Editorial: Studying up on student impacts

The pending study of Northeastern University’s off-campus student housing impacts on the local real estate market is an excellent idea. In fact, a broader study of more impacts and more colleges’ students should be conducted by the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Now, we’re not sure that Northeastern rather than the City should be paying for this study. We’re concerned that it comes far too late in NU’s planning process. We want to ensure it respects the privacy of NU students and all other residents.

But getting the basic facts to inform opinions and decisions is a no-brainer.

We’ve had far too little of that in Mission Hill’s institutional expansion debates. For decades, there have been concerns about college student impacts on our residential neighborhood. But virtually all of the discussion has been anecdotal. Attempts at studying the issue have largely been amateur or advocacy-based, as we see in the latest dueling real estate stats from City Councilor Mike Ross and NU counsel Ralph Martin. (An illuminating exception was Ross’s effective ordinance requiring colleges to report their off-campus student populations by ZIP code.)

There are two main concerns about off-campus undergrads: housing market inflation and quality-of-life crimes. There are at least two big apparent benefits to the off-campus student population: a big customer base for local, small businesses and no-cost neighborhood improvements such as volunteer labor and cultural events. All of those things are quantifiable and easily could be studied. So why not study them?

We need not just a report on NU off-campus students and the housing market. We need a holistic report on all major impacts of all major institutions on our neighborhood. It’s just basic urban planning.

In retrospect, it’s weird we don’t have such a study already, that residents and institutions have been making mega-million-dollar decisions based on guesses—highly educated ones, but guesses all the same.

The City of Boston’s real estate review process is too focused on promoting individual developments rather than neighborhood planning, and is generally reactive rather than proactive. But under its current leadership, the Boston Redevelopment Authority has repeatedly displayed a greater commitment to proactive planning.

It would be great to see the BRA bring its expertise to bear on studying off-campus student impacts on Mission Hill and adjacent neighborhoods. The study could suggest not only college development models, but also how businesses might grow and what kinds of features our neighborhoods should have. That would be a valuable road map to the future for institutions and the neighborhood alike.

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