MIT reports 600 beds needed to ease grad student housing demands

Originally published in the Cambridge Chronicle on March 3, 2014.

Released Feb. 4, a report on graduate student housing at MIT recommended adding 500 to 600 beds for graduate students, particularly international students with families, to accommodate growing demand and increased market pressure.

The report was commissioned as an outgrowth of MIT’s proposal to redevelop more than 2 million square feet of MIT-owned property in Kendall Square, which the Cambridge City Council approved in April last year. Since then, former MIT Provost Chris Kaiser and Chancellor Eric Grimson established an ad hoc working group to evaluate ways in which graduate student housing needs are currently met, identify strengths and weaknesses in the university’s current approach to housing and recommend ways to best serve graduate student housing needs in the future.

Former Chancellor and Department of Urban Studies and Planning Professor Phillip Clay, chair of the working group, said the group approached the study by first breaking down the provost’s charge into a set of questions, and they gathered data to answer those questions.

Clay said they made no assumptions about whether or not housing was actually needed, nor did they assume they knew what kind of housing would be most appropriate. They reached out to the community as part of the study, he said, meeting several times with the graduate student community and at least once with Cambridge residents.

“People have been saying housing is expensive for as long as I can remember,” Clay said. “What we found is evidence that housing is not only becoming more expensive, but decent, affordable housing options were becoming more scarce.”

The report found that between 2000 and 2013, the median asking rent in Cambridge increased 80 percent for one-bedroom units, 65 percent for two-bedroom units, and 60 percent for three-bedroom.

It hasn’t been a slow and steady change, but rather recent years have accelerated the growth in rents, the report’s authors said, outpacing even Boston in asking rents. In Boston, between 2010 and 2013, the average asking rent in Greater Boston increased by 6 percent, compared to 22-45 percent in Cambridge. When students looked for housing in neighboring towns, like Somerville, Allston and Brookline, the rents were not significantly lower, the report found.

Caleb Waugh, president of the MIT Graduate Student Council, said the increase in off-campus housing rents and the competitiveness of the off-campus housing market were both key financial drivers that impact students.

Waugh said he was very happy with the recommendation to add 500-600 beds, plus an additional 400 units of “swing space” that would be used to accommodate renovations for the existing housing stock. Currently, MIT houses 2,333 of their roughly 6,800 students. He said special attention was paid to international families, who have particular difficulty in finding affordable places to live, especially because their partners or spouses often do not have visas to work in the country.

The report acknowledges that graduate students and post docs, while not often able to compete on the luxury housing market, can often out-price family-sized units when they pool their resources together. The issue of students out-pricing families came up as a sticking point in the discussions around MIT’s petition to redevelop a 26-acre swath of Kendall Square. The proposal included roughly 200,000 square feet for housing, but many residents said there needed to be much more.

Jonathan King, a biology professor at MIT and co-chair of the Cambridge Residents Alliance, said the community was a little disappointed the number of housing units recommended wasn’t higher.

“It was a step in the right direction,” King said. “Not enough, but a beginning.”

In an open letter dated Feb. 4, Provost Marty Schmidt said MIT is sharing the draft report in order to give the community an opportunity to offer feedback. Once the report is finalized in mid-spring, Schmidt said he would be working with the administration to provide a formal response to the recommendations.

Comments on the report can be sent to:

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