The students are using the discussions around real estate development at MIT to raise the issue of housing. Council president Brian Spatocco, a fourth year PhD student, is the author of a statement that appeared the May/June issue of the Faculty Newsletter “Concerns Over the Lack of Graduate Student Housing in the MIT 2030 Plan.” Despite its functional title, the paper is a call to action.
“To get straight to the point: It is our belief that, if left unchecked, the Cambridge rental housing crisis will not only have a profound effect on the quality of life of our many off-campus MIT community. but it may also markedly impact our ability to attract the talent as well as maintain the level of productivity which fuel our academic pursuits.”
In the same newsletter, a group of faculty members call on MIT to develop the last available lots in Kendall Square for academic rather than commercial uses. While not specifically opposed to the “Kendall Square Initiative,” Spatocco thinks housing should take priority.
“There is a commercial opportunity in Cambridge, and there is a housing problem,” he said during an interview in a café near the Kendall site. “We need to address our problem first before we go off and try to make a bunch money “ developing commercial property.
Spatocco, a student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, knows the issue well. He spent two years as the co-chair of the council’s Housing and Community Affairs committee and is a member of the City Council’s Kendall Square Advisory Committee. Clean cut and built like an athlete, Spatocco showed up for an interview in jeans and a suit jacket. And, he was careful to say that the students are not asking MIT to build dorms – although that’s one idea. With both city and MIT Kendall Square projects , the school’s long range “”MIT 2030” plan and a new president, Spatocco thinks the time is right to act on housing.
“All of these point to this being a most advantageous juncture for us to really sit down and say – how to we create a structure to talk about planning at the institute,” he said
In his newsletter article, he quantified the problem He and others found that about 62% of graduate students – more than 4,000 – live off campus. About 60 % of that group lives in Cambridge, but more are moving to Somerville and beyond to find housing. MIT housing office data shows a sharp decline in listings in recent years. As a result, the city’s rents are highand the vacancy rate is hovering around 1% — about the same as Manhattan. Statewide, 5.8 % of rentals are available; nationally, the rate is 9.5 %.
“All of the quantitative indicators that we currently have point to an increasingly difficult housing situation,” Spatocco said.
The closer to campus, the higher the rent. So, rather than walk or bike to campus, many grad students have to commute – not a simple task. The streets around MIT can get clogged, and parking is hard to find and costly. Mass transportation is an option, but getting beyond Inman Square involves complicated, unreliable bus routes, he said. About 50 percent of grad students report that they leave campus after 7 p.m. or later, when many area buses have stopped running.
The lack of housing is more than an inconvenience, Spatocco said: “This is something we need to help us to our jobs. The nature of research has changed such that a lot of students are needing get back to the lab at periodic intervals to check on experiments. That’s not something you can do if you live in Watertown.”
Safety is also an issue, he said:
“You’re sending of 4,000 young people in the late hours in the night… It’s not a crime free neighborhood and that’s a huge liability. The way you address that … you keep people close to campus.”
Spatocco said that university officials have been willing to listen to student concerns about housing. What he and others want is something more formal. In his newsletter piece, he describes it as :”…a collaborative conversation among students, faculty, staff, and administrators to set forth a vision for how our communities are defined and how to sustain our vibrant and invaluable residential community in an ever-changing housing market.”
Martin Schmidt, MIT associate provost and a professor of electrical engineering said that MIT is aware of the need for grad student housing and has been adding new dorm space: up from 1,600 beds to 2,700 over the past 15 years.
“It’s absolutely in our best interest that we create an environment for grad students to be successful,” he said.