Opinion guest column

MIT: world renowned research institute or luxury developer?

Rent and housing changes to worsen stress for graduate population

Cost of living is a major source of stress for MIT graduate students and a barrier to our academic success. By the administration's own estimate, a typical graduate student pays more than half of their income in rent, qualifying graduate students as severely rent burdened by federal standards. For the particularly vulnerable, rent is a daily source of anxiety and hardship. Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT, a student group fighting for graduate student well-being, is concerned and frustrated by the administration's investments in luxury instead of affordable housing, its rent hikes for those displaced by the planned demolition of Eastgate, its plan to raise housing rates across campus, and its continued neglect of off-campus students. We are troubled by the lack of transparency in this process and the mindset these acts represent. MIT’s leadership has avowedly chosen to listen to developers over graduate students and prioritize commercial development over our well-being. To account for the needs of graduate students, this calculus must shift. 

A two-bedroom in the new Graduate Tower at Site 4 will run $3,410 per month, 63% more than comparable Westgate units. Incoming couples and families who would have lived at Eastgate face 48-59% higher rents at Site 4, thus heightening Westgate competition among those seeking on-campus affordability. While those transitioning from Eastgate will be offered a discount, they will still face estimated hikes of 25-35%, and have been given only three weeks to decide whether they will accept this deal. Greater discounts are being discussed as the administration tries to respond to the crisis it created, with the latest proposal stratifying student households based on a series of opaque financial indicators and an individual’s ability to complete perplexing paperwork while under stress. Yet, none of the existing proposals will prevent the shrinking of the affordable housing stock for graduate students next year and in the future, especially the available housing for those with families. 

This is unconscionable. International students and families already struggle more finding housing, depend disproportionately on MIT housing, and face some of the most dire financial circumstances among graduate students. The administration justifies these exorbitant rents with improved amenities, despite findings from the Graduate Student Housing Working Group demonstrating that graduate students prioritize proximity and price. And more than luxury amenities, international students and families living on campus have said the communities there are essential to their well-being, particularly in their first months at MIT.

Eastgate could be renovated, rather than demolished, but the administration has chosen to replace it with commercial development, forcing out graduate students for the likes of Boeing and Bayer. Recently, a group of senior faculty expressed concern over the administration’s “tacit agenda” to convert Kendall Square into its own Silicon Valley while leaving behind its core academic mission. It seems that graduate students are also being left behind. Closing Eastgate is symptomatic of an administration that would rather be in the real estate business than “advance knowledge and educate students.” 

And so it is perhaps no surprise that the administration has chosen a “market aware” approach, contracting private brokers to assess what a comparable market rate unit would cost. The logic of MIT, as a tax-exempt educational institution, competing on the market is certainly shaky. And the impact of this strategy is that these rates are affordable only to the independently wealthy, those with high-income partners, or those pursuing traditionally high-paying careers, thereby segregating our community. Catering to the privileged erects financial barriers to higher education which disproportionately affect already disadvantaged groups. For example, Black and Latinx students, often systematically deprived of the cushion of family wealth, are underrepresented in graduate schools. At MIT they are just seven percent of graduate students

New family and hardship grants — introduced just prior to these new rents — will help moderate the financial squeeze for some. But these family grants fall short when compared to our peers: their upper limits are less than half of Stanford’s, a third of Princeton’s, and a quarter of UMich’s. Furthermore, childcare is one of the major costs parents face, yet graduate students are denied the childcare scholarships provided to Institute employees. Even with the transitional discount and maximum family grant, the move to Site 4 could still cost Eastgate families $3,500—5,000 per year in extra rent. Given reports of parents in Eastgate struggling to feed their children, this is outrageous. And enforcing arduous applications for the hardship grants is unduly burdensome, and potentially a source of stigma, for those who struggle the most. 

Beyond Site 4, the administration has proposed an average rent increase of 3.7%, with some units going up by 5.5%. This is despite MIT’s own data showing 75% of graduate students report cost of living as a source of stress and 71% see it as an obstacle to academic progress. Rather than address these concerns, MIT is increasing rents to recoup losses from poor preventative maintenance of its properties. The administration acknowledges that to justify increased rents “stipends would need to be increased commensurately.” At the time of writing, next year’s stipend increases had not been announced, and we are hopeful they will exceed 3.7% to compensate for rent increases. But even without the rate hikes, graduate students face a rent crisis. We estimate more than 80% of MIT’s current housing options result in unreasonable rent burdens on graduate students, based on the recommended TA stipend.

Cynically, one of the administration's rationales for these hikes is “equity” to those off campus. We reject this as rationalizing a race to the bottom. Living off campus is riddled with challenges for graduate students: short credit histories, astronomical upfront fees, and the threat of discrimination in a city with an ongoing history of racism. If MIT is committed to helping those forced off campus by its decades of documented failure to build sufficient affordable housing, we recommend providing graduate students the same transport subsidies as staff, partnering directly with landlords to eliminate brokerage fees, and subsidizing off-campus housing as Stanford does. After all, we already subsidize faculty housing, including $100,000 annually for President Reif. MIT’s proposed rent hikes do nothing to relieve the rent burden of those living off campus, while actively worsening the lives of those on campus. 

We implore the administration to rethink its austerity mindset and instead adopt policies that afford all students financial security and dignity. Rather than seeing housing as a service MIT begrudges its students, we propose a different vision. Affordable housing, coupled with adequate economic support, is an opportunity to build our community, right social injustices, recruit talent, invest in the next generation of scientists, and combat the mental health crisis.

This approach is possible. MIT claims it feels pressure from peer institutions to charge “market rates”, but is well-aware that Stanford’s housing is governed by a policy of “Students First!”. Stanford provides on-campus housing 30%+ below market rate and subsidizes off-campus housing to match. At MIT, one of the world’s richest universities, we therefore find it frustrating that graduate students are not similarly valued. When the administration is balancing its books, we ask them to stop leaving our welfare out of the equation. 

Help us fight for the interests of graduate students and the MIT community: Sign this petition written by Eastgate residents to demand MIT commit itself to providing graduate students affordable housing. And, call or email David Friedrich, Dean of Housing and Residential Services, at 617-252-1505 or dfriedr@mit.edu, to let him know that you won’t stand for this complete disregard for the needs of graduate students. To learn about how to get involved, visit the MIT housing crisis coalition website.

Ethan Baker, MIT Graduate Student, Member of Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT

Oceane Boulais, MIT Graduate Student, President of Eastgate

Will Kimball, MIT Graduate Student, Parent, Former Member Graduate Student Housing Working Group, Former President of Eastgate