IT’S AS REGULAR as clockwork – and as orderly as a hurricane. Each fall, hundreds of thousands of college and university students descend on the state’s roughly 150 institutions of higher education.
For first year undergraduates at most of these schools, they can usually expect to haul their bags into a dormitory on campus, wave a merry goodbye or shed a few tears at their departing family and friends, and settle in. As the years go on, though, more and more of these undergrads, along with their graduate student peers, branch out beyond the ivy-covered walls or modern towers of their campuses and face the first gauntlet of a true Massachusetts resident: the housing market.
The Greater Boston metropolitan area, as defined by the US Census, houses around 400,000 students enrolled in undergraduate or graduate school programs, with about half of them enrolled in schools within the city proper. Boston estimates that students account for 13 percent of its entire rental population.
This makes them a significant market force. But they face a difficult bind – simultaneously victims of scarce and expensive housing stock and often pegged as villains putting the squeeze on families in the scramble for the limited supply of available rental units.
Compounding the problem is the fact that when cities and towns try to get their arms around the student housing landscape, they run into a classic Massachusetts tangle. Data on student housing patterns is usually collected and shared only within municipal boundaries, making regional planning next to impossible. Add those dynamics together, and it’s no wonder the great September move-in causes so much angst for students and cities alike.
“Students are people who live in our region just like anybody else,” said Luc Schuster, executive director of Boston Indicators, a research center at the Boston Foundation. Universities bring “a lot of vibrancy to our region,” he said, in many ways providing the foundation of the state’s thriving knowledge economy. “It doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges with the number of people who want to live in our region. But it all comes down to, I think, pretty basic housing dynamics, where we need to make sure we’re building enough housing to meet the needs of all the people who want to live here.”
Across the state, students are competing in a rental thunderdome. Boston’s vacancy rate is a staggeringly low 0.37 percent, according to Boston Pads data. It’s similarly slim pickings across the Charles River in student-rich Somerville and Cambridge, where vacancy rates hover below 1 percent. In Amherst, home to the flagship UMass campus, the housing vacancy rate sits at 1.7 percent.
A healthy vacancy rate is about 6 percent, experts say, which allows tenants some negotiation room and maintains diversity and stability in available housing stock. The low vacancy rates, Schuster said, translate to skyrocketing rents for everybody.
The region affectionately known as “Camberville” – Cambridge and Somerville, and sometimes Medford – is home to several of the Greater Boston’s most well-known colleges and universities. When the students have had enough of dorms and dining halls, the move to off-campus housing begins, and neighborhoods near the schools tend to feel the pinch first.
Groups of students “compete against families and other individuals and working adults who are trying to find housing,” said Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne, who was a ward city councilor for the area of Somerville with the most off-campus Tufts University students before she became mayor last year. “The lack of university housing forces this competition in this market, specifically for our two- and three- family homes, which is about 70 percent of the housing stock in the city of Somerville.”
First-year students at Tufts are required to live on campus, and dorm space is guaranteed for all second year students who want it – a common policy at area colleges – with about 33 percent of the overall undergraduate student body choosing to live off-campus.
University spokesperson Patrick Collins said that Tufts has been doing its best to relieve pressure on the rental housing market in Somerville and Medford, the two communities the campus straddles. “There are many factors and trends driving housing prices in the Greater Boston area,” he said in a statement. “In an effort to help, the university has been investing in the creation of new on-campus housing.” Collins said Tufts has added more than 700 beds on the Medford and Somerville campus in recent years and a combination of new dorms and renovation will soon add another 175 beds.
Students are often motivated to move off campus by simple economics. The annual cost of campus-owned housing for Tufts students breaks down to roughly $1,100 to $1,300 a month per student. Living off campus in the nearby area, the university website says, will typically run students between $700 and $1,000 a month plus utilities. Graduate students will almost always opt to live in private-market housing, as the on-campus options are limited and prioritize first year grad students.
Not every Greater Boston community is feeling the same pressures at the same time. Iram Farooq, assistant city manager in Cambridge’s community development department, said well-paid tech and bio-med workers who want to live close to their workplaces in the city’s booming Kendall Square area have exerted upward pressure on rents and can often outbid groups of students. She said that has led more students at institutions like MIT to ask for on-campus accommodations. And the city has backed up that call, requiring the university to build 950 new graduate student beds, 676 of which should come online next year.
“Where even five years ago, seven years ago, we used to talk about how students were just out-competing families, at this point, we are hearing from students that they are getting pushed out and they’re not able to afford Cambridge either,” Farooq said.
Though 98 percent of Harvard undergraduate students live on campus, less than half of the university’s graduate students live in the university’s expansive real estate holdings, which many find “prohibitively expensive,” according to the Harvard Crimson, but which Harvard says typically fall 1.75 percent below Cambridge market rates. The university advises graduate students that on- and off-campus monthly housing costs average $1,900 per person a month in Cambridge or more, with costs outside the city typically hundreds of dollars cheaper.
As individual communities, Ballantyne said, “We can’t solve the problem. As everybody says, and I’m not trying to be cliché, this is a regional issue. What happens when there’s not enough housing is the pressure goes outward. The economic centers are Boston and Cambridge. So the pressure goes out to the surrounding communities. Somerville, historically has been the dormitory to Boston and Cambridge.”
Getting a handle on the regional spread of student housing is not easy. Boston and Cambridge have ordinances that require colleges and universities to tell them how many students are enrolled and how many live on-campus, off-campus, or at home.
But there’s a jurisdictional twist. These ordinances only apply to the higher educational institutions with campuses in each city, and they only cover students living within the city in question. That means Cambridge, for example, gets no information abut how many students attending Boston schools like Northeastern University live within its boundaries. Similarly, Boston is out of luck when it comes to knowing how many Harvard students enrolled on the Cambridge campus cross the river for housing.
While Cambridge knows that about 7,700 students from Harvard, Hult International Business School, Lesley University, and MIT live off-campus in the city and about 16,300 live in on-campus or university-affiliated housing, that leaves about a fifth of the city’s roughly 30,000 college or graduate student residents unaccounted for.
This means each city is limited in its ability to gauge where student demand is greatest and what schools are contributing to their rental market. Aside from Cambridge schools, “we have no leverage over the other universities,” Farooq said. Planners have to hope that other cities are also trying to encourage local schools to house their students and making efforts to boost housing stock across income levels, she said. “And if others are making efforts similar to ours, that regional impact would tend to move in a similarly positive direction for everyone.”
Boston is able to track students from 29 colleges and universities with campuses in the city, not including community colleges. Last year, about 38,000 students lived in units in Boston’s private housing market, roughly split between graduate and undergraduate students. But graduate students have a disproportionately higher impact on the market, with only 36 percent of them living in campus student housing compared to 70 percent of undergraduates.
“The return of university students to the city of Boston increases demand for housing on the market, most often competing with families for multi-bedroom homes,” said the city’s housing chief, Sheila Dillon. “This, in turn, can put pressure on lower-income residents and further exacerbate affordability issues in the city. The city needs more housing of all types to serve our residents and moderate prices.”
Aside from tracking some student data, Cambridge and Boston have another tool on hand. They require large institutions like universities and hospitals submit institutional master plans (IMPs) for city review every 10 years. These plans include new proposed buildings and changes to existing structures, such as Northeastern University’s approved 2022 amendment to “upsize” two existing dormitories by reconfiguring the rooms to fit more students.
More Northeastern undergraduates lived off-campus in Boston in 2022 than any other university – some 4,500 students, about half as many as live on-campus. Northeastern also narrowly beat out Boston University for most off-campus graduate students in 2022 – 6,227 to 6,166.
Boston “strongly encourages all colleges and universities to provide on-campus housing to the maximum possible number of students,” Boston Planning and Development Agency spokesperson Lacey Rose said in a statement. “That said, each college and university has unique needs based on the nature of their student population and their individual living preferences.”
The IMP system lets cities plan for major infrastructure changes related to some of their largest land-owners. For years, Somerville and Medford have been trying to get state lawmakers to approve home rule legislation that would allow them to require universities to engage in long-term planning with city oversight, like Boston and Cambridge can, with Somerville’s legislation fizzling out for almost decade on Beacon Hill.
State schools are also part of the equation, and they are tricky to evaluate because of the sheer number of commuter students and students living at home that attend UMass campuses, other state universities, and community colleges.
Of the 148,964 undergraduate students enrolled in those institutions last year, only 33,353 were definitely housed on campus, according to the Executive Office of Education. UMass Boston did not report its on-campus housing number to the state, but did tell the City of Boston just over 1,000 students live on its Columbia Point dormitories and more than twice that number of students live elsewhere in the city but not at home with family.
The town of Amherst last conducted a housing trend report in 2015, which credited enrollment growth at UMass as a driving factor in Pioneer Valley population growth. At the time, the report said, there simply was not “enough student-focused housing to meet the current need” around the UMass campus, with students both driving the rental market and out-competing non-student renters.
In the eight years since, the housing pressures have only worsened. A group of UMass Amherst students protested the lack of available on-campus housing in April, saying hundreds of students who wanted to live on campus could not be accommodated.
“While the Amherst housing market is tight and can be expensive, as it is throughout the state, local rental listings have been available throughout the summer,” said UMass Amherst spokesperson Edward Blaguszewski. “As we open the fall semester, all indicators point to students successfully securing housing for the coming year.”
The campus houses 14,000 students, with 8,750 living off campus this term, he said. UMass Amherst, like other higher educational institutions, is increasingly pursuing public-private partnerships with developers to build student-oriented housing near campuses.
“Part of the challenge is that an increasing percentage of our juniors and seniors are expressing a preference to stay on campus,” Blaguszewski said. While UMass Amherst student enrollment has risen by 5.5 percent since 2018, he said demand for on-campus housing rose by 8.5 percent. “This is a trend our peer institutions around the country are also reporting. Hopefully, ongoing efforts by UMass and others in the region to build more housing will improve the availability and cost of local housing units.”
In trying to accommodate the calls for more on-campus housing from students and cities, universities have had to pivot from what Ballantyne, the Somerville mayor, described as a “suburban sprawl” approach of buying up existing housing stock to seriously considering where to build new and denser student-focused housing.
Colleges, universities, and their students are a tremendously valuable part of the Commonwealth, officials and analysts are quick to note.
Part of the value is, of course, financial. Universities make philanthropic grants and increasingly contribute to local affordable housing funds. Students at 59 independent colleges and universities spend over $3.3 billion a year in the state between room and board, food, transportation, and miscellaneous retail costs, according to a study of the higher educational institutions represented by the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts. A total of $1.4 billion is spent each year for student housing alone.
Swings in student housing trends can transform local markets. The Boston Foundation attributes a 2020 jump in Greater Boston vacancy rates – up to almost 5 percent across a combined 147 cities and towns – to many students staying out of the region during the height of the pandemic.
“University students are important to the economy,” said Farooq, of Cambridge. “That’s a piece that’s hard to hard to ignore after what we saw during the pandemic. That correlation exists regardless of whether people are living on-campus or off-campus.”
Students returned from virtual schools to a rental ecosystem just as tight as they left it. Cities and the state acknowledge housing construction is lagging demand across the board and across income levels.
The student housing question is, like many housing puzzles, siloed city by city and town by town. The state does not monitor on- or off-campus residences in private schools, nor are towns empowered to ask universities in other cities for student data.
“There are these really important housing policy decisions getting made at this hyper-local level,” said Schuster, of Boston Indicators. “We’ve chopped Greater Boston up into these really, frankly, teeny, municipal boundaries, and so much of the important housing policy decision is driven by small cities and towns.”
The consequence, he said, is “it’s really hard to do good regional planning. Think about it from the perspective of a student coming to Greater Boston. I bet most grad students moving to Greater Boston think hardly anything about the boundary between Cambridge and Somerville or Boston – to them just feels like Boston-Camberville. Friends are just hopping those downtown city lines all the time, and it’s just crazy that we do data gathering and policymaking in such a fragmented way, across those those boundaries that are really artificial in terms of how people really live.”