Harvard Real Estate Inc. was formed in 1978 as a nonprofit “closely-held, professionally managed real estate corporation” for Harvard’s non-academic properties. Its formation marked a larger strategic move towards the professionalization of Harvard’s land and real estate holdings. A 1981 Crimson article claims that Harvard was not a notoriously aggressive landlord before the late 1970s, with “non-academic holdings--homes, apartment buildings, stores and offices… managed in a low-key, almost offhand way.” This changed dramatically under Harvard Real Estate , and the Harvard Tenants Union (HTU) formed in 1981 directly in response to worsening conditions under the new management strategy. HTU investigations found that HRE was not complying with Rent Control Board requirements to declare tax abatements, that HRE was neglecting its properties, and that HRE was passing inflated heating and maintenance costs on to tenants.
Thomas O'Brien, vice president for financial affairs at Harvard Real Estate Inc. in the ‘80s, described the expansionist philosophy that HRE self-consciously operated under: "In the long run the University may have the need to use its properties in other ways that they are currently being used… When property is available at a reasonable price it has thus been sensible for the University to buy it." The Crimson article noted that Cambridge officials feared Harvard converting significant portions of this growing portfolio from commercial to institution use, as “that action would exempt the property from the tax rolls” and offer a way around new guidelines on institutional expansion which Harvard and the City of Cambridge had agreed upon. After the statewide repeal of rent control in 1995, HRE angered tenants by not following up on promises to keep properties affordable.
An article in the Harvard Political Review details how the former head of Harvard Real Estate Inc., Sally Zeckhauser, said that Harvard eventually came up against limits on its expansionist plans in Cambridge, when it “began running into ‘mature neighborhoods with sophisticated and politically active residents often seeking to preserve things just as they were'.” The article elaborates: “After displacing all the residents who were not ‘sophisticated and politically active’ — a dog whistle for those predominantly low-income and predominantly non-white residents displaced by the university — Harvard turned its attention to its next victim: Allston.”