Has university growth lead to gentrification in a college town?

A residential apartment building (left) and a Boston University dormitory (right) on Bay State Road, Boston, Mass. Photo by Zachary McCollum/ BU News Service

By Jordan Kimmel and Zach McCollum
BU News Service

BOSTON — As off-campus housing increasingly becomes the norm for upperclassmen at Boston universities, landlords are becoming more and more wise to it.

An expanding process of student gentrification, or “studentification,” points to landlords welcoming the idea of more students in their neighborhoods, which students say lets them overcharge with almost no pushback.

James Pasto, a professor in the Boston University Writing Program who teaches a gentrification course, said studentification has led rent and property values in the city to spike.

“When a residential area becomes predominantly populated by students,” Pasto said, “those students are displacing another population.”  

In the housing section of “Imagine Boston 2030,” Boston’s comprehensive citywide plan, the city notes that its more than 147,000 students place an “enormous strain” on the housing market, ultimately contributing to higher rents for Boston’s workforce. The problem, according to the plan, stems from university growth over the past 20 years, coupled with a lack of dormitories.

In 1996, the Boston Planning and Development Agency implemented the Institutional Master Plan Review as a way to prevent colleges and universities from gentrifying city neighborhoods. The plan requires that all new projects with more than 150,000 square feet of property be subject for approval by the public, the BPDA, the Zoning Commission and ultimately, the mayor.

Molly McGlynn, a spokesperson for the BPDA, wrote in an email that the city requires community input for each development project as a way to evaluate the impact it will have on nearby neighborhoods.

“These amendments go through a comprehensive public process that gives the surrounding community an opportunity to ask questions and offer feedback on the proposed plans,” McGlynn wrote in an email. “Recognizing the impact ongoing development has on a surrounding neighborhood, each Institutional Master Plan also contains a robust community benefits package that includes funding for community programs, resources and services.”

The BPDA is currently reviewing a plan submitted by Suffolk University that would build new student housing at the site of the existing Ames Hotel in Downtown Boston. 

Michael Foley, president of Boston Condominium Management, a full-service property management firm that rents condominiums to private groups and small associations in Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Charlestown and Somerville, said that as universities continue to expand, the growing student population threatens longtime residents who can’t afford ever-increasing rents.

“The people that have lived here in the community for a long, long time — unless they bought their place or can afford the rents, which many of them can’t — are forced out,” Foley said matter-of-factly. “The landlords are going to get whatever they can command from the market, and students coming in from all over the world — there’s a great deal of wealth that comes in — it just forces the rents up.”

Foley, who has been renting to students in the city since 1985, said he’s seen Boston neighborhoods transform dramatically.

“Students and universities definitely change the demographics of the neighborhood, and there’s no way around that,” Foley said. “It’s been an ongoing struggle, but I think the city does a really good job through their council of listening to constituents and addressing the problems as best they can.”

But some students said landlords have taken a different approach to the rise in off-campus student populations.

Jonah Kessler, a Boston University student living off-campus in Allston, said that Boston landlords are blocking undergraduate students from living on their properties, often without offering a reason. Kessler, 21, found himself jumping through hoops to secure an apartment on Brainerd Road.

“At the very end of the [application] process, [the agent Dan Briggs of East Coast Realty] was about to send the paperwork to the landlord,” he explained. “And then he asked me, ‘You’re a grad student at BU right?’ And I didn’t know any better, so I said ‘Oh no, I’m an undergrad, I’m starting my junior year. And basically, he dropped everything right there and said that there was no way they were going to let me into this building.”

Briggs failed to respond to a series of phone calls and emails attempting to reach him for comment.

As a result, Kessler said he was forced to seek out another realtor and omit that he was an undergraduate to his new landlord, Jeff Vecchio of Walbright LLC and Coolidge Properties.

“They never asked me whether I was a student, but I basically lied by omission,” he said. 

Vecchio did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him for comment. 

The Federal Fair Housing Act neither approves nor disapproves of a landlord’s ability to discriminate against students based on their graduate status. The FHA lists seven protected classes whereby landlords cannot discriminate against their prospective tenants including race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability and familial status, but graduate standing isn’t a listed reason. 

“The real evidence I have for thinking that none of the landlords let undergrads in is [Briggs] who was on my side,” Kessler said. “He said that the landlords [in the area] are doing their best to keep all the undergrads out. It’s not a matter of money, it’s about how clean [and quiet] they want to keep the buildings.”

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