The city’s Inspectional Services Department would then review each application and, if approved, grant the school a six-month certificate for housing. And if the need for off-campus housing extends into the spring of ‘21, the schools must apply to renew the approval, which would be subject to review by the BPDA, ISD and community stakeholders.
Hotels would likely accommodate most of the off-campus student beds, Monani said, which would give the industry a much-needed boost, since it has seen occupancy dwindle in the city from 90 percent a year ago to just 5 percent now. She added that the move would also create around 100 jobs and generate an estimated $12.5 million in additional income for the city’s hotels.
Kathy Spiegelman, Northeastern’s vice president and chief of campus planning and development, said the university intends to lease all of the Midtown Hotel, located at 220 Huntington Ave. in Back Bay, and entire floors of Westin Copley Place, which along with apartment buildings it owns the master lease for, would provide off-campus housing for around 2,000 students.
“We’ll treat it like a dormitory, and there will be staff on every floor,” Spiegelman said regarding plans to occupy the Westin Copley Place. “There will be a lot of programming and a lot of staff that will make sure they have everything they need access to.”
As for the Midtown, Spiegelman said the hotel has provided off-campus housing for Northeastern students since the spring of 2018, “so we already figured out how to have an area that was private for the students.”
Spiegelman added that 70 to 75 percent of students would continue to live on campus in the fall, meaning not many more students would be living off-site as did before the pandemic struck.
Ted Tye, managing partner of Newton-based National Development, which operates the Midtown, wrote in an email: “National Development has committed all rooms in the hotel to Northeastern for the coming academic year. This will assist Northeastern in distancing their students when they return for the fall semester. The commitment is for this academic year. The hotel has had a long standing relationship with Northeastern and we were glad to be able to assist them during this challenging period. “
Meanwhile, Councilor Kenzie Bok, who co-sponsored the hearing with City Councilor Liz Breadon and Council President Kim Janey, raised concerns about the potential density of off-campus housing for students.
“There is a lot of savings in the student economy with fitting as many students in as small a place as possible, and there’s a public health concern here,” Bok said. “And how do you support students in off-campus housing and enforce school standards when they aren’t living in dormitories?”
Councilor Bok suggested that colleges and universities might want to step up supervision in neighborhoods that many students call home as a proactive step.
John Tobin, Northeastern’s vice president of city and community affairs, as well as a former Boston city councilor, said all students and staff returning to campus would have mandatory screenings for COVID-19, and that the university expects to have the capacity to test upwards of 2,500 people each day.
Northeastern will have an internal contact testing team trained by the John Hopkins University School of Medicine in coordination with the Department of Public Health and the Boston Public Health Commission, said David Luzzi, Northeastern’s senior vice provost for research.
Besides reconfiguring the cafeteria and other campus common areas for social distancing and in following Center for Disease Control guidelines to ensure they stay sanitized, Tobin said in the fall, Northeastern would introduce Hybrid NuFlex – a new teaching approach that aims to limit the number of students in the classroom whereby they will alternate between learning on campus in the traditional sense and remote learning.
Face coverings also must be worn in campus common areas at all times, Spiegelman added, and proctors will be on hand to ensure that no visitors are allowed in the dorms, which will have reduced occupancy in adherence with safety guidelines.
Rita Nieves, interim executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said the city is still waiting for safety guidelines for schools from the state’s DPH.
City Councilor Michelle Wu said she is disheartened at how little input Boston has had in this process to date.
“I’m not very comforted or impressed by the state’s pace and acknowledgment of what the safety concerns are,” Councilor Wu said. “I’m also disappointed that the city wasn’t asked to participate and by the lack of transparency in the process and the moving between phases. We should push that Boston be more proactive and have more seats at the table, too.”
Nieves said: “Testing, tracking and tracing are vital tools in the fight against the virus. At a minimum, low barrier-testing should be available for students who have light symptoms or are asymptomatic, as well as for staff, workers and those [not directly employed by schools].”
Nieves added that the Boston University School of Public Health has offered to assist the Health Commission’s Infectious Disease Bureau in contact tracing by reaching out to thousands of possible infected individuals.
“It would be helpful for institutions to maintain databases of cases within their communities to allow for quick responses,” Nieves said. “We’re also counting on robust communication campaigns from colleges and universities, with a highly visible message underlying that students are part of a bigger community here in Boston, and that they have a responsibility to that community.”
Councilor Bok, who is also a part-time professor at Harvard University, said she is concerned that the “ramp-up period” for testing might not be in place when students return to the city’s colleges and universities in the fall.
“One of the greatest moments [for the virus to spread] is the moment of influx,” she said.