Reich Would Tax Colleges For Unhoused Students

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Robert B. Reich announced an ambitious plan Wednesday to make universities pay for their part in the Commonwealth’s housing crunch—a plan that would not significantly affect Harvard or MIT.

In a speech at the Xiamen Corporation in Boston, Reich outlined a 15-point plan to create more affordable housing—including financial penalties for universities that do not house undergraduates on campus.

Reich said he seeks to alleviate rising housing costs by calling for universities to build 7,500 new dorm rooms over the next five years. If a university with students living off campus chose to consruct a building other than students housing, Reich would have the state assess the university a “linkage fee”.

The size of the fee would be based on the number of enrolled undergraduates not housed on campus.

The former labor secretary also proposes to negotiate with schools to provide more housing for both graduate students and community members.

Currently, about 140,000 of the Boston area’s 250,000 university students are housed off campus, according to the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO).

Reich also cited a report issued in 2000 by the Executive Office for Administration and Finance that said that for every 10 percent increase in students living off campus, average monthly rent increases $75.

Reich press secretary Dorie Clark called “exorbitant” housing costs one of the largest obstacles to revitalizing the state’s economy. She said students’ flexibility allowed them to outcompete families for limited housing units.

“College students are basically a hardy lot and willing to sleep on floors and put up shower curtains,” she said.

Clark also said students living off-campus often use public services that would otherwise be provided by schools in on-campus housing.

“I think it’s an interesting way of going about the issue,” said Ari Lipman, an organizer for the GBIO. “It’s difficult to tax [universities] for their impact on the community.”

But because the linkage fees would apply only to undergraduate housing, Cambridge neighbors Harvard and MIT—which both provide housing for nearly 100 percent of their undergraduates—would be affected very little by Reich’s proposal.

Harvard currently provides housing to 97 percent of its 6,650 undergraduates. Only 200 Harvard undergraduates live off campus in non-affiliated housing, according to the 2001 Cambridge town-gown report.

Alan Stone, Harvard’s vice president of government, community and public affairs, declined comment yesterday.

With the addition of a new undergraduate residence hall this fall, MIT will also house almost all of its just under 5,000 undergraduates in either dormitories or Greek life housing, said Karen Nilsson, director of housing for MIT.

At the same time, significant numbers of graduate students from both Harvard and MIT live off-campus. Under Reich’s plan neither university would be financially penalized for graduate students’ effects on the housing supply.