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Harvard In Its Cities--The Housing Crisis

By William R. Galeota

JUST WHEN Harvard students began flowing back into Cambridge last September, a group of about 800 Cambridge residents, many of them elderly, met for a day in a stuffy church auditorium halfway across the City. This assembly, which dubbed itself the Cambridge Housing Convention, passed a slew of resolutions asking just about everyone in the City--in the universities, the City government, the local redevelopment authority, etc--to do something about what has become Cambridge's most pressing problem: a chronic shortage of low-income housing.

Though the housing convention's resolutions were aimed in all directions, much of the anger expressed at the meeting flew straight toward the universities. In one of his finer moments. Harvard's old nemesis, City Councillor Alfred E. Vellucci of East Cambridge, called not only for low-income housing, but also for a program which would "send Harvard and M.I.T. packing across the river." Through the members of the audience were tired after hours of such speech making, they roused themselves, and gave Vellucci thunderous applause.

That they did is not surprising, for much of the City's housing shortage is directly or indirectly due to the presence of the universities. Acting like giant magnets, they draw new customers--graduate students, professional people, and hangers-on who wish to be near the universities--into the City's housing market. This year, 4020 Harvard students alone lived off-campus in Cambridge; the number of others who moved to the City because of the universities is unknown, but it probably ranges in the thousands. In this densely developed city, the supply of housing has lagged behind this increase in demand, and rents have, if not soared, at least risen to levels beyond the reach of the older, less affluent residents of the City.

The "housing crisis" per se is not particularly new; sharply rising rents have plagued Cambridge for years. But housing shortages only became a major public issue this fall--after the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee took a survey of the elderly in Cambridge, found that 57 per cent of those surveyed were paying more than half their income for rents, and then proceeded to organize the Cambridge Housing Convention session.

Since that session, housing has remained a live issue, with both existing and newly-formed community groups holding meetings, issuing statements, and lobbying with government organizations for more low-income housing. This flurry of activity within the community--and the reverberations which it has had within the University itself--has moved institutional Harvard toward a greater concern for alleviating Cambridge's housing problems.

The Corporation's statement on May 5 that it would build 1100 housing units, 30 per cent of them low income, in Boston and undertake a similar program of housing construction in Cambridge marked a significant change with past attitudes toward community issues. Previously, Harvard--as an institution--had more or less stood aloof from the community; what assistance it gave to Cambridge and Boston came largely as a by product of the research projects of individual faculty members or through the initiative of student social service organizations such as Phillips Brooks House.

Changing past community policies--or lack of policies--of the University has been a slow process. Throughout the fall, Harvard (and M.I.T.) administrators met with a committee created by the Cambridge Housing Convention. At the meeting, the Housing Convention members demanded that the universities immediately commit themselves to a sweeping program of housing, while University representatives suggested beginning with projects that were immediately feasible. The meetings ended without any substantial progress.

In January, the Wilson Committee report on the University and the City recommended that Harvard actively work to case the pressure on Cambridge housing--primarily by building more housing for University personnel and secondarily by sponsoring low-income housing projects in Cambridge. At the same time, the report strongly urged Harvard to revamp its administrative structure for community affairs--in order to create a clear route for bringing community claims into the decision-making structure.

The committee's report evoked little response from within the Harvard administration--and even less from the Harvard students and faculty. The widespread debate on University-community relations which the committee had hoped its report would initiate never occurred. Pre-occupied with academic concerns, students and Faculty allowed the report to slip into semi-oblivion. Just before spring break, committee chairman James Q. Wilson told a meager audience of 26 people at the Ed School that the committee had been "naive" in expecting to rouse the University over community issues. "We addressed ourselves to everybody in general and nobody in particular," he said, lamenting the report's seeming demise.

Three weeks later, as the April crisis hit Harvard, a widespread debate over University-community relations finally occurred. Through "University expansion," as it came to be called, was much less discussed than ROTC, and much of the discussion of community issues was confused and rhetoric laden, it nevertheless was the first time in memory, and probably in the history of the University, that any substantial number of people had stopped to give any thought whatsoever to the relationship between Harvard and the communities which surround her.

Virtually all those who participated in the debates on Harvard's role in the community agreed that improvements were needed, but there were sharp divergences of opinion over just what Harvard was doing in Cambridge, and what it should be doing. As might be expected, the biggest split was between the SDS petition, and the stands of those outside of SDS. Among the non-SDS groups, a rough consensus existed on, at least, the general direction which future Harvard action in the community should take toward reimbursing Cambridge and Boston for the side-effects of University expansion, primarily by supporting the construction of low-income housing units. The most fervent supporters of this course of action were a group of activist city planners in the Design School, who earlier in the year had provided technical advice to the Cambridge Housing Convention. Their demands--which called for the construction by Harvard of 3000 housing units, half of them low-income, in the community--were endorsed by the mass meeting at Soldiers Field.

The GSD program for low-income housing in Cambridge and Boston came under strong attack from SDS, which argued that rend increases were not unintentional by-products of the University's presence in Cambridge, but rather part of a concerted action by the Universities, the Federal government, and the Cambridge City government to drive "working people" out of Cambridge and transform the City into a complex of defense-oriented industries. Because of this expansion cabal, SDS argued, any housing duced by the universities or local government would not be low-income but rather moderate and high-income, to house the technicians who would work in the plants of "Imperial City."

The suggested action which SDS derived from its analysis was simple: build an alliance between workers and students to stop all expansion by the universities, NASA, and research industries in Cambridge. As the SDS pamphlet, Harvard, Urban Imperialist, put it:

The demand to end Harvard's expansion refers both to the kind of expansion it is facilitating--the development of a community centered around military, corporate, and U. S. government priorities--and to the destruction of working class neighborhoods. Workers' interests are being attacked in two ways: both through the broad policies in which Harvard is instrumental, and through rent increases and the destruction of workers' housing.

This position was basically the work of the Workers Student Alliance with in SDS, and had been adopted by the organization as a whole only after a stiff fight with an opposition position calling for construction of low-income housing.

The SDS position, as expressed during the April strike, had several weak points. In the first place, the overall theme that Harvard is expanding its facilities in effect, primarily to become a more efficient tool for killing Vietnamese peasants is at best debatable, and perhaps ludicrous. Furthermore, the existence of a compact between Harvard and the Federal government to further the University's expansion appears dubious in view of the fact that, since the advent of the Johnson Administration, the Federal government has been giving proportionately less money to top-rank universities such as Harvard and M.I.T. and more to state universities and junior colleges--to create what Johnson called "regional centers of excellence," rather than only a few major centers of academic work.

(The fact is, in the early '60's congressmen from statse such as Missouri and Colorado were not particularly happy to see the lion's share of Federal money going to universities in Massachusetts and California had more than a little to do with the adoption of the "regional centers" policy.)

The biggest weakness, however, in the SDS position was probably the action it suggested: building a radical worker student alliance in Cambridge. While the "working people of Cambridge" have little love for the effects of Harvard and M.I.T. on City housing, they probably have even less affection for the colleges' radicals East and North Cambridge, the strongholds of the "working people" are also the sections of the City where VFW and American Legion Officer--objects of ridicule within the University community--are among the chief neighborhood leaders. The Cambridge-Somerville edition of the Record American--not the radical newspapers--is likely to be the favorite source of news in the neighborhoods.

The broad radical organizing against University expansion, U.S. imperialism, and racism, in one package--which SDS and the Cambridge Peace and Freedom Party are trying in such neighborhoods is no easy job. During the period of the strike, the results of that organizing were minimal. About 200 people, half of them students, came to an April 12 rally in Central Square to support the six SDS demands. Two days later, only 12 Cambridge people, none of whom looked older than 22, picketed outside a City Council meeting which was debating a resolution commending President Pusey and the Cambridge police for their action against the University Hall demonstrators.

These two events--and the attendance of fewer than a dozen workers at Harvard SDS rallies--were about the extent of worker participation in the Worker-Student alliance during the April strike.

Toward the end of the strike at Harvard, the East Cambridge Planning Team -- composed, like the neighborhood, largely of people who would qualify as working class -- approved by an 81 to 1 vote a statement saying, in part, that:

We in East Cambridge would like to make it very clear that the residents have neither solicited nor do we welcome SDS support.... As neighbors we welcome and hope to get help of students, but not the students who have embraced the goals and methods of SDS. We welcome the help of all our neighbors, to include the Harvard Corporation, our city government and others, for we feel that it is imperative to march on together and make our city a better place for all to enjoy and live in....

Insofar as any statement can, this one probably represents the view of most Cambridge residents. The movement most likely to attract their support are those--such as the housing convention--which are simply pressing for construction of low-income housing without any overall radical program.

During the April crisis, a similar statement for a Harvard-sponsored program of housing in the community existed within many non-SDS segments of the University. It was to appease this sentiment, that the Corporation announced its plans to build housing in Boston. Right now, Edward S. Gruson, President Pusey's newly appointed assistant for community relations, is developing comparable plans for housing in Cambridge.

Three types of obstacles--technical, political and financial--hamper work for such housing in Cambridge. While probably not insurmountable, they do nonetheless make it likely that progress from intentions to build such housing to actual construction of it will not be easy.

One major technical obstacle is that--despite the fact that Cambridge probably has one of the higher concentrations of social scientists per square foot in the U. S.--the only real data on housing in the City is contained in the outdated 1960 census. Though the City government is now taking a new housing census, for the moment planners must use a lot of guesswork to figure out in what sections of the City and for what groups the housing shortage is most critical. Which would do the most good--50 units of housing for the elderly near Central Square or a similar number for younger families in East Cambridge? With the data currently available, it's difficult to tell.

This shortage of data is, however, less important than another technical difficulty: finding suitable tracts of land on which to build housing. Cambridge is a densely developed city; unoccupied land is difficult to find. While Harvard owns several tracts of land other than those now owned by the universities or local government agencies.

Political considerations must also be kept in mind when considering sites and designs for housing projects. A general enthusiasm for low-income housing in Cambridge does not necessarily mean that the neighbors of any one proposed housing project will welcome it. And Cambridge's decentralized political system makes the City Councillors--who must approve any of the zoning changes usually needed for a housing development--acutely sensitive to pressures from small groups of their neighborhood constituents.

Given the potential pressures from the neighbors of proposed housing developments, their wishes will inevitably have to be represented in the planning process for the projects. Most of the recent proposals for University-sponsored housing programs have included a provision for such community representation, but the amount of community participation envisioned differs widely. The Harvard Corporation's housing announcement said that housing proposals would be discussed with community representatives before concrete plans are developed; the activist planners at the Design School immediately attacked this as inadequate, saying that community representative, students, and faculty should be given full voting power to decide housing and expansion decisions.

No matter whether community representatives are only consulted or given more formal power in deciding University housing plans, one problem remains: defining the community to be represented. Cambridge is not one community, but rather a series of communities, divided economically ethnically, and even regionally. It will be necessary to strike a balance of representation between the various communities concerned with housing, between, for example, those who are likely to live in a project and those who will live around it. The task may not be accomplished quickly, not without the public squabbling characteristic of Cambridge political life.

Financing the housing also may prove to be troublesome, for the Corporation has said that a portion--30 per cent in Boston--of the new housing it will sponsor is to be rented to the community "at rents comparable to those prevailing in public housing." With the high costs of land in Cambridge, and the high construction costs everywhere, continuing subsidies are required to bring rents down to these levels. Given the alternatives of paying the subsidies out of its won pocked or seeking government aid, the Corporation broke with its past reluctance to plunge into the maze of Federal housing aid programs for low-income housing.

At present, University officials are optimistic about Harvard's chances of gaining substantial Federal aid for construction of the new housing. But Federal aid is never certain and, at least, some Harvard funds might be needed to fill in, as it were, the gaps left by government programs. If the amount of University money needed for housing remains relatively small, it can probably be diverted to this use without much difficulty. But if substantial amounts of Harvard money are needed, the housing program may meet stiff opposition from within the University committee from, for example, Faculty members reluctant to see funds which could be used for educational purposes--libraries, laboratories and Faculty salaries--being spent for social purposes instead.

The last year has seen a change in University attitudes toward the surrounding communities--a switch from an aloof posture to be emphasizing an active involvement to aid Cambridge and Boston. But the change is not necessarily definitive; it could be reversed if the problems created by the new position seem to be greater than those arising in the past. Only time will tell if the various segments, of the University-including the Corporation, faculty, and students alike--will retain their new-found enthusiasm for aiding the community

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