A month before I was to start school in Boston, I had no idea where I was going to live. I was panicking: As a transfer student switching to Emerson College in the fall of 2017, I was not guaranteed a dorm room. Instead, I had to enter a tight rental market in a city I barely knew, and search for roommates in a field of strangers. But soon I found a sweet Beacon Hill two-bedroom I shared with two roommates — and I was paying less than half of the $2,200 monthly cost of room and board at Emerson in 2018-19.
In addition to saving me money, living off campus has been a highlight of my college experience, fostering my independence and immersing me in the city. It’s a choice that college upperclassmen have traditionally made, but one that is less and less possible in Boston, where available housing — especially affordable apartments — hasn’t kept up with demand. From 2010 to 2016, the city added more than 40,000 residents. Mayor Martin J. Walsh wants to see developers build a whopping 69,000 new units of housing by 2030, but affordable housing will make up just 22 percent of that. And if Walsh has his way, not much of it will go to students.
After he was elected in 2014, Walsh’s administration published “Housing a Changing City: Boston 2030,” announcing the city’s intent to “work with all large universities to establish firm commitments to house a greater percentage of their student bodies on-campus.” The report acknowledged that such a requirement would likely increase college costs for many students and their families, and when the mayor’s plan was updated in 2018, the message stayed the same. In fact, the goal for the number of new dorm beds increased to 18,500 by 2030. The city’s Web page on affordable homes states that “student housing leaves more neighborhood homes open to working families.”
To the city, then, students are part of a housing problem that victimizes working families. City officials have set up us undergrads to take the financial fall for a housing crisis that’s hurting us, too. “The way the city has addressed that [student housing] problem in the past is to encourage, if not coerce, the major universities to build more residence halls for their undergraduates,” says Barry Bluestone, founding director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy and professor emeritus of political economy at Northeastern University.
But undergraduates like me aren’t even the real villains — our enrollment has been holding steady, says Bluestone. Instead, he says, graduate students and others ages 20 to 34 are one of the two groups in Boston seeing the largest population increases, along with those 65 and older.
Meanwhile, dorm construction across the city is in full swing, and some schools are requiring students to live on campus for longer periods. These changes have prompted valid questions about the cost to students and the profit for schools. My school, Emerson College, opened one new dorm in 2017 and will reopen another this fall, adding 665 beds beteween the two. It will soon be able to house more than 2,800 of its 3,813 undergraduates on campus. Emerson now requires that undergraduates live in a dorm for three years, up from two. (I didn’t have to follow these new rules because I’m a transfer student.)
Emmanuel College already housed 89.5 percent of its full-time undergraduates in 2017, but last fall, the school opened its largest-ever residence hall, a 692-bed behemoth with a $140 million price tag. This fall Northeastern will unveil a new dorm, operated by a private developer — with a single unit reportedly going for $19,068 for the school year, board not included.
Already it’s been criticized by students and others who call it luxury-style housing, financially out of reach of many undergrads. Northeastern requires that undergrads live in dorms for two years.
Even the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts, historically a commuter school, opened its first residence hall in August, one built under a public-private partnership. The institution, though, has no requirement that students live on campus. John Sears, the university’s interim associate director and dean of housing and residential life, extols the benefits of first-year on-campus living when it comes to forming friendships and a sense of community. But, he says, “As students move through their college career, apartments or suites are a natural and healthy progression,” allowing upperclassmen to “learn different skills, like independence, that prepare them for life after college.”
I agree with him: Moving off campus is a key part of the college experience. It also gives students the chance to put down roots that can make the difference as they decide where to live after graduation. But by treating undergraduates as if they aren’t city residents, Boston prevents students from considering themselves as such. That’s probably a big reason New England had the lowest retention rate of college grads of any region in the country in a 2013 study.
Living off campus means I’m part of a city neighborhood and have the chance to feel like a resident rather than a visitor. Because I’ve done all this, I know I want to stay here after I graduate this month. Boston has come to feel like home. Higher education is brutally expensive, and only growing more so. Forcing students to add extra housing costs to their loan debt is an unfair burden.
Emma Goodwin is a book blogger and copy editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.