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Putting Harvard’s Rent Increase in Context

By Casey M. Allen
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Last week, Harvard University Housing announced rent increases for University-owned apartments in the 2020-21 academic year averaging one percent but up to two percent in some cases, on a unit-by-unit basis. The University reached this conclusion after a private consultant revised “market rents” for a number of apartments in Cambridge and surrounding areas.

We are conflicted about this increase. The move has drawn criticism from some graduate students who feel that the increased price tag will put University-owned housing out of reach. We empathize deeply with the students who feel that the institution they give so much of their time and effort to, at very low wages, is exploiting them for a free-market price. All of their voices matter to us. And we continue to believe that graduate student stipends should be indexed to the cost of living.

We must, however, simultaneously recognize that Harvard can only provide 50 percent of graduate students with housing. Not sticking to a market price would force the University to decide which half of the students should receive housing that is below market price and which half should not. Such a conundrum would be an equally, if not more troubling, ethical strain.

Still, further context is necessary. Harvard’s student housing does not operate in a vacuum. And though Harvard may seek to peg its rent rates to market prices, it is critical to note that Harvard’s expansive housing system has an outsized impact on the market itself. We should not forget that Harvard continues to have a direct impact on the ability of Cambridge residents to access affordable housing themselves, a problem that has preoccupied the city of Cambridge in the past year.

In an enlightening 2018 report, the Harvard College Open Data Project shows the extent to which the expansion of Harvard in recent years has gone hand in hand with the marginalization and reduction of local communities and in particular communities of color. Harvard, which owned nearly 10 percent of the land in Cambridge and nearly six percent of the land in Allston as of 2018, has seen its landholdings grow by over two and a half times since 2000. At the same time, in the ten years prior to 2018, Cambridge had one of the highest rates of home appreciation in the country, growing at an annual rate of 4.98 percent.

Still more startling, however, is that, controlling for relevant externalities, as Harvard’s endowment and landholdings have grown, the population of black and low-income residents of Cambridge has declined. While Harvard last year pledged $20 million to support affordable housing in the Greater Boston area, its gentrifying influence on Cambridge continues to concern us and, no doubt, the community bearing the brunt of the effects.

None of our concerns about Harvard’s adverse effects on its neighbors is meant to downplay the challenges that graduate students face or the extent to which the University’s financial prerogatives seem to be pitted against its oft-overlapping student and labor bodies. Still, we hope that our internal debates at Harvard — especially those that deal with issues of equity, land use, community impact, diversity and inclusion, and livelihood — are thoroughly contextualized within the broader issues that affect Cambridge and all its inhabitants.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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