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Universities Feeling Pressure From Cities, Students To Develop More Housing

Boston is known as a national destination for young people pursuing a college education, but finding housing for the city's massive student population has become a growing challenge. 

As the state grapples with a housing shortage, the Boston and Cambridge governments have pressured the colleges and universities in their cities to provide more housing for students on campus. Many of these institutions are launching partnerships with local developers to fast-track these efforts. 

Jacobs' Chris Leary, Suffolk Construction's Patricia Filippone, Kieran Timberlake's Jason Smith, MIT's Sarah Eusden Gallop, American Campus Communities' Jason Taylor and Simmons University's Laura Brink Pisinski.

“Universities are under extraordinary pressure, and in order for them to survive, they’re going to have to leverage their real estate assets to actually accomplish that,” said Laura Pisinski, vice president of university real estate and facilities management at Simmons University, speaking Tuesday at Bisnow’s Boston Higher Education & Student Housing Real Estate Summit at the Westin Hotel in the Seaport.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology ran into these pressures when the city of Cambridge required it to add 950 units of housing for graduate students. 

In 2017, the city adopted MIT’s zoning petition for the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Kendall Square, as long as the institution fulfilled a set of commitments as a condition of future redevelopment. One of the commitments was to develop graduate student housing. 

“When you add those dynamics and the fact that it was an external force requiring us to build 950 units of housing, it causes us to think, ‘Maybe we need a little bit of help. Maybe we need to do this differently,'” said Sarah Gallop, co-director of the office of government and community relations at MIT.

MIT is partnering with American Campus Communities to build 676 of the 950 units across two buildings on Vassar Street. This is the first time the school has partnered with a developer in this way, Gallop said. 

“What is the institution looking to solve for?” said Jason Taylor, vice president of public and private partnerships at American Campus Communities. “Sometimes it's about speed to delivery, it's about experience and expertise, it’s about navigating the public institution state processes.” 

Leggat McCall's Mahmood Malihi, Northeastern University's Viktorija Abolina, Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology's Aisha Francis and Studio G Architects' Gail Sullivan.

In April, MIT graduate students secured enough votes to form a union, an effort that was brought on by various issues the students faced, including the lack of affordable housing offered by the university. Gallop said that this union also caused the school to seek outside help.

“There has been a lot of attention paid to the rent they’re paying and the types of units we offer them,” Gallop said. “We needed to capitalize on ACC’s expertise and understanding of the market.”

MIT isn't the only university feeling the heat from outside sources to provide more housing.

Apartment availability in Boston has been an issue for years, and the city has sought to alleviate pressure by taking students out of the overall rental market. Former Mayor Marty Walsh set a goal for universities to add 18,500 new dormitory beds by 2030 and for the city to reduce the number of undergraduate students living off campus by 50%.

This school year, Boston-area colleges saw historic numbers of applications, with Boston University receiving 81,000 applications for the fall and Northeastern receiving 91,000.

In November 2021, Simmons selected developer Skanska to build a 1.7M SF, four-building project on part of its campus near Longwood Medical Center. Pisinski said that partnership also came as a result of the pressure from the city. 

“There’s pressure for us to get our kids out of the neighborhoods and into our buildings,” Pisinski said. “The development that Skanska is planning on our campus is also about pressure for housing. Not student housing but actual normal people housing.” 

A rendering of Skanska's plans for a mixed-use project at 305 Brookline Ave. on the Simmons University campus.

The project is planned across 5.8 acres on the edge of the Longwood neighborhood on Brookline Avenue and Pilgrim Road. Skanska signed a 99-year ground lease with the university to build on the site, and in exchange, the developer is building a new Living and Learning Center for Simmons on a different part of its property. 

The plans are a part of the university’s “One Simmons” vision to update the campus and consolidate its real estate footprint.

“Skanska just came in with a very unique proposal for us,” Pisinski said. “There was no way we're going to find a better deal, and the stakes were so high for Simmons because we were going to have only one shot at it.”

Evolution Sustainability Group's Chuck Hurchalla, Northeastern University's Torrey Spies, AKF's Jason Sylvain and SGA's David Enriquez.

Last month, Boston University began the review process for its institutional master plan. Like many other schools, BU’s IMP is set to expire next year. These IMPs need to be approved by the city, which has prioritized the development of affordable housing.

“We need to have the infrastructure to be able to support getting back to that height of our population with growth that is equitable and sustainable,” Mayor Michelle Wu told the Boston Globe.

In July, Harvard University and partner Tishman Speyer agreed to set aside for affordable housing 25% of the 345 apartments it is planning to build in the first phase of its Enterprise Research Campus. The agreement came at the request of Wu, the Boston Planning & Development Agency and residents.  

“This is very much emblematic of the kinds of things we think are important,” BPDA Director Arthur Jemison told the Boston Globe. “It’s also a piece to build on for future work in that neighborhood and beyond.”

As universities continue to face pressures from the cities and the students that attend their schools, they say these partnerships with developers will help bring new projects into the pipeline faster. 

"I don't see any sign of that housing pressure waning," Gallop said.