Northeastern Housing Crisis Impacts Neighboring Communities
By Ananya Kulkarni
Northeastern University is scrambling to house all of its students after the Class of 2025 broke records with approximately 75,000 undergraduate applications. This 17% increase in the usual number of student applications also led to twice the usual number of admitted students, creating a new problem: Housing all the new students without overflowing into the surrounding communities.
Freshman Ellie Thadani, one of many freshmen who was housed off-campus due to the university’s on-campus housing shortage, has been living in the Westin Copley hotel since she started school in August.
“It has just been really frustrating to be a freshman living off-campus this year because I am about to move into an apartment as a sophomore in the Fall and I will never have had the ‘freshmen experience’,” Thadani said.
She is one of many students who feel the same way. While the university is aware of the housing issue due to the multitude of students currently residing in the Westin, Sheraton and Midtown hotels, Northeastern has proceeded with plans to construct ISEC II, a building that will contain more usable classroom space ahead of the 2023 school year. The university also has an existing structure known as ISEC I which serves to alleviate the same problem as the new construction project.
“My initial thought was, I didn't think we were low on classroom space. I thought we were low on dorms,” second-year graduate student studying environmental policy Alex Shoepke said. “I know we are low on dorms, considering their (Northeastern's) students are living in hotels. So I feel like they should have made dorms a priority, or they should have accepted fewer people.”
In the university’s vision for ISEC II, the section of campus will be complete with a residential tower that would be used for freshmen in the future. The university has filed its plan to begin construction and aims to break ground in 2021. However, as competing claims for the space have continually caused delays, Northeastern has faced pressure from the Boston Housing Authority to take responsibility for the number of students they bring to the city without a concrete plan to house them all. In the meantime the university has moved forward with plans to increase the capacity of most of the International Village (IV) dorms, converting the single-occupancy rooms into doubles and double–occupancy rooms into triples. Though many students voiced concerns about the health and safety of such a decision, the university will be moving forward with the change this Summer.
Freshman Trisha Anand, who frequently visits the residential portion of IV was shocked to hear of this decision.
“It just seems to me like that’s not enough space for two or three people to be living in. Even if they can fit their stuff, they will probably never have any time alone,” Anand said.
Northeastern elected to move forward with this plan as they face increasing pressure from outside groups such as the Fenway Community Development Corporation. While many of these groups acknowledge the increased dormitory capacity is not an ideal solution for students, they persist in stating that Northeastern students must be better contained to prevent them from driving out existing residents. There is particular concern around the goal to pull students out of the triple-decker apartments in Back Bay and Roxbury, that were designed with families in mind, but that students frequently lease outside of the university housing system when the Northeastern’ housing selection process fails to satisfy them.
Graduate student Nick Visser reflected on his experience from when he was an undergraduate student at the university.
“Even back then I remember being told, ‘don't live on campus, you have much better chances off-campus’, and I think because Northeastern still hasn’t addressed a lot of the concerns around housing, students still feel the same way,” Visser said.
The growth of the Back Bay and Northeastern’s campus continue to threaten Roxbury’s boundaries. According to a 2017 study conducted by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, many of the most gentrified tracts of land in Massachusetts are in Roxbury. The criteria for gentrification contain two markers: That both median house/rent costs grew more than the metro-wide median since 1990, as well as the share of residents who were college-educated relative to the median.
As seen in Figure 1 above, Roxbury has met both the criteria for this kind of gentrification between 1990 and 2016. (Map courtesy of Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies)
As rent and housing costs increased, minorities began to make up a smaller share of the residents in low-income tracts of land. Additionally, as these areas were gentrified, the growth in the proportion of minorities in the area increased at a lower rate relative to other low-income neighborhoods that were not gentrified.
As Northeastern continues to make decisions that ripple out into historically minority-held communities, they must consider their impact on residents who have been in the area long before Boston became occupied by an increasing number of students.
“When Northeastern decides to admit double the usual number of students, they have to consider the consequences that such a decision will have,” Thadani said. “For a university that claims to be progressive, Northeastern needs to be more mindful in not only how their decisions reflect on their values as an institution, but also in how they reflect on us as students.”