Halfway up the 17 flights of stairs to my apartment, I thought my heart might burst. This was partly because I hadn’t exercised since returning to Cambridge for my last semester of graduate school. But it was also because I was growing more enraged with every step. Harvard University Housing had been turning off my building’s water for days to work on a damaged pipe. And that day — a day the elevators coincidentally broke down — HUH told me I would have to move into a different unit for a week while they worked on the pipe behind my bathroom wall. When I finally made it up the stairs, out of breath and out of patience, I found the wall ripped out and the toilet in the bathtub.
No, I would not be getting any rent back, they told me as I stood dumbfounded in the building's management office, barely containing the rage bubbling up inside of me like lava. I have no idea what I learned that day in class. I only remember feeling like I’d lost my mind.
At the risk of sounding sappy and elitist, I want to be clear: I love Harvard. Not a day goes by here where I don’t feel some form of imposter syndrome, dwarfed, as I regularly am, by the towering presence of my teachers and classmates. I was lost in my career, and I feel lucky to have this time now to reset, to make new friends, and to try and tackle some of the world’s toughest challenges. Most days, I’m sure I walk around with that dreamy look of happiness I used to resent seeing on other people’s faces.
But then I come back to my Harvard-owned apartment, which has seen flooding, broken amenities and near-constant construction ever since I started paying the expensive rent, and the spell is broken. If Harvard is the dream, Harvard Housing is surely a nightmare — one I would advise prospective students to avoid.
The day of the broken elevators and demolished bathroom was not the first time HUH has interfered with my graduate school experience. Since I moved in, construction workers have had to frequently walk through the apartment to complete some sort of project on the building’s balconies. That’s an annoyance I could have lived with. But when I got out of bed one rainy day last fall and realized I was standing in an inch of water covering my entire bedroom floor, I started to think I made a mistake living here. The flood — due to a leak on the roof, I was told — broke my printer and computer charger. Even worse, because I was scrambling to save my belongings without electrocuting myself, I missed a class featuring former National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice as a special guest.
Other students have horror stories, too. Last year, residents of one of HUH’s properties filed a complaint about a construction project that they said created months of “constant” noise, debris and a “dangerous” environment, especially for kids. Students were able to get back three months’ worth of rent in that case. But different problems persisted; the same apartment complex was plagued with nearly 50 false fire alarms between fall 2017 to early this year.
To be clear, Harvard Housing is not subsidized; HUH charges market rents for the 3,000 or so apartments it manages, since the University considers anything below market rate to be a form of financial aid. And, as with most housing in Cambridge, it’s not cheap; monthly rent in my apartment complex ranges from $1,854 for a studio to $4,206 for a three-bedroom. A major draw for living here is that the costly rent includes great features, like Internet, elevators, electricity, heat, and water. But when those features are suspended or only available to you if you squat in a vacant apartment for a while, as I had to, living here is simply not worth the price – no matter how many Whole Foods gift cards HUH gives tenants for their trouble. (They gave me three.)
If I were home in New York, where I’ve had my fair share of terrible housing experiences (although none requiring me to leave the apartment for days), I might have tried to renegotiate my rent or even just started paying less in this case — come what may to my credit score! But here, my options are limited. Unpaid charges on my Harvard account, including rent, means the school can prevent me from registering for future classes, requesting transcripts or receiving my diploma.
I wish I’d known how bad it could be before signing my lease. So, as the newly admitted students make their decisions about whether or not to accept their offers, I’ll be sure to tell them: Come to Harvard, but don’t live in Harvard Housing.
Emma S. Margolin is a mid-career MPA candidate at the Kennedy School.