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Mass. Leaders Call On Universities To Help Alleviate Housing Crisis

As Massachusetts continues to face a massive shortage of affordable housing, state leaders are looking for universities to play a larger role in producing housing.

More than 60,000 students of Boston schools live off campus, putting them in direct competition with other residents and adding pressure to the housing market.

University leaders aim to ease this pressure by creating more housing on campus for students and faculty, and some schools are partnering with developers to turn underutilized parcels into multifamily housing for anyone in the community. 

Several of these projects are already taking shape in Boston. And with more than 100 private and public universities in the state, there are numerous opportunities for more to move forward, state leaders, university administrators and real estate executives said at Bisnow's Boston Higher Ed Development and Student Housing Summit last week at The Westin Copley Place.

Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll at Bisnow's Higher Ed Development and Student Housing Summit at The Westin Copley Place.

"How do we think about leveraging spaces that are owned by universities in a way that can help us solve neighborhood and regional housing challenges?" Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll said at the event. "This is an opportunity that we see that can help develop a sector of housing that's missing in Massachusetts."

The shortage of affordable housing has become a top issue in the state in recent years, and data published in January by the Housing Navigator Massachusetts showed the problem is more severe than previously known. It found that there were 34,000 fewer affordable housing units than were reflected in the state's official inventory, WGBH reported.

Driscoll said academic institutions could be instrumental in helping the state with its housing crunch.

"What if all 100 of our higher ed institutions were tasked with being a partner to help solve the commonwealth's housing crisis?" Driscoll said. "What could that look like?"

Across the nine state universities, enrollment decreased by 0.6% in the fall, with enrollment at the four University of Massachusetts campuses down 1%, according to the state Department of Higher Education.

Sarah Felton, deputy director of Massachusetts' Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, said that the state expects to see an even bigger enrollment drop in the upcoming years. But she said that could create opportunities for universities.

"We don't want to ignore it, but at the same time, I think that does provide opportunities for understanding how space is utilized, rethinking how space can be used, what are the opportunities as a campus as a whole to engage in other housing types," Felton said.

Last month, the University of Massachusetts Lowell partnered with the development team of Pennsylvania-based GMH Communities and Baltimore-based Wexford Science & Technology to develop more than 1M SF, including 500 housing units, 461 student beds and several professional-use buildings, the Boston Business Journal reported.

UMass Lowell is one of many universities that have begun to navigate public-private partnerships to focus on elevating their communities.

In September, the Boston Planning & Development Agency approved Accordia Partners' 6.1M SF Dorchester Bay City development next to the UMass Boston campus.

Suffolk Construction Vice President of Business Development Patricia Filippone, whose firm is involved in the project, said UMass Boston bought the land in 2009 from Bayside Expo Center but wanted to find a new way to utilize the land. 

Suffolk Construction's Patricia Filippone, Leggat McCall's Mahmood Malihi and Harvard Allston Land Co.'s Carl Rodrigues.

"What value can they extract from that? How can we monetize that land?" Filippone said. "[UMass Boston] did a process to really look at the highest and best use of one developer that could come in there. What types of assets could they develop that would have synergies with the university, but not necessarily put student housing there or classrooms there?"

In 2019, UMass Boston tapped Accordia to develop the site on a 99-year lease. Through this lease, the school could generate $235M in revenue, the CommonWealth Beacon reported.

The $5B project includes a 21-building master plan along Mount Vernon Street and Morrissey Boulevard that is planned to host life sciences, office, housing and potential academic uses. Of the 1,957 planned apartments, 20% would be affordable.

On the other side of the city, in Allston, Harvard University and Tishman Speyer are working on the first phase of the 900K SF Enterprise Research Campus, which will include a 343-unit apartment building. The joint venture began construction after securing a $750M construction loan in June from Montreal-based lender Otéra Capital.

"How can higher ed institutions focus on delivering housing in innovative ways? We're very much thinking about that," said Carl Rodrigues, CEO of Harvard Allston Land Co., the university's development manager for the project.

For other universities, focusing on housing their students has become critical. Cities like Boston see droves of students each year who choose to live off campus, taking away housing options for residents. The city estimates that 66,000 students who attend Boston-based schools live off campus.

Sullivan & Worcester's Jennifer Schultz, the Wentworth Institute of Technology's Johanna Sena, MIT's Sarah Gallop and Stantec's Kate Ryan.

"Boston has a housing crunch," said Johanna Sena, director of community and government relations at the Wentworth Institute of Technology. "I understand that for every four students in an apartment, that could be a family that they're competing with, so we take that very seriously, and because of that, we try to build housing that's attractive to students."

As part of its institutional master plan, the university plans to add 1,400 dorm beds to alleviate housing demand in the neighborhoods that students tend to live in: Mission Hill, Roxbury and Fenway, the Boston Business Journal reported.

The plan would bring three dorm buildings, two on Huntington Avenue and another that would replace Baker Hall, a first-year residence hall. Sena said the biggest issue has been building housing that is attractive to students. 

Like many other Boston campuses, Wentworth has a big portfolio of historic housing, Sena said, adding that students would prefer newer, apartment-style housing and more privacy.

"Students do want to live on campus," she said. "I know it might sound fun to live off campus. But we learned throughout the years that when we talk to the students, when we talk to their families, they actually realize there's a lot of higher value to living on campus, and part of attracting them is having the type of attractive housing that they want to live in."

Across the river in Cambridge, there is a push to not only house undergraduates but also graduate students. Sarah Gallop, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Office of Government and Community Relations, said the university has housed 50% of its graduate students.

AHA Consulting Engineers' Jill O'Connell, Ellenzweig's Peter Herman, the state of Massachusetts' Sarah Felton, Tufts University's Ruth Bennett and American Campus Communities' Jason Wills.

"That's a big accomplishment for us," Gallop said. "[There has been] a lot of pressure from the city on that and from ourselves and from our students."

The institution has long faced pressure from its graduate students to produce more housing, especially as the university gets closer to the $750M, eight-building redevelopment of the 14-acre Volpe site. The university opened a 250-bed graduate hall in Kendall Square in 2021 and partnered with American Campus Communities on another 676-bed complex on Vassar Street, MIT News reported.

Other institutions have faced the issue of how public-private partnerships could change the environment on campus. Ruth Bennett, senior director of capital programs at Tufts University, said finding a balance between student and public relations can be tricky.

"How do we incorporate housing for all types, right?" Bennett said. "I think that public-private partnership is a really good idea financially. I think it's challenging culturally, and then definitely bringing quote-unquote the public to university buildings is yet another challenge."