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Not enough room

Menino: College enrollment freeze may be needed to avoid adding to housing shortage

By Chris Reidy, Globe Staff | August 27, 2004

Despite a new study indicating nearly 16,000 dormitory beds have been created over the past 14 years, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said yesterday that colleges and universities will have to consider freezing enrollments to avoid adding to Boston's housing shortage.

Menino praised schools for adding undergraduate dormitory beds at a rate of 1,000 per year. In theory, new dorms free up housing as students opt to live on campus -- in increasingly opulent and state-of-the-art suites -- instead of renting in the neighborhood. Collectively, though, schools may be adding full-time undergraduates as fast as they're adding beds.

"We will come to the point where universities and colleges can no longer increase enrollments, probably within the next 10 years," Menino said.

Since 1990, the number of beds for undergraduates in the city has nearly doubled. There are 32,701 dorm beds for Boston undergrads and 1,764 beds for graduate students, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Citywide enrollment, which includes part-time and graduate students, has stayed relatively stable over the past decade, at around 137,000, but the number of full-time undergraduates in Boston "showed a marked increase" to 70,525 in 2002, from 66,450 in 2001, according to the BRA. The authority did not have 2003 and 2004 data available.

Schools have incentives to build. Students -- or their parents -- are willing to pay $10,000 a year for the most deluxe of dormitory accommodations. And schools building dorms qualify for tax breaks that private developers of apartment buildings can only dream about, said Tom Meagher, president of Northeast Apartment Advisors, which tracks the Greater Boston rental market.

"It's a great business," he said of colleges renting dorm space to students.

Since 1998, when 30 percent of its undergrads lived on campus, undergraduate enrollment at Northeastern University has risen 16 percent, said Steven Sylven, a senior media relations manager. Last year, undergraduate enrollment was 14,500, and 45 percent of undergraduates lived on campus, he said. Northeastern aims to keep its freshman enrollment at 2,800 students, Sylven said.

Over the last six years, Northeastern has been the leader in dormitory construction, adding 2,178 beds, or 41 percent of the 5,254 beds added by all colleges and universities in Boston during that time, according to the BRA analysis.

And under a new five-year plan, Northeastern looks to move 900 students out of about 20 Fenway and Roxbury apartment buildings used as student housing and put them in new dorms. Northeastern leases those buildings. As dorm space becomes available, Northeastern would let those leases expire, Sylven said.

Boston College, meanwhile, has held its undergraduate enrollment steady at 8,900 for 20 years, said spokesman Jack Dunn. Today there are dorm beds for 85 percent of those students. (Undergrads studying abroad are excluded from this calculation.)

A big project in the pipeline is Boston University's plan to build dormitories with 1,450 beds at the site of the old Commonwealth Armory on Commonwealth Avenue. BU's full-time undergraduate enrollment is 15,438, and BU has beds for 77 percent of the undergraduates in need of student housing, said Kevin Carleton, a spokesman. New dorms expected to open in 2010 would increase that percentage to 87 percent, he said; BU has no plans to increase enrollment.

New dorms pulling students back to campus is one reason cited for the current soft rental market. According to a spring survey by Northeast Apartment Advisors, Greater Boston's vacancy rate was 5.1 percent, a high level for a region where demand routinely exceeds supply.

Students moving back to campuses is changing Boston neighborhoods, added Debra Taylor, president of Listing Information Network, or Link, which tracks condo sales. Apartments and condos once rented by students have been put on the market and sold, and the young, transient crowd is being replaced by older, permanent residents.

"The Fenway used to be tagged as a student ghetto," she said. "Because the universities have built much more student housing, the Fenway has become more desirable" for condo buyers.

Town-and-gown disputes persist, though. Some Roxbury residents were angered by Northeastern's recent effort to convert an apartment building into a dormitory. Rose Arruda, a member of a neighborhood watchdog group, said Northeastern is seeking to get this property approved as a dorm without consulting residents.

"They see Roxbury as free for the pickings," she said of Northeastern.

Robert P. Gittens, a Northeastern vice president, said the university followed appropriate procedures in notifying the neighborhood but promised to go "above and beyond" in communicating with neighbors in the future.

New dorms don't always mean a corresponding increase in beds. Emerson College is building a 586-bed dorm on Boylston Street, set to open in 2006. The college then plans to sell three Back Bay buildings on Beacon and Arlington streets with a total of 457 beds, said associate vice president David Rosen.

From The Boston Globe

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