NU to fund student housing study

March 8, 2013
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Northeastern University (NU) will pay for an in-depth student housing impact analysis of its surrounding neighborhoods as part of its Institutional Master Plan (IMP) process, currently under way with the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA).

The BRA decided to require the study following community pressure for accurate information regarding NU’s impact on neighborhood housing, amid controversy that creating more dorms is not NU’s primary focus with this IMP. Many residents of Mission Hill and elected officials, including Mayor Thomas Menino, local City Councilor Mike Ross and local state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez, believe that off-campus housing is inflating the real estate market.

“It’s become so evident, so clear, that this is something that needs to happen with the NU process,” Fenway Community Development Corporation Community Planning Associate Lily Jacobson told the Gazette this week. “Hopefully it’ll give everybody a clear sense of what the real impact is and we can begin to address it.”

“We agree with the BRA’s decision to undertake a thorough study and look forward to the results of the independent analysis,” NU Director of Communication Renata Nyul told the Gazette this week.

NU officials did not discuss the study at the Feb. 12 meeting. But NU Senior Vice President and General Counsel Ralph Martin sent a five-page letter to Ross, claiming that NU is not responsible for housing prices fluctuating in Mission Hill.

The study will find exactly where NU students live, in what type of housing, for how long, and whether they influence the market and price out families. The independent consultant who will create the survey has not yet been chosen, and a cost estimate has not been announced.

“It will give us more concrete ideas about what needs to be done in the neighborhoods,” Jacobson said. “And we can ensure the neighborhoods’ affordability is not being destroyed by a lack of [NU on-campus] student housing.”

The study will cover Mission Hill, the Fenway and Roxbury, the neighborhoods immediately adjacent to NU’s campus. NU has about 1,300 students living off-campus in Mission Hill’s 02120 ZIP code alone, about 60 percent of the Hill’s total student population. NU has stated that its goal is to house 75 percent of its undergraduate population by the end of this IMP period, likely 2023.

Many NU community task force members wanted to know why such a housing study wasn’t required of NU before. The task force was created specifically for the IMP process and members were nominated by elected officials and chosen by the BRA.

“The neighborhoods need to know what’s going on in other neighborhoods,” NU community task force member Carmen Pola of Mission Hill said at the Feb. 12 task force meeting.

“Every IMP requests information on a college’s housing program. A housing study is an additional tool we have available, although it may not be necessary,” BRA spokesperson Melina Schuler told the Gazette. “In the case of Northeastern, we have determined a housing study will be valuable to looking at the impacts of Northeastern’s proposed IMP.”

“If we all had the foresight, we could’ve gotten started on this earlier,” BRA project manager Gerald Autler said at the meeting.

The housing impact study likely will be ready by fall of this year. NU’s IMP is not expected to be finished until the end of the year, Schuler said, so the housing study will very likely influence the final shape of the IMP.

The IMP has been the source of contention, as task force members and elected officials, including Menino, Ross and Sánchez, have demanded that the school create more on-campus student housing.

Following a presentation made by Ross at the December task force meeting, where he pushed NU to create more on-campus housing, Martin replied with a five-page letter, a copy of which Ross provided to the Gazette.

In that letter, Martin states that NU students are not to blame for rising real estate prices, saying, “economic forces beyond student participation in the market are strongly influencing cost.”

Martin also criticized Ross’s December analysis, saying that despite NU’s building more dorms in the last 10 years, real estate prices in Mission Hill are not behaving any differently than elsewhere in the city. Martin also reiterated that NU is planning on building more dorms, just not as many beds as in the last IMP.

“The letter I got from Ralph Martin was adversarial,” Ross said at the meeting. “[NU] is saying they’re not even having an impact on the neighborhood in the first place…At least you’re hearing what’s coming out of this room,” referring to community support for the study and more on-campus housing.

NU is still working on the final dorm project from its previous IMP—the controversial Grandmarc off Huntington Avenue, which will house 700 students. NU is keeping its promise to maintain its enrollment at about 15,000 so far, admitting only 2,700 new freshmen last year. Starting this fall, all incoming freshmen will be required to live on-campus for two years.

“I think the policy of keeping freshman and sophomores on campus was a good move on the part of the University, although it may have brought some other issues along with it. On the good side, it keeps students on campus longer, and hopefully allows for students to mature more before moving off campus,” NU student and Community Ambassador Ashley Caron told the Gazette. “However, I [know] some upperclassmen who would still like to live on campus, but are having to look for off-campus housing due to their position on the housing wait list.”

NU representatives also spoke at the meeting about other previously proposed community benefits, including a proposed revolving community loan fund, and raising the number of locally- and minority-owned businesses it contracts with. There was also mention of creating a long-term “neighborhood council” to advise NU on an ongoing basis.

“These things are all evolving at different rates,” Martin said at the meeting. “We can do all of these things, but we can’t do all of these things at once.”

The Fenway CDC is organizing community meetings to discuss neighborhood issues, including NU expansion. One is planned for the Longwood Medical Area (LMA) for April and another in the Fenway on March 19.

The CDC is also hoping to organize a neighborhood coalition to present a more unified community voice to NU. For more information, Jacobson can be reached at ljacobson@fenwaycdc.org.

The proposed NU IMP is available at bit.ly/NUimp2013.

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