Graduate students rally for more on-campus housing

Students file amendment to MIT’s Volpe zoning petition, demanding 1,800 grad housing units

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Shovels engraved with "Kendall Square at MIT" were displayed with painted construction helmets before the groundbreaking of MIT's newest grad student dorm during the Kendall Square Innovation Playground at HUBweek Oct. 11. Despite this new dorm, grad students still feel there will not be enough on-campus housing for them.
Johnny Bui–The Tech
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MIT graduate students rally in front of 77 Massachusetts Ave. Oct. 12, calling for 1,800 new graduate apartments on campus as a part of the Graduate Students Apartments Now movement.
Collyn Chan
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Median gross rent from 2007–2016 in the Boston area. Gross rent refers to the sum of rent and estimated utility bills. Data shows the most recent results of the American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The student and community affiliate group Graduate Student Apartments Now held a rally in front of 77 Massachusetts Avenue and marched to Cambridge City Hall for an Ordinance Committee hearing Oct. 12 to demand that MIT build new graduate housing units as a condition of the commercial redevelopment of MIT’s recently purchased Volpe parcel in Kendall Square.

In 2013, 38 percent of graduate students were housed on campus. The administration stated in an email to all graduate students on Oct. 16 that it will apply for permits to construct 700 more beds on campus, in addition to the 250 net beds currently being built as part of the Kendall Square redevelopment, by the end of 2020. The total addition of these 950 new beds will house more than 50 percent of the current graduate student population.

In an official statement on its website, GSAN wrote, “We commend the administration for having the boldness to allocate real resources towards addressing the housing needs.” However, it also pointed out that the “950-bed commitment falls somewhat short of the projected 1,000-1,100 shortfall in graduate housing” as determined by the interim report that the Graduate Student Working Group conducted in October.

The movement for more graduate student housing

GSAN began as a group of graduate students in the Urban Studies and Planning Department who met informally in the spring to discuss the redevelopment of the Volpe site, for which the MIT Investment Management Company had won a $750 million bid from the federal government.

GSAN organizer Kelly Blynn SM ’17 said in an interview with The Tech that GSAN was formed “to meet existing unmet demand for graduate student housing and to ensure that MIT is a good neighbor to its surrounding communities.”

According to MIT’s 2016 Town Gown report, 62 percent of MIT graduate students live off-campus. The 2016 Boston Comprehensive Housing Market Analysis estimated that students in Boston and Cambridge occupy 25 percent of the available rental housing stock. The 2016 Greater Boston Housing Report Card reported that average market rents rose 59 percent between 2009 and 2016 in Boston’s inner core cities, which includes Cambridge.

In May, the graduate students submitted 300 signatures to the Volpe working group in support of more graduate housing. GSAN organizer Douglas McPherson MA ’18 said in an interview with The Tech, “We felt it was quite clear that the commercial development at the Volpe site was going to bring a significant influx of new workers to Cambridge, adding to the already competitive rental housing environment.”

The students received no response from the Volpe working group, according to Blynn. Volpe working group chair Steven Hall SB ’80 SM ’82 ScD ’85 could not be reached for comment. However, MIT Office of Government and Community Relations co-director Sarah Gallop said in an interview with The Tech, “There were over 70 public community meetings to gather input about the Volpe site.”

In July, the graduate students collaborated with the MIT Graduate Student Council to conduct a survey to gauge the potential demand for graduate student housing. The results showed there would be an unmet demand for 1,450 beds if there were no changes to the current housing system. The analysis also attempted to gauge the housing demand if larger changes about price, allocation lottery, keeping rooms, etc. were made. After sampling a combination of the most popular choices, the report found that such changes could create demand for 1,800 units.

Establishment of Graduate Student Housing Working Group

The GSC met with Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88, Provost Martin Schmidt SM ’83 PhD ’88, and Treasurer Israel Ruiz SM ’88 to discuss the lack of graduate housing in early August. “The zoning petition was a thought we had before our discussions with the administration, but we didn’t have an exact solution,” GSC President Sarah Goodman G said in an interview with The Tech.

Barnhart announced her plan to create the Graduate Student Housing Working Group to assess the graduate housing needs on Aug. 3. “The working group is bringing all the involved parties to the table. Projects happen through partnership among students, administration, and faculty to help us realize the vision for more housing,” Barnhart said in an interview with The Tech.

Ruiz noted some financial constraints of building new housing. “MIT is faced with competing demands for buildings to support priority academic uses and housing for both undergraduate and graduate students.” Ruiz said in an email interview.

“It’s a complicated issue and you need to gather as much data as possible,” GSC Secretary Orpheus Chatzivasileiou G said in an interview with The Tech. “There’s a lot of options on what to build, and things have also changed over the past three years since the Clay Report [a 2014 report done by a similar Graduate Student Housing Working Group that assessed housing needs], including the administration.”

However, some graduate students still weren’t satisfied with a working group. In 2014, the working group that published the Clay Report identified demand for 500-600 beds, but MIT is currently only building 250 net new beds in Kendall Square. Blynn said, “We felt like we had seen this history three years ago, and we were concerned that another working group alone wouldn't meet the housing needs of graduate students.”

Barnhart elaborated on the process of building a new structure. “It’s a complex challenge to go from idea and identification of need to having a design that is approved by the city and is ready to go,” Barnhart said. “We have been doing campus planning to understand where we have opportunities to add beds.”

MIT has already increased the percentage of graduate students housed on campus, from 27 percent in the 1980s and 1990s to almost 40 percent today, according to Barnhart.

MIT’s Volpe zoning petition and GSAN’s proposed amendment

The Volpe zoning petition is a mixed-use zoning petition with the city of Cambridge that MIT filed on Jun. 21 to build four commercial buildings, four residential buildings, and 2.5 acres of regional open space. In total, the space would be divided into 60 percent commercial retail space and 40 percent residential space, according to Gallop. By Cambridge law, 20 percent of the 1,400 residential units would have to be designated as affordable housing.

GSAN filed an amendment to the Volpe zoning petition on Aug. 14. It called for a total of 1,800 units, based on the results of a survey that the Graduate Student Council conducted in July. Specifically, it requested 1,100 housing units for single graduate students and 700 units for families to be built within 1.5 miles of the Volpe parcel in phases during the redevelopment.

The Cambridge City Council has to make a decision whether to adopt the GSAN zoning petition amendment before the Volpe petition expires on Oct. 31.

Ordinance Committee hearing on the petition amendment

MIT faculty, City Council candidates, Cambridge politicians, and local residents voiced their support for GSAN and attended the Ordinance Committee hearing for the zoning petition amendment.

Jonathan King, biology professor and MIT Faculty Newsletter editorial board member, said in an interview with The Tech, “My research depends on graduate students, and they are the key to research at MIT. If they have to spend so much time commuting, it makes labwork very difficult.”

“It’s a win-win approach,” Zondervan said in support of GSAN’s petition in an interview with The Tech. “MIT provides affordable housing on campus for graduate students and there’s more housing available for Cambridge residents.”

At the hearing, Somerville resident Bill Cavallini detailed his personal experience in regards to the affordable housing crisis. “I had to leave Cambridge in 2004 after 30 years as a tenant organizer and affordable housing advocate. The primary reason was lack of affordable housing options after the loss of rent control in 1994. Before 1994, taxicab drivers like myself could barely afford to live in most neighborhoods in the city,” Cavallini said at the hearing. “Afterwards, and to this day, you will find very few drivers living anywhere in Cambridge other than publicly subsidized housing.”

The PowerPoint that GSAN presented at the hearing included a comparison to Stanford University’s current work in spending $1.1 billion to build 2,020 net new housing units, which would house 75 percent of their graduate students. Blynn said, “We knew MIT could make graduate housing a priority if it wanted to.”

“There has to be an element of fairness. If MIT is bringing thousands of workers here as a result of Volpe, they have to work to balance these effects by providing more housing for graduate students,” City Councillor Dennis Carlone said in an interview with The Tech.

City Councillor Leland Cheung MBA ’10 was hesitant to delay the Volpe redevelopment at the expense of building more graduate housing. “I’m a little conflicted on how far we really want [MITIMCo] to do nothing with the Volpe site if they don’t concede to the demands of more graduate housing,” Cheung said at the hearing. “Am I willing to sacrifice all the good that’s going to come out of redeveloping Volpe for the city?”

Others thought that the zoning petition amendment was the best way to get MIT to cooperate. Quinton Zondervan SM ‘95, City Council candidate, said at the hearing, “With the Volpe development, we have some leverage to get MIT to discuss the issue. If we approve the Volpe petition without addressing the graduate student housing petition, all that leverage is lost and we won’t get MIT to agree to build affordable student housing we need.”

Results of the Graduate Student Housing Working Group survey

The working group released an interim report on the results of a conjoint survey they conducted from Sept. 29 to Oct. 9. It estimated preference for 1,000-1,100 additional beds for students in on-campus housing and determined that graduate students valued price, unit type, and short commute time over building amenities and a sense of community.

The report first gave background about the current Cambridge rental market, MIT’s growing graduate student population, and MIT’s previous work in building graduate housing.

It also suggested that MIT develop a process to evaluate possible changes to housing policies, such as a review of the campus housing allocation process and assistance with the off-campus housing search.

The report recommended a detailed housing evaluation every three years.

“The working group is 100 percent open discussion, and we’re making a lot of progress between the administration and graduate students in trying to really understand graduate housing and how we can improve it,” Vice Chancellor and Graduate Student Housing Working Group Chair Ian Waitz said in an interview with The Tech.

Response to the working group report on graduate housing

Based on the interim report, the MIT administration sent an email to all graduate students on Oct. 16 promising to apply for permits to build a new residence hall with at least 500 beds and to “increase by 200 the number of permanent graduate beds by converting existing beds and/or establishing new beds on MIT’s campus or properties owned by MIT” before the end of 2020.

However, GSAN responded in a statement on its website that the administration didn’t completely fulfill the interim report’s estimated demand of 1,000-1,100 beds. “Based on the interim report, the percentage of off-campus graduate students expressing a preference to live on-campus doubled between 2014 and today. This underscores the impact of rising rents on students, and suggests that the current shortfall is likely to grow in the years it will takes to bring more units online.”

GSAN’s statement also raised “questions about the specifics of how the administration will create the remaining 200 beds in its current proposal.”

Gallop said, “The MIT administration and GSAN have the same objective, which is to look carefully at graduate student housing needs. There’s just a difference in approach.”