Students Exacerbate Housing Crunch

Looking for a recipe for tension?

Take a community in flux, remove affordable housing and mix in a couple hundred thousand college students.

The result--palpable in Cambridge and Boston--is a housing crunch and a clashing neighborhood character, experts say.

As students drive up rents, they also drive out working families--and can make the neighborhoods more like college campuses than suburban streets.

Though residents don't fault the students, realizing that their schools don't always offer housing, they still bemoan the rent increases and the changing feel of neighborhoods.

"Students are willing to pay more, because they can," says Thomas J. Philbin, spokesperson for Boston's Department of Neighborhood Development.

"Parents of students will bite the bullet and pay for expensive housing for four years--they expect to pay for room and board," he says. "But families have to do this every year, and can't shell out as much. This drives rents up incredibly."

Bill Cavellini, a housing organizer for the Cambridge Eviction-Free Zone, a tenant advocacy group, agrees, and says that this is a structural problem that will persist.

"Students live a lifestyle that can outspend families with children," he says.

That's echoed by Jon Lenicheck, a district representative in the Cambridge office of U.S. Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Somerville).

"A family of four can just not keep up with the spending power of five students," Lenicheck says.

"That's not to paint anyone as a villain," he continues, "but it is a fact of the market."

The problem has become compounded since Cambridge ended rent control in 1995.

With rent prices no longer constrained, and landlords can charge high amounts that students are willing to pay.

"In apartments where groups of students live," Cavellini says, "there are four to five wage earners. In a family there are two parents that work and children that don't. So it is difficult for the family to compete with a group of students living in an apartment."

Philbin agrees, and says students will crowd into one tiny apartment, often sleeping in kitchens and dining rooms.

"Landlords are squeezing kids into small apartments because they know they can get a lot of money," Philbin says.

"They have four or five people living in one small apartment at 500 to 800 bucks a whack," he continues.

In an already crowded market, overflowing student populations are a main cause of concern.

There is an across-the-board increase in demand, says John Howard, president of the Porter Square Neighborhood Association.

"A lot more people now want to live in Cambridge," he says. "The general consensus is sort of that the yuppies are driving prices up. The yuppies are considered this evil group that will pay more for housing."

If yuppies are faulted, students are even more so.

"It's because of unlimited demand that we are in this situation," Cavellini says. "It's the professional people and the students. Demand is high for all ranges of housing."

That's been a recent development, though. The housing market could support the high number of students in the '80s and early '90s.

But with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino's efforts to improve Boston's public image, people are seeing it as a good place to work and raise a family.

"Boston is experiencing a Renaissance," Philbin says. "Mayor Menino has done a great job in promoting the city as a place to live."

But where the market could once accommodate for students and lower-income families, there's now not room for both.

"I don't think that the amount of students was a problem in the recession of the early 90s, because students were the only group with a high demand for housing," Philbin says. "Now, it is a different story."

Changing Neighborhoods

As students flood residential neighborhoods, the character of the neighborhoods themselves has changed.

Philbin says his Allston-Brighton neighborhood has changed drastically due to student renters.

"We used to have two families on either side of us, and now it's all students," he says. "My 3-year-old has no one to play with anymore."

Families moved out, Philbin says, because students could foot a higher bill than two working parents with children.

But residents nevertheless seem to understand the pressures on students.

"Certainly no one is against the students in the neighborhood," Howard says, adding that their effect on his Porter Square neighborhood is difficult to determine.

For the students themselves, a large student population can establish a certain level of comfort.

Carlie A. Kalendarski, 20, is a student at Harvard's Extension School and rents an apartment on Harvard Street in Cambridge. Kalendarski says her building houses quite a few students, and that it gives her residence a distinct feel.

"My building is certainly not like a college dormitory," she says, "but it is not a normal apartment either."

"There is a definite part-time student presence here," she continues. "A lot of the people are younger, in college or right out of college, and that definitely contributes to its feel. It would be a very different place if everyone was out of school, working."

Student renters such as Kalendarski have a definite impact on neighborhood character, says Capuano aide Lenicheck.

"There is no question that undergraduates have a very different lifestyle than people 10 or 15 years older," Lenicheck says. "And to some extent, [the student influence] is very evident."

Kelly L. Desmarais, 22, is a Tufts senior and rents an apartment in Somerville with three other students.

She says her neighborhood has a handful of students, but that it is comprised primarily of working families. Regardless of driving up rents, she says, students have a definite effect on the atmosphere in the area.

"Neighborhoods with a lot of students are a lot more social," she says.

Sometimes, though, the students have little say in whether they live off-campus or not.

Although Harvard guarantees housing for four years to its undergraduates, a small percentage chooses to live off campus. In addition, several hundred Harvard graduate students rent apartments and houses in the area.

According to Philbin, Harvard has a respectable record since it houses the bulk of its students, while other area universities do not. He says some colleges have facilities that are inadequate for their student populations, forcing thousands to live off campus.

"Harvard has been pretty good in this respect," he says.

"Boston College has done an utterly poor job," Philbin continues. "Boston University and Northeastern are improving. They are both building new dorms that should help alleviate the problem."

Lenicheck agrees that some colleges need more dormitory space for students to minimize their effect on the housing crunch. He says that Capuano, when he was mayor of Somerville, successfully lobbied Tufts to erect more living space for its undergraduates.

"More dormitory space is one option, [and] it is a good one," Lenicheck says.

As long as Boston continues to attract recent-graduates, professionals and suburban families, demand will remain high for housing in and around the city.

"Boston's increased popularity is drawing those from outside the city, students and graduates who want to raise a family here," Philbin says.

"As long as that stays high and the students continue to pay up, the housing crisis will continue."