A home of HER own

Eighty years ago, Boston University students were faced with dilemmas similar to what their contemporary counterparts face now. The Great Depression was at its height, and students had to decide between staying in school and paying the high costs of a private education, or leaving their dreams of a better life for one that was more affordable.

Female students faced an even more trying predicament. At the time, marriage was still considered the ultimate career for women. At BU, with the economy struggling and families left with less money, female students especially were at risk of losing their chance at a college education.

Luckily, just a few years earlier, Dean of Women Lucy Jenkins Franklin had established the Harriet E. Richards House at 191 Bay State Rd. as the first cooperative dormitory in the nation, giving female students a housing option that they could afford. Under cooperative standards of shared living expenses and responsibilities, the all-women HER House has harbored female students with financial needs at BU through the Great Depression, and now, more than 80 years later, through the recession that has destroyed the dreams of thousands of students who had to put their educations on hold.

College of Engineering junior Kendra Toole is one of the lucky ones. Lounging in the bright blue Alumni Room in the basement of HER House one Sunday night, Toole studied a Boston Globe article about the house from 1939, cradling the yellowing edges in her hands. The lead of the story described the residents as “pretty girl-students” who were learning skills to be better wives through cooperative housing.

“When [HER House] was founded, women didn’t really take up the first priority in their families, as far as education went,” Toole, an aerospace engineering major, said. “It was a time when reduced rent could make a difference between a girl going to college or not.”

For Toole, reduced rent meant she could stay at BU when both her parents lost their jobs last year.

“I already get a lot of financial aid from the school because I need it, and then I have to work to pay my rent,” she said, her bright red ponytail bobbing as she spoke. “My parents basically pay nothing for my college experience, and living here makes it possible to do that.”

Rent for HER House, which currently houses 21 women, costs only $240 a month for housing, food and utilities, with school vacation months of December and January costing only $160 each, according to ENG junior and HER House Clerk Ura Nahar.

For an entire academic year, HER House residents pay under $2,000. The standard minimum rate for a double, triple or quad in a regular BU dormitory-style housing costs $11,848, according to the BU Housing Web site.


When Marjorie Kettell entered BU in 1943, tuition was just $340 a semester and room and board at HER House was $28 a month. But the dollar was worth more then, and the women of HER House were living in difficult times. The United States, just out of the Great Depression, was now in the middle of World War II, when the troops overseas were the nation’s first priority. Goods such as meat and sugar were sent to them first.

“Everything was rationed,” Kettell, the HER House Alumni Association president, said. “Meat was rationed, gasoline was rationed. We had to make do with things like Spam.”

“We had these famous carrot and raisin sandwiches that were made with mayonnaise,” she said with a laugh. “They were oh so healthy.”

Kettell said the housemates would pool their ration books, or, tickets that allowed people to purchase a limited supply of rationed items.

“We had to be very careful about what we spent, but we were able to get some canned goods and a lot of vegetables,” she said. “We had good meals. We made out very well, actually.”

Historically, when the economy suffers, more people turn to cooperative living, BU economics professor Robert Margo, who specializes in economic history, said.

“During economic downturns, cooperative living &-&- by which I am referring to individuals returning home to parents, moving in with other family members or doubling up with friends, etc. &-&- clearly increases,” he said in an email. “The qualitative evidence of this happening is overwhelming.”

Pooling resources, rather than buying for each individual, cuts costs, but HER House residents save additional money by purchasing their produce at the Haymarket and other groceries at Market Basket, Toole said. Those in charge of purchasing groceries for the week stray away from name-brand products and buy in bulk when possible.

“The type of women that come through the house have already lived under tight financial situations,” said Clara Herrero, HERAA treasurer and College of Arts and Sciences 2006 alumna. “We’re always thinking about how to save money. I think despite what’s going on in the outside world, it’s in our nature to always be economically thrifty.”

Herrero’s family was living off of only one income when her brother joined Herrero at BU her sophomore year.
“Living in the house was great because it was one less thing my mom and my dad had to worry about paying for,” Herrero said.


Tucked behind a tall wrought-iron gate on Bay State Road, HER House looks like a mansion straight out of 19th century Boston. The residents shuffle about the spacious rooms and sprawling staircases in their sweats and socks, relaxing on the antique furnishings and helping themselves to snacks in the expansive basement kitchen.
Under the main staircase, opposite the grand piano, clothes and furniture threaten to spill into the pristine living room.

“That’s the pile,” Toole said. “Whenever we have clothing or furniture we don’t want, we put them in there and anyone can help themselves.”

After thinking for a moment, Toole laughs. “Most of my furniture is from the pile,” she acknowledged.

Each resident has to fulfill two points worth of chores a week, with one point equaling out to half an hour. The chores range from grocery shopping, making dinner and cleaning bathrooms.

“You care so much about the house and you want the house to be in its best shape and you’re so thankful to be in this beautiful mansion,” Herrero said. “Personally, I just felt so grateful to be in the place, to do some small little chores was a small price to pay.”

Nahar said at times, people don’t keep up with their chores.
“Then it’s just a discussion,” she said. “We talk to the person, and then the chores get done.”


Nahar has prepared dinner, and one by one, the residents made their way down and seated themselves around the large, banquet-style dining table. The women grabbed plates and silverware arranged on a side table, and reached over each other for scoops of Thai coconut chicken and brown rice and asparagus.

Dinner is provided Sunday through Thursday. Residents only have one shared meal together, but breakfast and lunch items as well as snacks are available. Nahar said they have a $300 limit for groceries each week, which is more than sufficient.

Between mouthfuls, the women complimented Nahar on her cooking and discussed the orphan situation in Haiti. One resident passed out a survey for her business class, and another asked for someone to accompany her to Target. They laughed as one resident told the story of her return to the gym, and as Toole imitated “Shy Ronnie,” a character from Saturday Night Live.

“I feel like every dinner turns into an SNL sketch,” she said.
After dinner, the residents cleared the table, and each rinsed her own dishes before placing them in the dishwasher.

Curled up with a cup of coffee ice cream in the Alumni Room, Nahar said HER House provides more than just affordable housing.

“You have somebody to fall back on,” she said, her brown eyes distant as she listened to the laughter upstairs. “You don’t have to worry about cooking by yourself, cleaning by yourself. You don’t have to do it alone.”

Nahar is used to “doing it” alone. Completely independent from her parents financially, she will owe more than $100,000 worth of loans when she graduates.

“Everything was fine until the economy died and they stopped giving out loans,” she said. “HER House is why I’m still at BU.”

Nahar said despite the recession, there hasn’t been an increase in applicants, something she attributes to a lack of awareness of the house. BU Housing reviews applicants’ financial qualifications before HER House residents interview the applicants about their compatibility to cooperative living.


Kettell lived in HER House when more opportunities were opening up for women. With the men fighting the war, their jobs were vacant for women to take.

“There was a big turning point in the women’s movement right then and there, when they were getting freed up to be more than housewives,” she said. “We were part of that movement. A lot of the girls from there still went on to get married after graduation but a lot of us also went on to graduate school.”

After getting her doctorate in psychology and marrying her husband, who attended BU after getting discharged from military service in 1945, Kettell still works as an associate professor at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis.

Toole said she thinks the women in the house are extremely driven.
“You have to be, to balance all of this and schoolwork,” she said, gesturing to the room around her.

Herrero, who majored in international relations and now works for Oxfam America, said when she lived in the house, her housemates “pushed” and “challenged” her to expand her thinking.

“It’s probably one of the best things that have ever happened to me, because it’s totally made me how I am,” Herrero said.

The best part of Herrero’s HER House experience, she said, was the people she met there.

“I never had sisters,” Herrero said. “Living in the house, it was the closest I think I’ll ever come to knowing what it’s like to have a sister &-&- we have each other’s back, no matter what.”

Before Nahar moved to HER House at the beginning of this academic year, she lived in Shelton Hall.

“Dorms are nice,” she said as she picked up around the room. “But dorms don’t come with families.”

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