Student surge to Eastie raised gentrification concerns

by Riane Roldan / Beacon Correspondent • November 1, 2017

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East Boston is the second most popular neighborhood for off-campus and transfer students.
East Boston is the second most popular neighborhood for off-campus and transfer students.

An influx of students, from Emerson and elsewhere, are moving to East Boston as renin other neighborhoods continues to rise and on-campus housing remains scarce and expensive, leading some community members to voice concerns about gentrification.  

East Boston is the second most popular neighborhood for Emerson off-campus and transfer students. In a private study conducted by Off Campus Student Services, about 12 percent of commuter students reported living in the neighborhood, while 15 percent reported living in Allston and nine percent reported living in Brighton.

Jeff Morris, director of Off Campus Student Services, said he pushed the East Boston neighborhood for both incoming transfer students and former on-campus students who were looking for places to live this fall. Apartments in Eastie are much cheaper compared to neighborhoods like Back Bay and Beacon Hill, he said.  

“Ten years ago, it probably wouldn't be a neighborhood that I would be jumping the gun to suggest to a student or parent or family,” Morris said. “But within the past five, six, or seven years, the entire town of East Boston has been very much redone and renovated and uplifted. [It’s] really completely changed.”

Gloribell Mota, lead coordinator and co-director of Neighbors United for a Better East Boston, has a different definition for affordable. NUBE is an organization aimed at developing a more just, understanding, and sustainable neighborhood.  

“East Boston is a neighborhood that’s cheaper and low-cost compared to all the other Boston neighborhoods, but it’s not affordable. Only 8 percent of the people that actually have been living here will be able to afford it [because of new housing developments],” Mota said.

The website also expresses concerns for proposed and approved economic development projects, including the creation of more than 900 luxury apartments at $3,000 each.

Mota, an Emerson alumna who lives and works in East Boston, said college students are not the only problem.  

“It’s also the big, high-end waterfront developments and luxury developments that are not affordable,” she said.  

Mota isn’t trying to kick students out, but said she believes mindful changes should be made.

“Of course students should be able to live here, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of those who are currently living here,” she said. “So we’re hoping to make our neighbors more mindful, as well as those who that are coming to share our community more mindful of what they’re doing.”

For Emerson students, the issue is complicated because living on campus is not only unavailable to transfer students and the majority of upperclassmen, but expensive in general. A standard double room costs $16,992 annually.  

Junior Paul Romain, who moved to East Boston from Roxbury, said the affordable rent, proximity to convenience stores, and public transportation make the neighborhood a perfect fit.

On the Blue Line, campus is a 15 to 20 minute ride away.  

For senior Daniel Barbati, living in East Boston is the only option his family can afford.

“It’s certainly more affordable. This was really basically half the costs of living on campus,” he said.  

Though Barbati moved from campus before the start of his junior year in 2016, the college recently changed its residence requirement policy for students who entered Emerson in fall 2017 and after. Now, freshmen are required to live on campus for their first six semesters at Emerson, or until the completion of their junior year.

According to Erik Muurisepp, associate dean for campus life, the change was initiated in part to combat the housing burden and keep college-goers out of Boston neighborhoods after Mayor Marty Walsh asked colleges and universities to house more of their students in 2014.

The policy is also a result of the extra 294 beds the college will have to house students once the Little Building is complete.

Muurisepp said student responses to the requirement have been mixed. As a former on-campus student, Barbati disagrees with the policy change.

“That’s crazy. I don’t think that's affordable for a lot of students who go here. Obviously it’s already an expensive school ...That seems stupid to me,” Barbati said.

Margaret Ann Ings, vice president for government and community relations, said she understands the difficulties that arise when students aren’t living on campus.

“If the students are in housing in neighborhoods, it means the community is pushed out of housing in their own neighborhoods by students,” she said. “Families want to stay together. They grow up, they go off to college, they come back, they can’t live in their own neighborhoods. A lot of housing is not affordable in general.”  

Barbati said he feels like the neighborhood is slowly beginning to change.

“It’s definitely way more [populated with students] this year than it was last year actually,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that students have ruined Eastie yet. It hasn’t been fully gentrified. It’s still what it is, it’s still Eastie. But I don’t know, that could change …”

Mota said believes the neighborhood is at a crucial turning point—not fully gentrified but still on the verge of losing more and more families.  

”We’re halfway there … [but] we could turn the tide or at least shift it in a way that does not displace more and more families,” she said.

Though it’s a complicated issue, Mota said she believes that college students, developers, and the city need to work together to cultivate a community for everyone.

“Wherever you live for the three, four years, there is so much more to the community. Get involved and figure out how you could limit and mitigate the impact the impact of gentrification that we’re seeing,” Mota said.