Graduate Students Demand Decent Affordable Housing

MIT is a non-profit organization with an endowment exceeding $20 billion, whose wealth increased by 8.3% at the height of the pandemic. Why does it plan for graduate students to be severely rent-burdened, paying more than half of their stipends in rent? Why does it ignore basic tenant rights granted to all other Massachusetts residents, denying them a safe habitable place to live?

We are organizers with the MIT Graduate Student Union, student-workers from every department demanding a voice in the way MIT governs our lives. In the literally thousands of conversations we’ve had across campus, unaffordable housing has been a central issue affecting graduate students’ ability to teach and conduct research. According to the administration’s data, over 60% of us are unhappy with the cost of housing and 75% of us report that making ends meet is a source of stress.

The administration claims its housing prices should be “market-aware,” that it would be unfair to subsidize on-campus housing. This ignores MIT’s role in raising the cost of housing off-campus. Local rents are driven up when students are forced off-campus by decades of documented failure to build affordable housing. Today, one in twenty-five Cambridge residents is an MIT graduate student. Instead of building affordable housing, MIT is tearing down, replacing it with luxury apartments where the cheapest rent is 65% of an RA’s stipend.

Instead of building affordable housing on the estimated 7% of Cambridge MIT owns — largely tax-free — the administration is investing in commercial developments at the expense of “academic excellence and teaching,” in violation of agreements with the federal government. The result of these investments is again more demand on Cambridge housing and rising rents for grad-workers, just as MIT faculty warned. Already in 2012, it was “just as hard now to find an apartment in Cambridge as it is in Manhattan.”

Through a union, graduate workers will have more power to fight for affordable and livable on-campus housing, housing subsidies, assistance to cover broker fees and moving costs, and whatever policies we collectively decide serve our interests. If the administration is going to use the logic of the market to justify its housing policy, it is only right that graduate students form a union to defend their rights as tenants and workers.

Abandoned in a Pandemic

For many MIT grad workers, the MIT administration is both our employer and landlord, setting how much we make and how much we pay back in rent. In short, the administration decides how much to squeeze our bank accounts. The toll this takes on some of us can be enormous, especially on international students and families. But, given how thin the margins are for graduate students, MIT’s policies can result in economic precarity for anyone who isn’t independently wealthy. We spoke to Maria (Maria is a pseudonym. She spoke to us under conditions of anonymity because she fears retaliation.), who described how financial issues “distract you and sap your energy.” She talked about how her friends would use their downtime to think about proposals and papers, while she ran through budgets and figured out which seminars she could snag food from. She told us about nights she woke up shivering to save money on heating and months where she almost exclusively subsisted on potatoes to save money on food.

Rent forced Maria to move four times during her graduate career. Originally, she found a place near campus, but with her rent going up faster than her stipend, she had to move. Her second place had the same problem: rent kept going up. But, she couldn’t move too far away. MIT does not provide the transportation benefits to graduate workers it does other employees — and, of course, a car is considered a luxury. So she moved into one of those “three-bedroom apartments” where one of the rooms is a converted living room. Despite sleeping in a living room, she was finally able to balance studies and finances.

Because MIT graduate workers must make their housing decisions exclusively based on cost, they cannot hedge against other risks. Maria estimates that she had 17 roommates over four years. “Everyone is just looking for the cheapest place, and hope the other people are tolerable.” In fall 2019, her roommate moved out suddenly, and they had to quickly find a craigslist replacement because they could not afford to cover a month’s extra rent. The new roommate turned out to be a disaster, but in the Cambridge housing market, you just have to suck it up.

Then the pandemic hit. Maria’s partner is immunocompromised, but her roommate refused to follow the CDC’s precautions. When this roommate got a cough and fever, she refused to isolate. Relations got so tense that Maria and her partner barricaded themselves in their room with filing boxes (being originally a living room, it had no lock) and the roommate threatened to bring home a COVID-positive coworker since Maria was “so worried about getting infected.”

Fearing for her and her partner’s safety, Maria managed to get rid of the roommate by agreeing to cover all rent and utilities until the end of the lease, as well as her moving costs. Spring of 2020 was not an easy time to find a new roommate, so staying in the three-bedroom apartment was out of the question. They moved again, but between covering the old apartment to the end of the lease, her partner’s deteriorating health preventing him from working, and the higher per-person cost in the new place, Maria was putting more than 70% of her stipend towards housing.

This drained Maria’s savings. It put her into debt. And she had to get a second job. This is actually why she insisted on anonymity: she was worried her advisor would perceive her as less committed to her research for having spent time to make her finances work. Maria pointed out that none of the “needs-based” support MIT offered applied to her: “the Institute tailored assistance in a manner that sounded good on paper but ended up being so narrow that most people’s real circumstances were never enough of a match.”

A Tenant Without Rights

Graduate workers living in MIT housing don’t benefit from the same tenant rights that all other Massachusetts renters have. Tenants in MIT housing don’t sign a formal lease, but instead sign a housing license, under which they have few contractually protected rights. Most egregiously, despite being illegal, MIT has for decades insisted we cannot hold them responsible for denying us heating, hot water, electricity, or a rat-free home. As a result, MIT has few incentives to proactively maintain housing units in livable conditions. This hurts MIT in the long run: the quantity of renovation necessary to make Eastgate habitable was one of the justifications for closing it. However, this also hurts MIT graduate students in the short term.

Daniella (a pseudonym) lives in Ashdown House. She and her roommate discovered mold spreading from a damp spot on their ceiling, affecting both of the apartment’s bedrooms, the kitchen, and the living room. During the weeks she waited for a resolution to the issue, Daniella spent as much time as possible at her office and lab, but she still had to sleep in the mold-infested room, which she believed was affecting her health.

Eventually, MIT Housing moved Daniella and her roommate into a new apartment while work began to remove the mold. But the new unit turned out to be in uninhabitable condition as well, with a non-functional toilet and a bathroom door that didn’t close, forcing them to live with friends until these issues could be resolved. Soon after, they discovered mold in the new unit as well. The work on their original unit was at first projected to take three days, but is still ongoing without a clear endpoint. “I don’t know how MIT gets away with this,” she said of the situation.

Having to move on short notice or otherwise dealing with adverse housing conditions puts incredible stress on graduate workers and interferes with our ability to do the research that we came to MIT to do. “I haven’t done science in two weeks,” Daniella lamented. She also noted that this isn’t the first issue she and her roommate have faced since moving into Ashdown. The toilet stopped working shortly after they moved in, the heat in their unit stopped functioning in the middle of the winter in 2020, and other issues have cropped up every few months.

Daniella would prefer to move off-campus rather than back into the same apartment after the mold removal is completed, but was told that the extensive mold problems were not grounds for an “approved termination” of her license agreement because she had been moved into a new unit (notwithstanding the fact that the new unit also had mold). An “unapproved termination” of the license agreement would mean she would still have to pay rent until July, unless she could find someone to take over her place — currently a remote possibility. Under MIT’s current grad housing license agreement, the only valid cause for “approved termination” is if a grad-worker graduates or otherwise becomes ineligible for on-campus housing.

Having a formal lease would provide grad workers with legal recourse and the ability to move out with less punishing financial consequences, incentivizing MIT to maintain units in livable conditions, like any other landlord.

We Demand Affordable Housing

Everything wrong with the MIT housing system now reflects a long-term, cumulative process of underfunding graduate student protections. MIT could choose to restore deteriorating buildings faster. It has not. MIT could choose to prioritize affordable housing. It does not. MIT could improve transportation benefits so graduate students can live in housing they can afford. It does not. MIT could subsidize housing more generously like other universities. It does not.

In 2004, MIT’s leadership turned over its real estate portfolio to the MIT Investment Management Company (MITIMCo). The staff of this office gets incentives for maximizing financial return on investment. Not the number of world-class scientists MIT trains or for reducing the outrageous levels of depression and anxiety among MIT’s overworked and underpaid graduate students.

If what MITIMCo cares about is MIT’s bottom-line, it is worth remembering that MIT’s graduate students carry out experiments, develop ideas and knowledge, teach and support undergraduates, and, as MIT faculty have pointed out, “provide much of the innovative environment that permeates the surrounding Cambridge community and draws high-tech industry to the area.”

For decades, graduate students and faculty have advocated for MIT to ensure all grad-workers have access to affordable, high-quality housing. Nearly two years ago, grad-workers asked that when the administration is balancing its books, it stop leaving our welfare out of the equation. Now, with a union, we can demand it.

Sign your card to join the union. Together we can build a better MIT.

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MIT Graduate Student Union

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Learn more at mitgsu.org

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