Housing and the Kendall Square/MIT Petition
There was a forum at MIT on Wed, Feb 6 hosted by the MIT Graduate Student Council that addressed some of the issues associated with the current MIT/Kendall Sq. zoning petition now before the Cambridge Planning Board and the Cambridge City Council. This forum was intended for an MIT audience, and only MIT affiliates were invited. It was an honor to have been asked to be a panelist at this forum. The forum was very well attended and required an overflow room to accommodate all the graduate students, undergraduates, post-docs, faculty, staff and administration who came to hear the plans and ask questions.
The good folks of the MIT GSC know how to run a very good meeting that showcases multiple viewpoints while refraining from advocacy. Special acknowledgement goes to GSC President Brian Spatocco who deserves to one day be the mayor or governor of somewhere, somehow, based on his ability to be so informative, fair, and objective.
After the introductions, the forum opened with Israel Ruiz (MIT Executive Vice-President & Treasurer) and Steve Marsh (Managing Director of Real Estate, MIT Investment Management Corporation – MITIMCo) explaining the elements of the zoning petition and its purpose. The panelists were Martin Schmidt (Associate Provost & Prof. of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), Linda Patton (Asst. Director of Off-Campus Housing), Bob Simha (Director of Campus Planning, 1960-2001 and DUSP Lecturer), Jonathan King (Prof. of Biology), Robert Winters (mathematics lecturer, editor of Cambridge Civic Journal), Ruth Perry (Prof. of Literature), and Thomas Kochan (2030 Faculty Task Force & Professor of Management).
Though the organizers were aware of which panelists might speak favorably or unfavorably about the zoning petition (so that they could provide balance), there were no conditions on what specific topics each panelist could address. I chose to focus on the context of housing for graduate students and on the affordability of housing in general. I tried to look at things from my point of view as someone who was an MIT graduate student starting in 1978 and who bought a three-family house in 1985 where I continue to live today. Though I may have skipped a point or two, here are the points I tried to make during my presentation:
The situation as it used to be (circa 1978):
1) There was a significant supply of multi-family housing stock in Cambridge.
2) Rent control was the law for much of the housing stock.
3) The great majority of graduate students preferred to live off-campus rather than in MIT dormitories.
4) Most graduate students were content to live in housemate situations, often with 3 or 4 or more to an apartment. Luxury accommodations were not in demand.
5) There were relatively few post-docs.
6) Kendall Square as a job generator did not really exist.
What happened? (the perfect storm)
1) Rent control ended as a result of a 1994 statewide initiative petition.
2) Much of the multi-family housing stock was converted to (high-end) condominiums.
3) Kendall Square and elsewhere was developed without concurrent housing – greatly increasing the pressure on existing local housing stock for both rental and ownership opportunities.
4) There was a significant increase in post-doc opportunities (in lieu of tenure-track faculty opportunities) – significantly increasing the grad/post-doc pool of people competing for housing.
5) Changing expectations – grad students/post-docs are demanding much higher quality housing, often shunning housemate situations.
6) Among some grads/post-docs, there is a greater need to be close to their labs.
7) There has been a national shift toward people preferring to live in urban environments, reversing the earlier pro-suburban movement among faculty, professional people, and seniors.
8) Any new housing built in and around Kendall Square will also be occupied by people who work in Boston and elsewhere.
The Net Effect:
All of these factors (and more) affect the availability and affordability of housing in and around Cambridge – not just for graduate students but for everyone. The problem is pervasive and is compounded by the resistance by many existing residents toward the construction of new housing in Cambridge and elsewhere. The isolated construction of a limited amount of housing anywhere in Cambridge will have a negligible effect on the overall housing problem. Indeed, it can even paradoxically have the opposite effect by attracting people toward this limited supply of new units who will then bid up the price to create a local "bubble" in the price of housing.
Indeed, the only way to reverse this "perfect storm" is to advocate for significant amounts of new housing in Cambridge, in Somerville, in Allston, in Charlestown, and elsewhere in the greater Boston area. Only when there is a range of housing choices at various rents and locations will any kind of rental housing market be restored in which people can make rational economic choices such as living a little further away or in less luxury in exchange for paying less rent. Trying to create a smattering of "affordable housing" units via inclusionary zoning or government subsidy will never have more than a limited effect on the essential problem. There are just too many factors conspiring to make housing unaffordable. If graduate students really want affordable housing, they should be clamoring for many thousands of housing units to be built everywhere in the area – and not just in Kendall Square and Cambridge.
Locally, it may well be that condominium conversion has had the greatest impact on this loss of affordability. Where once there were streets lined with two-family houses and triple-deckers that provided affordable housing for a resident owner AND for the other tenants in a building (including many graduate students), there are now luxury condominiums where the prices have been bid up to the point of unaffordability except for those in the upper income echelons. The only "working class" residents remaining are those who bought their housing long ago, inherited it, married well, or those with some expertise in benefiting from government-subsidized housing and related programs.
There are also people like me who bought their homes and continued to rent apartments to graduate students, post-docs, and others and who managed to pay off their mortgages without ever excessively raising rents. My affordable housing continues to provide the affordable housing for two other families who were graduate students when they first arrived. Cambridge would be a better place today if more of its two- and three-family homes had never been turned into luxury condominiums. Failure to put some limits on that condominium conversion may be the single greatest reason why MIT graduate students can no longer find affordable housing opportunities in Cambridge. This is also one of the greatest public policy failures by Cambridge elected officials who put all their faith in rent control. Building "affordable housing" today really is like closing the stable doors long after the horses have run away.
The MIT/Kendall Petition
This petition basically redefines the upper limits (heights, density) of what might be constructed in the area east of Ames Street, south of Main Street (plus the area around One Broadway to Broad Canal), and down to Memorial Drive. This petition is both timely and appropriate. This area has always had a mix of uses, including industrial uses. It’s also located at a major Red Line T station, and virtually all planning professionals agree that it’s best to concentrate density close to public transportation. The petition would only define the envelope of what could be built and not precisely what will be built.
Any debate regarding the appropriateness of commercial buildings vs. academic buildings vs. residential buildings in the petition area should really not be taking place before the Cambridge Planning Board or the Cambridge City Council (though this may affect how the petition is received by these respective bodies). This debate is properly one that must occur within the MIT community – administration, real estate investment people, faculty, staff, and students – and preferably also among those who live and work in the surrounding area.
Regarding the graduate student housing issue
MIT can provide a good "Plan B" option for graduate students and post-docs by having ample on-campus and near-campus MIT-owned residential properties (especially for those who need to be close to labs, etc.), but this will barely make a dent in the larger problem. Many, perhaps most, graduate students and post-docs will continue to seek housing options off-campus – preferably within walking or bicycling distance. The focus has to be on increasing housing options within a reasonable distance of the MIT campus and not just on building housing within the MIT campus. Unfortunately, this is not something that MIT can unilaterally accomplish. It also requires action by local and state government AND by the developers who will ultimately build sufficient housing to restore some kind of viable housing market. Building "affordable housing" is fundamentally just politically expedient window-dressing.
A note on transportation
People really are choosing to be less reliant on automobiles, so public transportation infrastructure has to grow and to provide more frequent service and more reliable connections, and the entire system has to evolve from a hub-and-spokes model to more of a regional network. Otherwise we will be forever limited by the capacity of the hub in Boston. In the coming decades it will be very advantageous if a variety of new transit lines can be developed that do not require passing through the hub of Boston.
Whatever comes of the MIT/Kendall petition and of future plans for the petition area, it is essential that the results should not be boring. There really is a place for food trucks, diners, bumper cars, miniature golf, and other things that will have great appeal to many people – especially to MIT affiliates who have always had a love for things eclectic, entertaining, and affordable. There’s a reason why those food trucks are so popular. Those whose memories go back several decades understand that those food trucks are modern versions of the old F&T Diner. There has to be a place in the future East Campus where modern-day memories will be created – the 21st Century incarnations of the F&T, Pritchett Lounge, and the Muddy Charles Pub. People can reasonably debate the relative merits of housing vs. academic buildings vs. commercial buildings that will help finance long-overdue renovations of existing MIT buildings. However, if the future is boring and pathetically predictable, that will be unforgivable. – Robert Winters