Last Friday night, Doris Tanner of Oxford St. planted herself next to the Holyoke Center Christmas tree. It was quite cold, and she is quite old, but threat of eviction from her Harvard-owned housing ignited protest. The apartment she lives in is one of 700 formerly rent-controlled units which the University plans to convert into student and faculty housing. Even if she was offered a option to buy, Tanner regrets, she could not afford the going market rates.
Neil Rohr of Berkshire St. has a similar story. He, too, believes that the University should foster diversity in Cambridge by selling housing at a "fair profit" to low-income families and elderly residents. Harvard should not act like a private real estate concern, Rohr says, because "its primary mission is to serve society."
Nancy Hall of Riverside appeared at the event in a black and yellow kilt, despite the freezing whether. She thinks that all 700 apartments should be turned into limited equity cooperatives, which forever sell at the original purchase pride. "Who could afford market rates?" she asks.
It seems that a distorted notion of fairness is the common rationale behind the residents' call for Harvard to "divest" from its Cambridge real estate interests. Tanner doesn't believe it is right for her to lose her home, though she has only lived at her current address for two years. Rohr thinks that the market itself is unfair because he can't afford to live where he desires. Hall is of the socialist mindset that property seizure is just so long as it benefits the least well-off.
The term divestment, which has gained such an altruistic connotation following the University's financial pullout from South Africa, is now being exploited for self-interest. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But let's understand that these people who tout the lofty goal of a better city have no higher motives than does Harvard, or any other corporation.
They want to live here, after all, because it is a relatively clean, safe and vibrant neighborhood--qualities due in no small part to the existence of Harvard. Perhaps they might consider the rationale behind expensive apartments: people want to live here. I'm sure that none of them would protest for cheap housing in New Haven. Cambridge, in fact, might have been a similar slum had the University not purchased and improved upon a great deal of the city over the past century.
Protestors didn't seem to have a problem with capital improvement, but with their contribution to it. So it should come as no surprise to know that the International Socialist Organization (ISO) endorsed and took part in the rally. ISO member Annie Zirin, a secretary at the Office of Career Services, was selling Socialist Worker there. "Working class people deserve to have a decent standard of living," she told me, as if PROLETARIAN had been branded on the protestors genes.
Zirin had an active week of recruitment. On Thursday, she was distributing "Build the Fight!" fliers at the rally to protest the administration's takeover of Phillips Brooks House (PBH). So it must have been an act of reciprocity, if not solidarity, that PBH showed up to support the divestment movement. Shoshans L.H. Weiner '98, chair of PBH's Committee on Housing Rights, lent her organization's support and promised that of "the most important part of Harvard, the students."
But does Weiner speak for us? Harvard has as much right as any other corporation to sell its holdings for what they fetch--above or below market value. Moreover, the University isn't even selling. Harvard intends to rent the apartments to students and faculty who surely deserve to live in Cambridge as much as the current residents.
A passerby yelled on her way into a taxi, "Students and faculty need housing too!" The University's interest, in this instance, is also that of the students. Harvard should not give into any hypocritical demands for altruism or false notions of socialistic equality. While Cantabrigians may mutter about fairness, we're not about to retreat to the original position.
Joshua A. Kaufman's column appears on alternate Mondays.