Breaking the Harvard Bubble

By Maliya V. Ellis and Jane Z. Li, Crimson Staff Writers
By Isabella C. Aslarus

Michael A. C. Hla ’23 never expected that he would miss his Canaday dorm room.

“It’s kind of a trend to make fun of Canaday all the time,” Hla says, “but when you look back, we never had to worry about food, we never had to worry about rent.” He sighs. “They were nice dorms.”

Today Hla lives in an apartment halfway between Central Square and Harvard Yard. Its rooms smell vaguely of curry and a pipe leaks, he says, but the price — $2,400 per month, which he splits with a roommate — and convenient location made the apartment a “really good deal.”

He unplugs his laptop and offers a virtual tour over Zoom. Two bedrooms, one bathroom. White-painted walls and basic furnishings. A kitchen and a living room.

Like a significant number of his classmates — around 20 percent of Harvard’s student body — Hla opted to take a leave of absence for the fall semester. When he was offered a paid research position at Massachusetts General Hospital, Hla made a simple calculus. Choosing a valuable research experience over paying full tuition for Zoom classes was “a no-brainer,” he says.

Though Hla lives only a couple miles from his freshman dorm, his day-to-day experience has changed dramatically. “Honestly, I kind of just feel like an adult at this point. I have a nine-to-five,” he says. “I come home; I cook dinner. Worrying about the bills. I’m always doing dishes and things.”

His newfound sense of adulthood has benefits and drawbacks. Though his preview of the working world has given him more clarity on his career goals, Hla fears he has lost touch with Harvard.

“The toughest part is it’s very isolating,” he laments. “You take for granted when you’re leaving your dorm or coming back, just seeing a friendly face and saying ‘Hi.’”

With its kitchen and living room, its spacious bedrooms and full bathroom, Hla’s apartment is objectively more luxurious than a Canaday suite. His nostalgia for the cramped doubles and hallway bathrooms of his freshman dorm speaks to a longing for something less tangible than a twin extra long mattress.

An October snow blankets Somerville, Mass., where many Harvard students have settled for the fall semester.
An October snow blankets Somerville, Mass., where many Harvard students have settled for the fall semester. By Andrew W.D. Aoyama

Hla’s experience of off campus life is one few Harvard undergraduates have before graduation — and for decades, an experience the College has intentionally tried to discourage.

Though some peer institutions boast a thriving off-campus life, the typical “Harvard experience” rarely requires one to step far beyond the University’s gates. In a normal year, more than 98 percent of undergraduate students live within Harvard’s housing system. The freshman dormitories and upperclassman houses provide living necessities and amenities, as well as — administrators hope — supportive and diverse communities. Convenience is a given — classes are rarely more than a few minutes away.

The centralization of Harvard’s campus fosters a phenomenon that many call “the Harvard bubble.” Defined broadly, the “bubble” refers to undergraduates’ tendencies to stay within the confines of their campus, to become swept up in their daily commitments and narrow Harvard-related concerns. The bubble acts as both a shield and a barrier. It protects students from worries unrelated to their academic goals. Yet, it often prevents engagement beyond campus.

But this is hardly a typical semester: This fall, the majority of the student body found itself barred from campus. To slow the spread of COVID-19, the University “de-densified” its on-campus undergraduate population to 40 percent of its usual number; the other 60 percent is scattered across the globe.

While campus may be off-limits to most, the rest of Boston is not. Hla’s decision to live in an apartment in Cambridge is not necessarily unique: More than 300 Harvard undergraduates moved into off campus housing in the greater Boston area for the fall semester. Though some are enrolled in classes and others are working full-time jobs, all are learning how to navigate the perils of “adulting.”

For these students, venturing beyond the bubble means sacrificing both the conveniences it offers and the insulation from the outside world it provides. Now, students just might have to face the real world — or at least a version of it.

Harvard students are now not only facing the world outside Harvard’s gates — they are influencing it too. Even before the pandemic, tensions between students from other universities and local families in search of affordable housing plagued the areas surrounding Harvard. Now, Harvard undergraduates are further aggravating this situation, entering a real estate market made fraught by COVID-19. As Massachusetts’s eviction moratorium ends, housing advocates estimate that more than 80,000 households in the state will have trouble paying October rent.

Many Harvard students now find themselves entering this housing crisis. And not only are they entering it — they are entering it with an upper-hand: Most have moved to the Greater Boston Area because of the location’s appeal, not because they have nowhere else to go. Such is not true for local residents, who struggle to pay rent or, worse, face eviction. By moving off campus and taking advantage of falling rents and new vacancies, Harvard students involuntarily become actors in this eviction crisis. The pandemic has revealed the bubble as more porous than it might seem: Harvard cannot be separated from its surrounding communities.

‘It’s Just Not the Same’

The Harvard bubble wasn’t an accident, nor was off-campus living always an anomaly. In fact, the so-called Harvard residential bubble has been intentionally and haltingly created by administrators over several decades.

In 1900, only about 27 percent of undergraduates lived on campus. The rest lived at home or, for those with means, in the luxury “Gold Coast” apartments off-campus, fueling social tensions along class lines. The House system, dreamed up by former University President A. Lawrence Lowell, came about as a way to mitigate class disparities and concentrate academic and social life for all students in a centralized residential community.

Though it took decades to build those communities — and Lowell’s own racism and anti-semitism only slowed the process — today it is largely unheard of to live outside the House system. Harvard’s rates of students living on campus are abnormally high, even among other Ivy League schools. Administrators tout the Houses as diverse communities central to the educational experiences of undergraduates.

Sean Palfrey ’67, who for 20 years has served as Faculty Dean of Adams House, says he firmly believes in the power of the House system to inspire learning outside the classroom. “You guys learn in the Yard and the Science Center and the labs,” he says, “but what you actually learn and put together as your education happens in the Houses when you come back.”

Of course, diversity and academic support aren’t the only perks of House living. Harvard’s dormitory facilities make sure no student wants for basic necessities — and they often verge on luxury. The Houses offer buffet meals, libraries, gyms, and House-specific quirks, like Lowell’s screening room, squash court, and dance studio.

The language featured on Harvard’s website further romanticizes the residential experience. “You’ll uncover cozy reading nooks, stumble across sun-kissed lawns, and discover the joys and frustrations of roommates and late-night study sessions,” the Residential Life section reads.

Administrators describe house life like a veritable utopia. Young 20-somethings, frolicking in the grass, reading in the library, with all the freedom to live and learn without the stressors of life outside their House’s gates. The College has successfully brought students in. The other half is keeping the rest of the world out.

Within Harvard’s gates, most activities that could inspire stress in the “real world” are either eliminated or reframed as an opportunity to learn. Expenses like rent and utilities are taken care of. Buying groceries and cooking meals become sitting in the dining hall, “sharing stories, debating ideas, forming friendships,” to use the College’s words.

But due to the pandemic, Harvard’s residential bubble, so carefully constructed as the center of student life, no longer fulfills the College’s promise. With only freshmen allowed on campus, and strictly confined to a less idyllic bubble, upperclassmen have had to venture outside and redefine what it means to go to Harvard.

Some have chosen to settle close to campus, citing friendship, familiarity, and above all, some small sense of normalcy as reasons to live nearby.

Christine S. Lee ’23 is living in an apartment in the Allston area with two roommates. She decided on the location to be close to her sister, who attends Boston College, and more generally for “some semblance of a normal academic year.” On weekends, she sometimes visits campus to see friends and film content for her YouTube channel.

Isabel A. Musselman ’22, who lives in what she calls a “super lit” duplex in Somerville, was similarly drawn to the area for the “sense of certainty” it brings. When she’s “feeling Harvard nostalgia,” she will sometimes visit friends near campus, eat a meal in the Yard, or walk along the Charles River.

In a normal year, more than 98 percent of undergraduates live within Harvard’s housing system — but because of the need to "de-densify" campus, a significant number of students have elected to live off campus.
In a normal year, more than 98 percent of undergraduates live within Harvard’s housing system — but because of the need to "de-densify" campus, a significant number of students have elected to live off campus. By Andrew W.D. Aoyama

But proximity isn’t enough to simulate the feeling of campus life. For one, students face the reality of living without House luxuries: utilities, amenities, and omnipresent food options, to name a few.

“Groceries are expensive, dude,” says Lee, laughing. She mentions budgeting and utilities as other “adulting” skills she has had to learn. Noah A. Harris ’22, who currently lives with his blockmates in Medford, Mass., has also faced an adjustment. “I’ve never had to cook for five days a week, or have to clean everything,” he says. “I’ve never had to do all these things for myself.”

And despite the efforts of some houses to provide virtual programming, Zoom events do little to foster community. “I do want to play my part and [be] a part of the community, but at the same time, it’s just like, it’s on Zoom,” Harris explains. “Everybody’s just so disengaged.”

For students on leave, maintaining any sense of connection to Harvard is harder still. When asked if he feels in touch with the Harvard community, Hla admits, “honestly, not really.” Without the proximity afforded by entryways and suitemates, he finds it challenging to feel close to Harvard friends. “That whole routine is something that you really don’t notice until it’s gone,” says Hla. “It’s just not the same.”

Musselman feels similarly. She attends virtual meetings for her ultimate frisbee team, but feels distanced from her teammates, most of whom are enrolled in online classes. “There’s a little bit of a sense of disconnect because the version of reality that they’re living just feels so disparate from the one I’m living,” she says.

But off-campus students haven’t unilaterally longed for campus life. Jadyn K. Bryden ’21 shares an apartment with her husband in North Cambridge that is “much more comfortable” than her usual room in Mather House. Many of her friends live nearby, and she enjoys her building’s cushy amenities: a pool, gym, theater, and bowling alley. As a senior, she could return to campus in the spring semester, but plans not to, citing the new restrictions of campus life. “Why would we sign up for that, when we’re comfortably off campus?”

Yet even when they are not living in the House system, students maintain some protections of the bubble. In September, the University piloted a program offering weekly testing to enrolled students living in the Boston area. Harvard students have access to weekly testing while testing remains scarce for many of their neighbors.

The availability of testing to Harvard students demonstrates an integral part of the Housing system: to shield students from forces — even viruses — outside the bounds of campus. Explaining the typical student experience of the House system, Palfrey says, “You’re in sort of a cocoon, a bubble, for the period that we hope that you are focusing on learning, not focusing on surviving in the community.”

But just beyond Harvard’s gates, the question of survival looms large in the minds of many.

‘Gentrification in Action’

Bob O’Reilly, a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker Realty, has been trying to rent out a property on Francis Ave. for months. Though the apartment is only a few blocks from Annenberg, O’Reilly’s landlords are hard-pressed to find new tenants. The listed rent has dropped from nearly $4,000 to $3,100 per month, and O’Reilly has started to field calls from a population his landlords typically avoid: undergraduates.

Despite his property’s proximity to campus, O’Reilly says he rarely, if ever, works with undergraduate students, largely because of the party scene he fears could develop. “We don’t want the football team living here,” he recalls one of his landlords telling him.

But a steep drop in demand has prompted his landlords to consider offers from Harvard students for the spring semester, he says.

The pandemic has led to a steep decline in rental applicants in Boston, says Amanda M. O’Grady, a residential real estate agent with Prime Realty Group. Working remotely has placed a higher premium on space, she says, driving many renters to the suburbs. The market has for years been partially sustained by Boston’s student population, and with most area universities operating remotely, fewer students have returned to the area. Because of the decline in tenant applications, O’Grady’s realty group is seeing unusually high vacancy rates: Of their 74 properties on the market, the majority sit empty.

Under pressure to attract tenants, landlords are subject to a “renter’s market,” in which renters have the upper hand in negotiations.

But underpinning the “renter’s market” so advantageous to Harvard students is an eviction crisis fueled by COVID-19.

Kiah D. Duggins, the president of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, estimates that around 250,000 people in Massachusetts are either behind on rent or unable to pay rent because of the pandemic. More than one million Massachusetts residents have filed for some form of unemployment assistance in the last seven months. In the early weeks of the pandemic, Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79 signed into law a moratorium on evictions — but when it expired on Oct. 17, thousands were left uncertain of their futures. As winter nears and the virus remains a threat, Duggins says any evictions stemming from the moratorium’s end will be “not only immoral on its face, but also an extreme public health risk.”

There are two things Duggin hopes her clients know: First, anyone facing eviction has a right to demand a jury trial; second, only when a landlord presents an official eviction order signed by a judge is a tenant legally compelled to vacate their housing.

She suspects that understanding these legal nuances could literally save lives. “We can’t represent everyone legally,” Duggins says of her work with HLAB. “But knowing that they don’t have to leave until they get the order from a judge will give people time and hopefully keep people in their homes.”

But those who for whatever reason cannot stay in their homes may be forced to utilize homeless shelters, pushing them into close quarters and increasing risks of contracting COVID-19. Thirty percent of at-risk households have children.Leaving these vulnerable families homeless during the winter months of a pandemic is “totally unconscionable and totally preventable,” Duggins says.

Magdalena Gomez, a tenant organizer at the Somerville Community Corporation, worries that the evictions may permanently alter the fabric of the communities she works with. Due to the downward trends in rent rates, landlords will be “desperate” to fill newly-empty units, “especially in people of color neighborhoods, where [eviction] is much more likely to happen,” she says. Said “desperation” may facilitate the influx of undergraduates into these vulnerable neighborhoods.

But if left unchecked, large-scale evictions and foreclosures will allow real estate companies to purchase properties for cheap, flip them, then sell them for a higher price or charge higher rent. “It’s gentrification in action,” Duggins says. “It’ll lead to massive gentrification, and probably a lot of profits for a lot of big companies, but also a lot of homelessness for a big chunk of people in Massachusetts. Homelessness and death, even, since we’re in a pandemic.”

‘Back to Where it Should Be’

It’s possible that the challenges and changes Harvard students currently face are only a blip in the overall course of campus life. Though students may learn new skills from facing “day-to-day challenges,” Palfrey believes these are skills students would learn at some point anyway, whether over a college summer or after graduation. After months of piling rent and grocery fees and distance from friends, Palfrey predicts that students will find a community “much richer than the kind of communication [they] have now” upon their return.

“It will be as if we’re filling this vacuum again, back to where it should be,” he says.

Venturing beyond the "Harvard bubble" means sacrificing both the conveniences it offers and the insulation from the outside world it provides. Now, students just might have to face the real world — or at least a version of it.
Venturing beyond the "Harvard bubble" means sacrificing both the conveniences it offers and the insulation from the outside world it provides. Now, students just might have to face the real world — or at least a version of it. By Andrew W.D. Aoyama

But while Harvard housing may equilibrate back to its status quo, it is difficult to say the same for the towns surrounding it. As Harvard students move beyond the Harvard bubble, they just might end up participating in the “rapid action gentrification” Duggins identifies.

Davi E. da Silva, a graduate of the joint Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program, has a background in advocating for more affordable housing in Cambridge, particularly through voter turnout. And through his own experiences at MIT, he has noticed lapses in institutional accountability. In reference to the housing stipend the University has allocated to students on financial aid who did not return to campus, he asks, “If you can afford to give thousands of college students thousands of dollars, what is [the University’s] responsibility to help the rest of the community at the same time?”

Low-income families will lack legal representation during the eviction process, Duggins, the HLAB president, explains. Even before the moratorium’s end, legal aid attorneys could only represent about seven to eight percent of tenants facing eviction; about 91 percent of landlords were represented. The Legal Aid bureau does not have enough student attorneys to provide sufficient representation for tenants. “We’re going to have to get creative, we’re going to have to organize, we’re going to have to build power among the communities that we’re trying to serve,” she says. This outreach, she suggests, should extend to every branch that bears Harvard’s name — not just a handful of legal professionals and law students.

“I think Harvard students can get very caught up in the Harvard bubble, and only talking to Harvard people,” she says. “We live within that bubble, and it is not helpful to the communities that [Harvard students] deeply do want to serve.”

She continues,“I think it’s important for Harvard students to humble themselves, and listen to the communities that they want to serve and take action accordingly.”

— Staff writer Maliya V. Ellis can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @EllisMaliya.

— Staff writer Jane Z. Li can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JaneZLi.

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