College students latest wave to embrace East Boston
You can tell that East Boston is changing if you stand long enough at the Maverick T stop, where for years an escalator has delivered tired blue-collar workers back home at the end of long workdays.
But now, a new demographic is stepping off that moving staircase. College students, along with young professionals, have begun to trickle into the neighborhood, and many longtime residents find themselves squeezed out.
It’s not quite Allston yet, but Eastie is quickly becoming a destination for students, drawn by cheaper rents, quick public transportation, and quiet streets.
The number of students living in East Boston grew by 115 percent between 2006 and 2013, the latest year that complete city data are available. That makes it one of the fast-growing neighborhoods for students, along with Roxbury, Mission Hill, and the Downtown Crossing/Chinatown area.
The housing journey of Suffolk University junior Brianna Silva encapsulates the neighborhood’s newfound popularity.
After her sophomore year, Silva wanted the freedom of living off campus. Her excitement evaporated when she visited an apartment for rent in the North End. The kitchen was in the living room. The bedrooms barely fit a person. “You’re paying $2,500 to live uncomfortably,” said Silva, a Florida native who studies journalism.
Instead, this fall she and two roommates moved into a three-bedroom in a three-decker in East Boston near the Airport MBTA stop that costs $2,300 and has a real kitchen, separate living room, and big bedrooms. It takes her 20 minutes to get to Suffolk, door to door.
Neighborhood groups say that as developers seize on this demand from young people, they are forcing out longtime residents, many immigrants, who have called East Boston home for decades. The phenomenon has transformed such neighborhoods as Allston, Brighton, and Mission Hill.
The average monthly rent in East Boston has risen from $1,204 in 2005 to $2,070, according to Rental Beast, an online apartment listing service.
A mile down the street from Silva’s apartment, a group of longtime East Boston residents gathers every Wednesday night in the basement of a Paris Street church. At a recent meeting, many brought their children and some carried folders with pieces of wrinkled paper: eviction notices.
As developers buy real estate, some have issued eviction notices to entire buildings, ordering residents to leave or pay up to $1,000 more per month, according to attorneys who work with the advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana to help residents fight evictions.
Prices at local stores and restaurants have risen. Tacos in the restaurants along Meridian Street that used to cost $1 now cost $3, according to one resident. Students don’t contribute to the neighborhood the way longtime residents do, they said.
Still, residents don’t blame their new young neighbors. “They’re just trying to find an affordable place to live, like the rest of us,” another said.
They blame developers and politicians, whom they are lobbying for a law that would bar evictions without cause.
“It’s affecting us a lot. It’s changing too much. Our roots are here,” said Hortencia Martinez, who has lived in East Boston for 20 years with her husband, Gabriel. The couple lives on Lubec Street in a small apartment building whose value has risen 43 percent in the last decade, according to city records. Developer Alex Hodara bought the building in February along with an adjacent property for $1.3 million and is seeking to evict the tenants, they said. Hodara has purchased at least 18 buildings in East Boston this year and owns at least 27 others, including the one where Silva lives on Monmouth Street, according to a database kept by City Life/Vida Urbana.
Hodara did not respond to requests for comment.
East Boston has been a haven for immigrants since the 1800s, when the neighborhood was created by filling in five islands in Boston Harbor. Waves of Canadian and Irish immigrants gave way to Russians, Eastern European Jews, and Italians.
Today’s residents come mostly from Central and South American countries and many work blue-collar jobs.
Hodara’s company website caters to a younger crowd. A promotional video for Living Eastie, the name posted on his buildings, features a young white woman, “Alexandra,” jogging through a mostly deserted East Boston. The video features only one person of color, her CrossFit coach. The company’s website features the slogan “East Boston has arrived.”
Not everyone balks at the changing neighborhood. Longtime East Boston realtor Anthony Giacalone called the influx of new residents a natural evolution, and said when buildings change hands and are renovated, it is normal for rents to rise.
The total number of students in East Boston grew to 1,341 in 2013 from 625 in 2006, according to data colleges submit annually to the city. The 2014 numbers, while available, are calculated differently making them near impossible to compare.
There is chatter about Suffolk University’s plans for the area. The college in July announced it will use the sports fields in East Boston Memorial Park, and Suffolk officials last week said they are talking with developers about building more dorms somewhere in Boston.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh has asked schools to build a total of 18,500 new dorm beds by 2030 with the goal of freeing up 5,000 units of housing citywide.
Meanwhile, talk about gentrification is not lost on students. Discussion simmers on the popular East Boston Open Discussion Facebook page.
“I see more people like me, students and professionals, moving in,” Emerson College graduate student AJ Park said in a recent phone interview.
Megan Post, a Weymouth native and senior at Suffolk, lives with Taylor Cole and a third roommate on Havre Street. They pay $750, $800 and $850 depending on the size of the bedroom, still cheaper than the approximately $1,300 per month (plus meal plan) for a dorm at Suffolk, which doesn’t guarantee students housing after their first year.
Cole has lived in East Boston for two years. On her first move-in day, she said, she didn’t see any students. On Sept. 1 this year, things were different. “I’d say it’s definitely being gentrified, and pretty much everyone knows that,” Cole said.
Sal LaMattina, a city councilor who represents the neighborhood, said he watched the same changes in the North End and anticipated it would eventually happen to East Boston. “If [students] move there I hope they get involved in the neighborhood, maybe volunteer in the Boys and Girls Club,” LaMattina said.