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Harvard Dreams, Allston Nightmares

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In 2007, Harvard professor Peter L. Galison wrote of Allston dreams and Allston nightmares.

At that time, just after the University had announced ambitious plans to expand its presence in Allston, Professor Galison’s piece was an argument for smart design: for a space that would bring together Harvard’s best scientists and humanists and that people would not want to leave as soon as the day was out. For, in other words, creating an Allston that would be a “fundamental piece of the dynamic center of Harvard University.”

Maybe Professor Galison got his dream. The SEC is an imperious, environmentally-friendly, mixed-use fortress for STEM. The neighboring Enterprise Research Campus will provide the restaurants, storefronts, and amenities of a vibrant, walkable urban center.

For Harvard, this is a triumph, the summit of a climb decades in the making. But with each angular, glistening building, Allston has become less a home for Allstonians and more a sandbox for Harvard’s billion-dollar dreams. Housing costs have risen. Streets have grown more congested. Locals have been pushed out. As Harvard has built its dreams, too many Allstonians have lived nightmares.

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From 2011 to 2019, the average price of a home in Allston rose by 43 percent, average rent jumped by 36 percent, and, in the biggest change of all, median household income increased by 67 percent. Theoretically, this increase in median household income could just reflect an influx of wealthier people. However, Census data indicate that the population of Allston not living in group quarters (i.e. non-college-students) has hardly grown since 2010.

This is almost certainly not a story of a few well-monied professors and graduate students moving across the river to join the long-time residents of Allston. Common sense cautions that it almost certainly isn’t a story about thousands of low-income people miraculously doubling their income in just eight years, either.

This is a story about Allstonians being pushed out.

Like almost all American housing crises, supply is the issue. When high-demand areas like Allston don’t have enough places for people to live, available residences are subject to vicious bidding wars. In Allston, this has had profound consequences. A report by the Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation, a housing non-profit, found that “rising rents have led to closing doors for renters, homeowners and homebuyers.” In an interview with The Crimson, Anthony P. D’Isidoro, president of the Allston Civic Association, described watching “absolutely absurdly ridiculous” price conditions displace locals from his hometown.

This all traces back to Harvard.

Harvard owns 360 acres of land in the neighborhood — about a third of Allston’s total landmass. These properties, which include athletics facilities, the Business School, and the SEC, serve predominantly Harvard affiliates while effectively foreclosing huge swathes of Allston to residential development. Consequently, as the Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation put it, “the lack of vacant land in Allston Brighton makes it nearly impossible to increase the affordable housing stock significantly.”

There are some notable exceptions, sure. Harvard has announced plans to construct around a thousand residential units across roughly 20 acres of land. It has donated $25 million to support housing affordability in Allston (though this financial support might not be needed if Harvard were required to pay its fair share of taxes). But, as soaring prices in the area demonstrate, neither 20 acres nor $25 million can fill a 360-acre void. No neighborhood can remain livable when almost a third of its land is totally off limits.

The responsibility for the Allston housing crisis is unambiguously Harvard’s, and it should make anyone who proclaims to care about justice absolutely furious.

There is no way to overstate how much housing crises harm people. Nothing decides the course of your life like where you grow up. Housing determines the air you breathe, the food you eat, the schools you attend, the people you know, the crimes you suffer. Where you begin your life, in a greater sense, decides where you will end it.

In this respect, the experience of housing crises across the country makes abundantly clear how Harvard’s Allston adventurism can hurt people — it has the power to make them poorer, sicker, more isolated, more unhappy, and, in the worst cases, homeless. It can kill.

In light of all of this, unless Harvard expands tenfold its material commitment to replacing the housing it has robbed from Allston, there is unequivocally one just answer to this abject failure: Stop building in Allston. Sell the unused land. Clear the way for developers to build housing on it.

It saddens me that, with this most recent staff editorial, the Editorial Board has failed to see that — an especially ironic failing given our not-so-distant precedent on UC Berkeley’s housing shortfall, in which we called on the university to build more housing because of the “particular value of access to education.” For this Board to recognize the imperative of housing for mostly well-off students at elite colleges but not low-income people in our own community is, at best, woefully inconsistent.

But this Board is not alone, and this misstep is no unique moral or intellectual failing. In this nation, the housing crisis rages on because we fail to imagine something better — to consider an alternative to uninspired and unwelcoming low-density sprawl. At Harvard, that means finding innovative new ways to increase density: Building up, down, sideways, every which way but out.

Professor Galison’s call for a shining new frontier of campus just across the Charles ended with a reminder that “times have changed” — that we can reimagine what our University is. Today, 15 years later, it is precisely because times have changed in Allston that I call on us to reimagine how we approach Allston yet again.

Harvard’s dreams and Allston’s nightmares are one and the same. It’s time for both to end.

Tommy Barone ’25, an Associate Editorial Editor, lives in Currier House.

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