Many hurdles face the prospect of a sound “Housing Action Plan” for UBC, not the least of which being personal attitudes shaped by Vancouver’s real estate subculture, the variable academic standards within the university, the ethical issues of eligibility and sustainability, as well as the cash needs of a UBC administration that is engaged in an aggressive agenda of development and renewal.
If you think that a “University Housing Action Plan” is easy to develop and implement, think again. Many of our UBC colleagues are saying, “What’s the problem? The university got all its lands for free, so it should be a piece of cake to dedicate at least some of it to affordable housing for faculty, students and staff, and it wouldn’t cost the university a cent”. Well, it is not as simple as it sounds –at least not as much as I thought when I began dealing with this issue. The hurdles are indeed numerous.
This first of three posts will address the issue of “Attitudes”, and please allow me to be a tad more provocative than usual.
To start with, there is the permanent challenge of trying to understand the real needs of a notoriously apathetic faculty body. I have always maintained that the actions of the Board of Governors on affordable housing will be directly proportional to the intensity of the concerns, which is often illustrated by the number of faculty, staff and students expressing genuine interest. Why should they otherwise bother with such a complex and costly matter?
We therefore launched a few months ago, a website/blog for the UBC housing action plan, with the intention of using it to continuously update the UBC community on the process but more importantly, with the hope of turning it into a useful open forum for discussions.
Yet, of the more than 12000 faculty and staff we have at UBC, only 65 of them bothered to venture an opinion and comment on the issue of affordable housing. Less than 50 people showed up to the latest forum organized jointly by the AMS and UBC’s Campus & Community Planning department. So, what gives?
It is understood that many of our more senior colleagues (at least on the faculty side) have already dealt with their housing challenges, and most have even benefitted royally from Vancouver’s inflationary real estate market. Even those who were shell-shocked by the prices a mere 5-7 years ago but who opted –and somehow managed– to buy into the housing market, did well and probably made a small fortune from it–at least on paper.
But this does not solve UBC’s housing problem. It exacerbates it. First, by de-mobilizing a part of our faculty and staff from being directly involved in the issue, and secondly by linking it to subjective matters such as the role of personal behavior regarding choice, decision making and risk taking.
We need people to realize that at least the new arrivals to UBC amongst our colleagues are facing even bigger odds in the housing sweepstakes, let alone the future generations of faculty and staffs that won’t even have a chance to contemplate joining the –increasingly exclusive– game.
The Dean of Science, Simon Peacock, weighs in on the issue from his frontline position. Given the extreme increase in Vancouver housing prices, UBC’s current housing policy is not adequate and I am concerned that no matter how much money we put into this program, it cannot keep pace with real estate inflation. And betting that the Vancouver housing bubble will burst is not a plan.”
I may add that, “betting on our colleagues to gamble big, mortgage their futures and ride housing bubbles, is also not a plan.”
But we are also running into this unique Vancouverite culture, which often sees real estate as not simply a vehicle to secure a shelter for one’s self or family, but also as the financial investment of a lifetime. NYC residents are very likely happy to stay in rental housing for all their lives, and subsidized rental is an easy fix to their problems. In contrast, there is a predominant mindset in BC that calls on people to get into the real estate market as fast as they can before they miss the boat. How can you plan around that?
With this subculture in mind, can the university consider the option of providing affordable housing by controlling the resale price or the amount by which the property can appreciate? Would people be interested in purchasing housing on campus if the appreciation was limited in some way?
Next comes the hard truth that we –at UBC– are not yet burdened nor challenged by the requirements of a top-ten (top-twenty?) university. In other words, we are not competing yet with the Harvards and the Stanfords of this world, which will require us to up the ante and offer whatever it takes to recruit and retain (only) those who are equally wanted by competing first class universities. Some of our departments and Faculties are, but most are not. After all, we are a university that still awards tenure to the absolute majority of its faculty, hardly a match to the stringent tenure requirements of the world’s top universities.
If our attitude is that, regardless of what we do, we will always be one of the top three universities in Canada, we will never be short of recruiting people to teach our courses, and scholars will always choose Vancouver over Saskatoon, then we will never have a housing problem at UBC to deal with.
The Dean of Arts, Gage Averill alludes to this issue by saying, “I agree with many of my colleagues that even if this (housing affordability) hasn’t yet caused a hemorrhage of our human resources, it threatens to do so in the future if this market continues to be as buoyant.”
And I may add, “And if our standards are to be maintained or elevated”.