Unionized and Priced Out
The numbers are shocking: $1,775 for a one bedroom apartment, and climbing. Securitas guard Aryt Alasti says rent for his tiny Massachusetts Ave. dwelling will swell to $1,875 by August.
Alasti has moved three times since relocating to Cambridge in the 1990s. His latest abode, not far from the nucleus of Harvard Square, is his most expensive yet.
“My co-workers are aghast when they hear what I’m paying,” he says. “None of them live in proximity to Harvard. Those who own homes live in other towns.”
A security guard stationed in Memorial Hall, Alasti has been at the University for nearly 23 years. He speaks to me with a mix of incredulity and resignation. The rising number printed on his monthly rent bill no longer carries the same shock factor.
Very few of Harvard’s unionized employees live right in the shadow of the university’s campus. Housing around the Square, like retail space, is at a premium. Even if a worker were to secure local housing, some say rental prices would be unsustainable even for the most frugal resident.
This is why Alasti believes he is one of the only, if not the only, support staff member occupying the apartment building he resides in. Rising rent prices have made living near Harvard Square infeasible. According to Alasti, a mix of wealthy mid-career tenants and well-off graduate students comprise the community in his building.
Employees like Alasti, who are contracted through Securitas, are represented by the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union, which includes in its membership many of Harvard’s janitorial and security staff. Aside from the local SEIU chapter, the other two dominant unions on campus are UNITE HERE Local 26 (which represents dining workers) and Harvard University Clerical and Technical Workers.
The benefits Alasti receives from the University differ slightly from what the average unionized employee receives, but in terms of wages and health care, the contracts for both types of employees are nearly indistinguishable. And regardless of their union affiliation, many of Harvard’s service workers face the same struggle to find affordable housing in the Cambridge area.
It wasn’t always nearly impossible for Harvard’s workers to live nearby.
Until 1995, rent control was the law of the land. Even though Alasti resided in prime territory—a building just midway between Harvard Yard and the Radcliffe Quadrangle—his monthly housing costs were kept low by city-wide limits on the amount of rent that could be charged for properties constructed prior to 1969.
“When I first moved here, rent control was in effect, so costs were quite low,” Alasti says.
Massachusetts residents voted in 1995 to terminate rent control policies across the state. In the 10 years afterwards, the valuation of properties in Cambridge exploded; the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that property values ballooned by 1.8 billion between 1994 and 2004, and have been growing steadily since then. As value returned to the region, rental prices mounted, and Alasti soon found himself saddled with a hefty monthly bill.
To keep up with his rent, which he says was increasing by as much as $100 per year after the 1995 referendum on controls, Alasti increased his workload to seven nights a week at Harvard. He bounced between locations on campus—for a few years working at Harvard Business School, then transferring briefly to the Museum of Natural History, and later to the Graduate School of Design’s Gund Hall. He never intended to stay at Harvard for as long as he has. He says the work he did at the Business School was tiresome, and he calls the first winter he experienced in Cambridge “extreme” and a “very tiring experience.”
From nine to five every day, Alasti managed his own business endeavor: a landscaping company. At night, he would return to Harvard for his security shift. The strain of juggling two time-intensive and physically demanding jobs wore on him quickly.
Bill Jaeger, the director of the Harvard University Clerical and Technical Workers—the university’s largest campus union—also moved to Cambridge during the era of rent control. He says finding a place to live was, at the time, a “piece of cake.” He rented an apartment 20 minutes from Harvard Square that made up for what it lacked in square footage by its ideal proximity to campus.
Jaeger says the unit he stayed in was not rent controlled, but the building itself was. (If an owner stays in a property in their portfolio, at least two other units in that property are not subject to rent control). He says he paid a comparable price because the market would not allow landlords to charge that much more than the rate for a rent controlled apartment.
At the time, younger workers would eye neighborhoods in the nearby town of Somerville for affordable living situations. “You could find quirky places that were not outrageously expensive,” Jaeger says, in parts of East Cambridge, Mid-Cambridge, Central and Davis Squares.
That was nearly 30 years ago. He fears, now, that members of the union are staring down a reality in which even the smallest apartments in neighborhoods once affordable for an average employee will be too high of an ask.
I meet Jaeger at 15 Mt. Auburn St., and it’s pouring. I sandwich myself between the screen door and the building’s entrance, waiting for someone to buzz me in.
The HUCTW building is nondescript. It’s clear the property was once residential and was converted into office space. Three stories.
Jaeger tells me to wait for him in the reception area, a small room hidden slightly by a staircase. It’s furnished with red chairs, and the walls are plastered with newspaper clippings and vintage photographs of the “We Can’t Eat Prestige” movement, a push led mostly by women at Harvard to form a union in the 1970s and ’80s. A small table with four or five copies of freelance reporter John Hoerr’s chronicle of the movement completes this miniature shrine.
Jaeger tells me to help myself to anything in the kitchen while he finishes up a few emails, but I decline because The Crimson has a policy against accepting anything from sources you are interviewing. Jaeger knows this—we became acquainted nearly two years ago, when I first began reporting on labor issues for the paper. But his Midwestern upbringing means he’ll offer anyways.
“We used to talk about the ‘Harvard employee dream’ as a version of or a revision of the American Dream. [It] was to go from living in a shared group house where you’ve got half a shelf in the refrigerator to having your own apartment. But that’s sort of a 10 year old idea,” Jaeger says. “I’d say with continuing, relentless increases in housing costs, the contemporary, 2018 version of that is, ‘Can a 20-something Harvard staff member afford to find a spot in a shared group house situation anywhere reasonably close?’” Jaeger considers a “40-minute commute” to campus reasonable.
“I’m a great Arlington example because my wife and I saved money pretty vigorously and were able to buy a pretty small, single family house right on the Arlington-Cambridge line,” Jaeger says. After the era of rent control, he sought out a modestly sized house in Arlington, Massachusetts, where he and his wife have raised their two children. “If we were careful and sacrificed a little bit, it wasn’t brutally difficult to afford.”
“It’s just completely not possible to do the same kind of thing now; the trajectory that I followed 30 years ago is not available, and that was on a kind of regular Harvard support staff salary,” Jaeger adds.
Jaeger says that in the last decade, employees have fanned out from Harvard Square. He adds that they search for housing across the river and find purchase in some of Boston’s more affordable neighborhoods like Roxbury or Jamaica Plain, while others go even further, braving a daily commute between Cambridge and suburbs of Boston like Belmont and Watertown that can last up to an hour on congested days.
Sandy M. Sousa, a dining services worker in Cabot dining hall, says she and her husband commute from Tewksbury, an area about 10 minutes out from the New Hampshire border and a 45 minutes or longer drive from Harvard.
“Every morning, I bring him down to work, or he takes his car for the 45 minutes down,” Sousa says. “Driving back up, I have my kids I take care of until I have to go to work.”
Sousa grew up near Harvard in Somerville, but says it’s unlikely she’ll ever return to the area because of the rent she’d have to pay to live near Harvard. The rent at her two-bedroom Tewksbury apartment is $1,035 per month — a significantly lower figure than what Alasti says he pays for a single-bedroom unit near Harvard Square. Though rent is cheaper, the time Sousa spends on the road is a significant sacrifice, she says.
Jaeger also reflects on this difficult choice between which sacrifice to make. “It’s sort of a perversion of reality to think people are sort of deciding where they’re going to live,” he says. “Our members don’t decide where they’re going to live. They engage in a frantic search and take a really painful set of trade offs and compromises.”
Employees at Harvard aren’t the only ones grappling with this issue. Local 26, the dining workers union, also represents other workers in the region, including the dining staff at Northeastern University. Several workers I spoke with say they are unable to afford living in close proximity to the school’s campus. When the union began bargaining with Northeastern’s food distributor, Chartwells, for new benefits at the start of the academic year, cost of living concerns were at the forefront of the discussion.
Thomas Gross, a chef in Northeastern’s international-themed dining hall, works two jobs to keep up with his monthly housing bills. He lives in Roxbury, one of Boston’s low-income neighborhoods, but nonetheless a neighborhood where rental properties are increasing in value.
The living situation itself is not ideal, he says. Violence in the neighborhood is commonplace and Gross, who has a seven-year-old daughter, says he often fears for her safety when she’s out playing in a nearby park.
“We shouldn’t have to worry about public assistance just to get by, or having to work two jobs to just provide for our families,” Gross says.
Workers at Northeastern agitated towards the end of 2017 for a wage increase that would bring the minimum salary for full-time employees up to $35,000, a number that Gross said would allow many staff members to live “comfortably.”
“I know it ain’t gonna make me rich, but it’ll help us workers give us the benefit of comfort to be able to have and spend, to pay our bills and live in better neighborhoods,” he says. “It’ll be good leverage for me to move to a better environment, and I’ll be able to provide more for my family.”
Gross aspires to move outside of Boston proper, perhaps to Milton or to Hyde Park. He has a brother who lives in Dedham to whom he looks for inspiration. “He lives near a pool, he has like four kids, and they’re loving it.”
Over the years, some students, workers, and activists have raised the question: what more should Harvard do to solve the problem, if anything?
In 2001, Harvard students in tandem with campus unions tried to answer that question with the Living Wage Campaign, an effort to convince Harvard to supply wage increases that could keep pace with the rising cost of living in the Boston metropolitan area. Alasti was part of that fight. But union leaders say there’s little more the university can do to assuage the pressure the city’s housing crisis places on its employees.
HUCTW—which has more than 5,000 members—places the cost of living at the forefront of its efforts to improve worker conditions at Harvard. To the outsider, it may seem like wage increases are the easiest path towards addressing the housing problem, but Jaeger says the union understands it’s unlikely a negotiated wage hike will completely offset annual rental increases.
“We don’t dare to dream about negotiating comprehensive solutions or dramatic sweeping answers to the really difficult problem of housing costs in this region through our union’s negotiations with the university,” Jaeger says. “I think it’s a big, prosperous, powerful institution, but I think it’s fair to say this is a problem which is even bigger than that.”
When Harvard negotiates with its unions, it typically agrees to scheduled wage increases that stay ahead of the projected rate of inflation. In HUCTW’s most recent contract, ratified in January 2016, the union secured a pay schedule that increased wages in October 2016 and 2017. Union members also received a retroactive pay increase for 2015.
Jaeger says that unions work with the university to find “creative” and “incremental” solutions to alleviate the financial burden.
For example, HUCTW’s joint committee on housing and transportation ironed out a partnership with the Harvard University Employees Credit Union that provides no-interest loans to some of HUCTW’s members when they are transitioning between rental situations. The funds are intended to help cover expenses like the start-up costs involved with moving from one place to another.
Before unions can find small ways to alleviate the pressure of housing costs, they face the hurdle of communicating the severity of the situation to some Harvard affiliates.
In recent years, HUCTW has found creative ways to hammer home these points. In its most recent round of negotiations in 2015, HUCTW enlisted the aid of a computer programmer working out of Google’s office in Kendall Square to digitally render a map of the region correlating rental prices and T stops. Jaeger says the map was helpful in explaining how interrelated transportation and housing affordability are.
HUCTW also conducts a survey of its members when preparing for an upcoming round of contract negotiations. The union asks members for certain quantitative information about their housing experience. Members can also include qualitative descriptors, which are then read at the negotiating table.
Aryt Alasti is the sort of unexpected Harvard insider who, while he may not carry an administrative title, has had his finger on Harvard’s pulse long enough and has encountered enough affiliates to know what’s going on. He jokes with me that he’s been working at Harvard long enough that, in the event he faces a sudden windfall and ends up on the streets, he’ll have a Rolodex full of contacts to rely on for support.
While it is unlikely Alasti will end up homeless anytime soon, he says he’s feeling the pressure of rising rental costs. He hopes to move to Hawaii sometime in the future.
“It would have to involve something about a source of income that is not tied to locale,” he says. “I’m living in a way that doesn’t make sense for anybody with my income level.”
—Former Flyby Chair and News Writer Brandon J. Dixon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BrandonJoDixon.