As Jan. 31 drew to a close, Harvard Kennedy School student Doaa Sobeih gathered her belongings and stepped outside her Western Avenue Harvard apartment for the last time.
Surrounded by her furniture, Sobeih was left alone on the street in 14 degree weather with nowhere to go.
The past few days had been a frenzy of apartment hunting. She had returned to campus from break on Jan. 26 to find that one of her two roommates had left without paying January’s rent or finding a replacement. Unable to pay and “threatened” by her lease coordinator, Sobeih had three options: stay and pay two shares of the rent, stay without paying and face legal action, or sign a termination of her lease and leave.
She opted to leave.
“Now, I have no willingness to live in Harvard housing,” Sobeih said. “I lost all trust in those people.”
Approximately 5,000 graduate students decide to live in Harvard housing each year. Harvard University Housing alone owns more than 62 properties — ranging from $1,800 to $5,000 a month per lease — in Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston, and individual graduate schools own even more property.
Harvard housing is in many ways more convenient than other options; the rent includes the cost of utilities and amenities and the properties are close to campus. HUH surveys conducted over the last five years have found that 92 percent of graduate students would recommend Harvard housing to incoming students, according to University spokesperson Brigid O’Rourke.
But some students have experienced repeated issues with HUH’s infrastructure including flooding and broken elevators. Others, like Sobeih, have suffered the fine print of HUH’s leasing contract, which stipulates that students with incomplete rent payments are barred from registering for classes or graduating on time.
Dissatisfied students often seek alternative housing in Cambridge — a phenomenon some say has contributed to the city’s current housing crisis and is straining the relationship between Harvard and the city.
From widespread satisfaction to proximity to campus and included amenities, Harvard housing has plenty of draw. Yet, some students say that when Harvard housing goes wrong, it can go very wrong.
Because Harvard has no housing-specific financial aid, students must pay their rent out-of-pocket, drawing upon fellowship money, school stipends, or personal savings. Students who miss a payment face not only potential legal issues, but also academic consequences.
The cost of Harvard housing is comparable, if not slightly cheaper than, MIT’s housing prices and Cambridge housing prices once utilities and amenities are considered. But Harvard’s average housing cost is almost double the average cost at other peer institutions, like Princeton and Columbia, due in part to geographic and socioeconomic factors.
Since the average cost of Harvard housing is approximately $2,500 a month, housing costs can account for well over half of a student’s income, depending on the graduate school which they attend. Despite the costs, some students choose to live in Harvard-owned properties because of their proximity to campus and the included utilities and amenities.
“I think a lot of students feel that Harvard housing is prohibitively expensive. It's a shame because in a lot of cases it's the most convenient option,” Kennedy School student Emma S. Margolin said. “There aren’t a lot of options for people who don’t have a lot of savings.”
But the conveniences come with restrictive leasing contracts. Harvard can withhold students’ diploma and transcript if they do not pay their rent. The University can also prevent students from registering for future classes and renewing their leases.
“If you’re paying expensive rent anyway, you might as well live off campus, where you’ll have more control. You’ll have more leverage as a tenant,” Margolin said.
The restrictions included in Harvard housing contracts are part of the reason why Sobeih decided to terminate her contract before she could find alternative housing.
Set to graduate this semester, Sobeih did not want to run the risk of incurring debt. If she had stayed for the semester, she would have had to pay approximately $9,000 — an amount she would not have been able to afford given that she was on financial aid.
On Jan. 28, two days after she discovered that she owed her former roommate’s share of the rent, Sobeigh asked her leasing coordinator to put her in contact with the building manager. But her leasing coordinator flatly refused, leaving Sobeih to face imminent expulsion.
“Pressuring me to pay for another one [roommate] because you want your money is not fair, and if this is really the policy, this is the time to change it,” Sobeih said. “They were threatening me that they were going to withhold my graduation until I pay all the charges on the apartment.”
O’Rourke declined to comment on Sobeih’s case, but wrote in an emailed statement that HUH’s lease makes explicit its policy of requiring present roommates to cover the rent of an absent roommate. She added that tenants are made aware of the policy before renting their apartments.
The night Sobeih was due to leave, HUH offered replacement housing — a single unit where Sobeih would have to pay more per month than her previous rate.
Sobeih said she wrote a letter to University President Lawrence S. Bacow, and her letter was redirected to HUH leadership. They scheduled a meeting with Sobeih, but it fell through.
“I was mistreated by Harvard housing,” Sobeih said. “I would envision it that in Harvard housing, they care about their business…It’s not about being students, it’s not about the ethics, it’s not about the morals, it’s not about the welfare of the students.”
Though the University has invested $44 million into developing and renovating its housing properties over the past 19 years, multiple students say the buildings often experience basic amenity failures — negating the benefits of Harvard housing.
At Peabody Terrace, one of Harvard’s largest graduate apartment complexes, Margolin faced flooding, destructive renovations, broken elevators, and days without water. The damage broke her computer charger and printer, and caused her to miss class. Her coworkers thought she was “cursed.”
“I think a lot of students have perfectly fine experiences with Harvard housing,” Margolin said. “But you could easily have mine, where I just had what felt like disaster on top of disaster and still haven’t received rent compensation for very high rent.”
Renovations at Holden Green, a Harvard housing complex in Somerville, in 2017 resulted in endless piles of dust, water leakage, constant jackhammering, and broken air conditioners in mid-summer. Christopher J. Williams, a resident, described his home as an “active construction zone” necessitating a hard-hat, and “dangerous” for his two-year-old child.
Even before the construction began, Holden Green experienced issues with false fire and carbon monoxide alarms, often sounding in the middle of the night. From September 2017 to this May, Holden Green has experienced 51 false alarms — including three since Harvard attempted to fix the issue in January.
“When you talk about Harvard, you always think ‘Oh, things will be done properly and well-planned,’” said resident Pedro Moreira Protasio in a January interview. “That construction? I’m from Brazil and I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Exasperated with her Harvard housing experience, Margolin contacted her property supervisor multiple times, but did not receive help. She said HUH does not have a formalized system to submit complaints or requests.
“I was going through these issues and didn’t know how to navigate them,” Margolin said. “I didn’t have any power in the situation with Harvard housing.”
Margolin also write a letter to Bacow alongside Sobeih. But Bacow’s office redirected the letters to HUH, who reviewed Margolin’s situation and decided not to reimburse any of her rent. Instead, they sent her Whole Foods gift cards.
Margolin was out of her room for six consecutive days, and her water shut off days earlier. With her rent rate at $2,460 a month, Margolin estimates that Harvard owes her more than $500.
“I have no idea what went into the review of my situation. I never received rent compensation,” she said.
Asked about the issues at Holden Green and Peabody Terrace, O’Rourke wrote that HUH is committed to ensuring a positive housing experience.
“Student experience is a top priority for the University and this extends to HUH which engages in efforts to provide students with superior service, access to diverse and well managed properties in convenient locations, and rich programming designed to foster community and strengthen the bonds with University colleagues,” she wrote.
Thorny relationships with HUH go beyond student and administrator relationships, reaching the city of Cambridge. The city is currently facing an affordable housing crisis, which some say Harvard has aggravated.
Students the University is unable to accommodate often find housing in Cambridge, driving up rental prices. Those graduate students, along with rising land and construction costs, cuts in federal funding, and competition from market rate developers, are some of the key sources of the crisis, according to city officials.
Cambridge has long dealt with rising property values and an increasing gentrification. A family must earn more than $125,000 to afford a market rate rent for a three bedroom home, according to 2018 city data. Cambridge Mayor Marc C. McGovern said this gentrification has displaced residents.
Harvard’s role in the crisis has strained relations with the city. McGovern compared the city’s relationship to the University to a “complicated marriage.”
“Cambridge would not be Cambridge without Harvard, but Harvard would not be Harvard without Cambridge,” he said. “We're stuck with each other, and we have to work through any differences that we have, and I think in most often we're able to do that. So, you know, it's never as simple as people would like it to be.”
Councilor E. Denise Simmons, a former mayor and chair of the Housing Committee, also characterized the city’s relationship to Harvard as “tense.” The number of students that choose not to live in Harvard-owned housing overburdens the city and drives rent up, according to Simmons. She added that the council has repeatedly asked the University to “do more and give more.”
“You're also being a drain on the pool of affordable housing,” she said. “Because we're all competing for the same units.”
McGovern echoed Simmons, saying that while he is happy graduate students and other affiliates want to live in Cambridge, their presence in residential housing does create “more of a stress on the housing supply.” McGovern said he takes issue with the University charging market-rate rents for affiliates, which he says causes more affiliates to seek Cambridge residential housing.
A potential remedy would be the creation of more “desirable” housing by the University, according to McGovern.
“We've talked a lot about graduate student housing, and calling on Harvard to do more,” he said. “And part of that desirability is making it cheaper than what they can get on the market.”
Spurred by spikes in living costs, the council has looked for ways to combat this dilemma. They have turned to proposing the 100% Affordable Housing Overlay, a zoning reform proposal that would incentivize affordable housing developers to build residential units and amend zoning regulations for efficiency and cost.
Housing pressure from Harvard affiliates dissatisfied with Harvard housing has not gone unnoticed by the students themselves. Margolin said students who live in Cambridge and contribute to the problem often feel conflicted for “compromising their values.”
“I’m pretty sure the city of Cambridge doesn’t want graduate students driving up the cost,” she said. “This is an issue important to a lot of us too, we care about affordable housing.”
Despite the criticisms coming from City Hall, O’Rourke argued the University does not contribute to — and in fact has helped alleviate — pressure on the Cambridge housing market. The University has created a “first-of-its-kind” housing loan program to incentivize students to choose Harvard housing and has “leveraged” $1.5 billion to develop more than 7,000 units of affordable housing across Cambridge and Boston, according to O’Rourke.
“Harvard and the City of Cambridge have enjoyed a long and successful record of working together to create affordable housing units throughout the city, including partnering to create and preserve more than 1,600 units of affordable housing which span every neighborhood in the City,” she wrote.
Simmons and McGovern both said they would be eager to work with the University on housing issues though Simmons said significant obstacles still remain.
“It's just hard for us to negotiate because this is a city that everybody wants to be in,” Simmons said. “But it was developed as a city, not a university town, and you want to keep that feeling of it's a city, it's a community. So how do we work together?”
—Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter a @DeclanKnieriem.