City releases first student housing report

May 1, 2015
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The City of Boston released its first ever “Student Housing Trends” report last month, establishing a baseline toward Mayor Martin Walsh’s goal of creating 18,500 new student dormitory beds by 2030.

Mission Hill is one of the neighborhoods with the biggest student-housing impacts. But all local data in the report is inaccurate because it continues to use an old, incorrect map in which Mission Hill does not even exist.

The study found that 148,402 students attend institutions of higher learning in Boston. Among them are 17,064 undergraduates living in off-campus housing in Boston.

The only way to analyze Mission Hill data in the report is through ZIP codes, which do not match neighborhoods. The 02120 that covers much of Mission Hill ranks third for most students housed off-campus in the city, with 1,979 undergrads and 1,347 grads.

“It is critical that we work with our colleges and universities to better understand how to provide safe and affordable housing for both our student population and our residents,” Walsh said in a press release.

The report identifies three policy priorities: ending the illegal practice of renting off-campus housing to five or more undergraduates; establishing firm commitments and deadlines for the construction of additional on-campus dormitory beds from colleges and universities; and creating pathways for private developers to build off-campus dormitories that meet specific community approvals.

That means more developments like Northeastern University’s (NU) controversial East Village, a dormitory constructed by private developers and leased long-term to academic institutions.

“This type of dorm production is something that happens in other cities very successfully, and we are excited to try it in Boston as well,” City spokesperson Gabrielle Farrell told the Gazette. “Currently, the City is entertaining proposals and hosting conversations about how this model can work here, with the appropriate levels of safety and supervision.”

According to the report, an initial city Inspectional Services Department (ISD) review of undergraduate data found 589 addresses to be potentially in violation of the Boston Zoning Code, which states that no more than four undergraduate students be allowed to live in a single unit, among other restrictions. The report does not give the locations of those properties.

A dedicated team of four housing inspectors, two building inspectors, and an ISD supervisor will be conducting inspections of all of these locations, the report stated.

The City did not answer whether these would be new and dedicated ISD employees or whether existing ISD employees would be tapped to cover the inspections.

Mission Hill’s top three sources of students—NU, MCPHS University, formerly known as the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, and Wentworth Institute of Technology (WIT)—are all in the city’s top 15. NU and MCPHS are in the city’s top six. Respectively, NU, MCPHS and WIT can currently provide on-campus housing for 67 percent, 24 percent and 89 percent of students in need.

NU has plans for 1,000 new beds as part of its current 10-year Institutional Master Plan, with several hundred at least planned for the first five years. Neither WIT nor MCPHS have any plans for more beds.

To meet Mayor Walsh’s goal of creating 18,500 new dorm beds, the City needs to create plans for an additional 9,947 dorm beds by the year 2030.

More than half of the city’s off-campus students live in what the City considers to be “workforce housing.”

The report incorrectly lists the Mission Hill area as part of Jamaica Plain and uses incorrect boundaries for other neighborhoods. This is due to a deliberately incorrect map, known as a “planning districts” map, created decades ago by the Boston Redevelopment Authority to make census results easier to count by reducing the actual number of city neighborhoods. The BRA has since apologized and generally uses an accurate, official map of Boston’s neighborhoods.

However, the Department of Neighborhood Development, which created the student housing report, continues to use the incorrect map for all of its analysis, which is therefore also inaccurate. Farrell defended the practice as providing consistency between departmental reports and claimed ZIP codes are a valid alternative provided in the report.

The study was compiled from information gathered in an annual City student census, which was restructured last year to include individual student addresses. Before that, it only reported student population by ZIP codes. To view the full report, see cityofboston.gov/dnd.