The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s biggest graduate student dorm, Sidney-Pacific, has room for 676 people. (Image: Steffians)

An old idea to loosen up Cambridge’s housing market and lower prices has returned, with a call for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to build 1,800 units of graduate students apartments before it is allowed to build commercial space at its 14-acre Volpe site in Kendall Square.

A zoning petition filed Monday with the city clerk by the institute’s graduate students “responds to concerns that MIT is not doing enough to divert its students from an increasingly competitive and expensive Cambridge housing market,” said grad student spokesman Doug McPherson in an email. “MIT has 6,800 graduate students, and this effort would affect the two-thirds of the grad student population who need to compete in the housing market with families in Cambridge and surrounding cities.”

The petition calls for 1,100 housing units for single graduate students and an additional 700 for families and a plan from the institute outlining when graduate housing units will be built; it offers flexibility to build graduate housing outside of the Kendall Square area – within 1.5 miles of the parcel.

It exempts the federal government’s new Volpe transportation research building itself, any other residential uses and community and open space, targeting high-return commercial space for its purposes.

Redevelopment of the federal government’s John A. Volpe National Transportation Center facility already has the potential to bring another 1,400 dwelling units and 1.7 million square feet of office, research and development space with ground-floor retail to Kendall Square; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology agreed to pay $750 million for the parcel in January. That zoning is being examined by a City Council subcommittee and the Planning Board.

Initial response

MIT’s remaking of 26 acres in Kendall Square included 300 new market-rate housing units. (Image: MIT)

The grad student petition awaits conversation when the council returns from its summer break.

“The graduate student effort should be celebrated by Cambridge officials, especially those who truly understand the housing crisis in Cambridge,” said city councillor Dennis Carlone, sought for comment Monday. He has made such housing part of his goals for reelection in November. “The submitted petition very much matches what many on the council know is an essential part of easing the housing squeeze in our neighborhoods, especially for families and people in need.”

Jonathan King, a professor of molecular biology at the institute but an outspoken critic of some of its development policies, felt the petition was a blow against faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows being treated as “second-class MIT citizens” despite their importance. In comparison, said King, also a member of the Cambridge Residents Alliance housing group, “The decisions by the MITCO real estate arm of the MIT corporation to build five commercial office buildings on the East Campus, and subsequently to try to build predominantly commercial and market rate residences on the Volpe site, make very little contributions to the central MIT mission of education and advancing research in science and technology.”

The petition follows a survey done this summer by the MIT Graduate Student Council that found students “overwhelmingly” wanted affordable on-campus housing options, with an estimated unmet demand of least 1,450 beds and up to 1,800.

An Aug. 3 response by institute Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart proposed creating a working group and launching a yearlong study to determine need and where it could be built.

Circle of studies

This all might sound familiar.

In 2013, the council granted the institute zoning to remake 26 acres in Kendall Square on its East Campus called MIT PUD-5 that included about 1 million square feet of commercial space, 800,000 square feet of academic space, 65,000 square feet of retail and more than 300 units of housing.

Calls for graduate student housing were loud at the time, capping a two-year zoning process, with advocates claiming about 2,400 of these students end up renting market-rate apartments in the city, packing students into units to pay rising rents not covered by stipend increases while cutting off supply for other kinds of residents. The advocates wanted the institute to build 5,000 units of housing for students and others in its community, but the approved plans called for 300.

The institute said it would do its own study to complement that of its Graduate Student Council.  It created a working group in March 2013 and promised a report by July 2013, but came out with one six months after that. The result, called the Clay Report, said between 500 and 600 grad student units should be built to fulfill immediate demand, and 1,000 units in total should go up.

MIT plans for a parcel in Kendall Square could add up to 1,400 housing units to the city. (Image: Elkus Manfredi)

The Volpe redevelopment offered a new opportunity to express dissatisfaction with the results, McPherson. Recently, representatives from more than three dozen institute departments voted 38-2 to charge Graduate Student Council leadership with advocating for more housing in conjunction with the project – prompting Barnhart’s response.

In her Aug. 3 letter, Barnhart acknowledged the need for up to 600 beds and said she was “pleased that the new graduate residence hall being constructed on Site 4 in Kendall Square, which is scheduled to open in August 2020, will expand our graduate student housing stock by about 250.”

Her new working group, she said, would consider over the next academic year what more should be done to fulfill the needs outlined in the 2014 report, while also “assessing how graduate student housing needs (including those of graduate student families) have evolved in the three years since.”

Policy priorities

Graduate students expressed some exasperation.

“It shouldn’t take a year of meetings to realize that building more graduate student housing will go a long way to relieving pressure on the market,” said David Tisel, a grad student whose comments were included in a Monday press release. “The administration’s decision to form another working group is just an admission that they aren’t yet willing to put real resources behind the growing need for graduate student housing in Cambridge.”

Alex Auriema, another petition signer, added, “MIT’s massive commercial venture will bring thousands of new high-income workers to Kendall Square, pushing the housing market even more out of reach for low- and middle-income residents and students alike. The least MIT can do is to balance that impact by housing more of its growing population of graduate students.”

Another student, Matthew Robayna, described being pushed out to Dorchester because he and his partner could find nothing affordable near campus.

The petition was signed by several grad students, but also people from outside the MIT community, including four candidates for City Council: Ilan Levy, Jeff Santos, Sumbul Siddiqui and Quinton Zondervan.

MIT is better at housing grad students than most other universities, but it’s the lingering effects of a policy it has abandoned, according to experts from within the school. During the presidency of Charles M. Vest, from 1990 through 2004, it had a policy of housing 50 percent of its graduate students – a product of Cambridge resident Bob Simha, who served as director of planning for four decades ending in 2000. The policy was dropped by president Susan Hockfield when she took over in 2004, though the school kept adding grad students.

When the institute touts its housing figures, “they are drinking from wells they had nothing to do with digging,” said Fred Salvucci, a former state secretary of transportation and senior lecturer in civil engineering at the institute, during a 2013 forum where he called grad students reluctant “shock troops” of gentrification.

He was also  think impatient with the school’s response, calling 1,800 units “a very modest step … that MIT should embrace, not ‘study.’”

The community deserved an updated set of figures, Salvucci said, but even based on what was known years ago “the number would be at least 3,000 affordable units in addition to the 1,800 student units” to offset remaining demand for off-campus housing.

Applause for petition

State Rep. Mike Connolly, whose 26th Middlesex District includes the Volpe parcel, has advocated for more grad student housing since before being elected, and even before a year spent as legislative aide for Carlone. In early 2013, he called PUD-5 “deeply flawed because it skews far too heavily in favor of commercial real estate development while ignoring the institute’s pressing need for graduate student housing.”

On Monday, reached for comment, he said, “I applaud MIT graduate students for organizing around the issue of graduate student housing production and for all the work they have done this summer to engage the community and craft this significant proposal.’’

“It is obvious to me that the Clay Report did not go far enough,” he said. “My hope is that all interested parties will work together to ensure that graduate student housing production requirements are agreed to, as this will benefit not just the MIT graduate students, but also the Cambridge and Somerville community at large.

Simha said he was “impressed with the determination” of the leadership of the graduate students to win more affordable and convenient housing in Cambridge.

“It is one of the ways MIT will be able to continue to attract the most talented graduate students whose creativity and hard work have helped to create the new economy for Cambridge, the commonwealth and the region. I hope MIT’s leadership responds with enthusiasm and creativity,” Simha said.


The headline on this story was changed Aug. 14, 2017, to more precisely capture the meaning of the student petition. The story was updated Aug. 17, 2017, to include comments from Fred Salvucci.