Since taking office, Mayor Marty Walsh has properly focused on two pressing concerns: the failings exposed by the Globe series on “shadow campuses” and Boston’s longer-term housing problems. There is a compelling need to develop broad policies to address these linked matters.
The city, working with colleges and neighborhood groups, should develop a plan that enables universities to house all their undergraduate students within 10 years. More effective enforcement of housing codes and increased fines on scofflaw landlords, while necessary, simply won’t solve the problems caused by the failure of universities to provide enough student housing.
That failure contributes to Boston’s housing crisis, making the city unaffordable for working- and middle-class families by transforming neighborhoods into investment opportunities for absentee landlords eager to charge rapacious rents to students. Declines in owner-occupied housing and long-term renters are eroding the stability, community, and character of an increasing number of neighborhoods. Allston-Brighton, the Fenway, and Mission Hill are at particular risk.
Without strong action, Boston could well become a city made up largely of the wealthy, the poor, and of thousands of college students and recent graduates living collectively in residential housing in order to afford steep rents. Already the city is losing its working and middle-class families, as well as its ability to attract and retain recent immigrants. We are also becoming a city with fewer children. According to a Brookings Institution report, Boston/Cambridge ranks 91 out of 95 metropolitan areas in the United States in the percentage of residents ages 5 to 14.
My own Allston-Brighton neighborhood is a victim of those trends, with almost 9,000 undergraduates living in residential housing. The neighborhood once had three Little Leagues, but with fewer and fewer children here, only one merged league now exists. As the population has become more transient, community anchors have closed, including two public schools and two Catholic schools and parishes. The neighborhood is at a tipping point, in danger of losing the stability long-term residents impart. It is impossible to create community in a sea of transience.
Given the problem’s severity, we need to be bold in resolving it. For example, a public-private partnership, involving the city, the state, multiple universities, and private developers, should create a new mixed neighborhood of dormitories, market-rate housing, affordable housing, and street-level stores above the Mass. Pike. This partnership could transform an urban scar into a dynamic neighborhood.
Boston residents and community groups will need to be more open to limited and well-planned dormitory construction beyond existing campus boundaries. Knee-jerk opposition to density needs to be abandoned; density and high-rise dormitories make sense in certain sites, particularly those close to public transit options.
To start the process of producing more dorms, Walsh should convene a task force of city officials, residents, urban planners, and college representatives. After a series of forums to solicit ideas, this task force should identify appropriate locations for dormitory construction both on and off campuses, with a priority given to on-campus locations.
But the city shouldn’t bear the sole responsibility for addressing these issues. Boston’s universities represent a vital economic engine for Massachusetts. Thus, the state should develop housing programs for Boston neighborhoods where large numbers of students reside. An emphasis should be put on increasing owner-occupied housing.
These initiatives should be combined with university programs to assist employees in purchasing homes or securing apartments near their campuses. That would increase the number of people able to walk, bike, or ride public transportation to work. The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia increased the percentage of faculty and staff living in its immediate neighborhood from 5 to 25 percent in a decade.
With the right response, we can reclaim Boston neighborhoods for working- and middle-class families while also increasing housing for young working adults. We should envision a future for Allston-Brighton, the Fenway, and Mission Hill where the number of long-term residents, children, and owner-occupied homes all increase.
At pivotal moments in Boston’s history, the combination of investigative journalism, creative governmental action, and grassroots mobilization has produced smart solutions for big problems. This represents a similar moment of opportunity. We should seize it.