UBC to incentivize its own to live on the university land

In the next five days, I and a few other UBC governors and senior staff will be visiting NYU, Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, UC-Irvine and Stanford. Just like UBC, these universities are located in areas where housing prices are prohibitive. And just like them, UBC is now in the business of competing to attract and retain the best talents, well aware of the need to create favorable and affordable living and working conditions. The purpose of this fact-finding mission is to learn about the various community and housing programs that these sister institutions are using to address the challenges for their campuses and for their faculty, staff and students.

The Community Planning Task Group that I am currently chairing has been asked by the UBC Board of Governors to develop a housing action plan for the Vancouver campus.  This initiative is not coming one minute too soon as we are surely at a critical juncture. Indeed, the real estate market in the lower mainland has reached a crisis level, especially in and around the university lands. Vancouver is now the most expensive city in North America.

We also hear about a huge influx of foreign capital into Vancouver that is targeting real estate. Speculation is creating a housing market that is totally disconnected from economic realities on the ground. The average house in Vancouver is now costing “an astounding” 11.2 times a family’s average income — more than double the national average. Faculty and staff salaries are looking more and more inconsequential as the difference between their purchasing power and those of external speculators is shutting them out, even from the UBC housing opportunities. Vancouver house prices have nearly tripled in the past decade. The salary increases of faculty and staff don’t come close.

On the other hand, the recently approved amendment to the UBC land use plan has created a window of opportunity. The plan calls for, among other things, a densification of the university land, in order to address campus residential needs, generate revenues for the UBC endowment, as well as create a vibrant and sustainable year-round university community to support shops, services and transit.

So, we are at a critical juncture.  One school of thought says that we should develop and sell to the highest bidder since in any case all the cash will be going to the UBC endowment, which eventually supports the academic mission. Another line of thinking, which the Board has adopted, is to be much more careful and deliberate with future campus development plans, and to align them closely with the UBC academic mission in a more directed, innovative and strategic manner. A case in point is the newly established “Student Housing Financing Endowment Fund”.

At the heart of the new approach to campus development is the need (and political will) to develop programs that will incentivize faculty, staff and students to live on campus.  This will indeed address many of the challenges that UBC is now facing, such as

  • The importance of sustaining and preserving the special character of the UBC Town as a university community.
  • The necessity of protecting the governance of the university land from unintended consequences of uncontrolled development.  With the hospice controversy in mind, one could venture that UBC-affiliated personnel are better positioned to accept and appreciate the living conditions within a university community. They would be more inclined to accept keeping academic priorities at the core of future decisions regarding campus development, taxation, representation, and governance.
  • The urgency of controlling the traffic flow in and out of campus, by making sure that more people affiliated with UBC live at UBC. It is not hard to contemplate an undesirable alternative where a reverse traffic flow is created by having substantial numbers of UBC dwellers commute to work outside of campus, while UBC personnel living elsewhere struggle to get to work in the opposite direction.
  • Last but not least, we have to address the problems of affordability and choice for faculty and staff, which is probably the most significant obstacle to UBC’s ongoing quest to become a world leading university. There is no doubt that this factor is preventing us from recruiting and retaining many outstanding faculty and senior staff. We simply cannot let somewhat artificial market forces decide the future of UBC. The top ranked US universities –that we are now visiting– have been acutely aware of this problem and its consequences. They have been trying to deal with it for some time now, and UBC has much to learn from their experiences.

How do we create such incentives?

  • First, we need to develop an enticing vibrant university town at UBC.  Shops, cafes, restaurants, theaters, community centers, sports facilities, green space, child care centers, transit, etc… We’ve come a long way but we are not there yet.
  • We should make sure that the university town is sustainable, day and night, winter and summer, hence the necessity to increase summer academic activities, including the initiation of a full-fledged summer session.
  • We need to improve housing choices and make them better adapted to the demographics of the UBC community. Smaller units for single and younger faculty and staff, but also larger family dwellings where they can move to if they elect to do so.
  • Of utmost importance is to address the issue of affordability for faculty and staff by ensuring that UBC earmarks a sufficient number of rental units on campus at substantially below market rates, which is the model adopted by NYU and Columbia.
  • There are also ways to address the affordability of owning/leasing housing units on campus, while maintaining the option for faculty and staff to build equity. Princeton, UC-Irvine and Stanford have developed innovative ways to do just that and we are looking forward to learn from them during our visit.
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8 Responses to UBC to incentivize its own to live on the university land

  1. Nassif:

    I am happy to read this informative post. You have outlined the housing problem so well… I am looking forward to see what you and your team find in your travels.

  2. Christopher says:

    “UBC is now in the business of competing to attract and retain the best talents” would have been a bold statement even a few years ago. Perhaps it still is, but we seem to be in a time when heightened awareness of economic realities allows for the topic to be discussed openly. Thank you for leading the way.

  3. Anne says:

    I am excited to see this interest in addressing both the needs of faculty, and those of students. There are 2 things I’d like to add:
    (1) One of the ways UBC is consistently criticized in evaluations of the student experience here is the lack of community students find here. My students LOVE that I live on campus. Most years I host at least one dinner for students (in smaller courses, of course) at my apartment; I am readily available to meet graduate students when needed, and in the new Community Service Learning course I did this year I was on hand to work with undergraduates to assist in their community-based work. And, simply put, students are just thrilled to run into me and my young son on the way to the pool, on campus. UBC needs to create a sense of community here, on campus, within the University community. Selling to the highest bidder, unaffiliated with the University, not only does not serve such ends, but is diametrically opposed to them.
    (2) Attention must be paid to the QUALITY of faculty housing. If one looks at the more recently built housing for faculty on campus, the rooms are getting more and more cramped. I am being forced to move from faculty housing that is older, into housing with SMALL, unopenable windows and smaller rooms; and we are moving into what is the nicest of the newer buildings. I wouldn’t live in most of the apartments I have seen, in these newer buildings. As a result of what I’ve seen, I doubt we’ll stay on campus much longer–to get more room, prices rise *dramatically*, and it just doesn’t make sense to pay that much rent on campus when cheaper rental housing is available even in Point Grey/Kits, let alone farther east. (One should compare what one gets in UBC faculty housing with one gets at Columbia in terms of quality and expense–there is no comparison.) Quality of life matters to faculty, too. The Board of Governors needs to think about such quality if it wants to create a real interest in living on campus among faculty, and a real alternative to what our other option is: living far from UBC (this is particularly the case if we EVER want to consider buying). As noted in your post, this only creates more traffic coming to and from the University, and makes me less accessible to my students.
    (3) Issues around the lack of daycare and quality issues at U Hill elementary (I don’t know about the high school) are paramount. When my son was younger, I was living on campus (literally right next the UBC daycare facilities) and had to drive off campus every day to bring my son to an off campus daycare, because I came here when my son was 3 and was too low on the waitlist. That is just plain silly. And most parents of students at U Hill elementary routinely bring their kids for after-school academic enrichment because the standards at the Elementary School are low. A bit shameful, for a school on a university campus.
    Best wishes for your fact-finding mission!

  4. D.R. says:

    I’m glad to see that UBC is seriously addressing the major housing issues that faculty and students face. I believe that on-campus housing for students is a major aspect of building a student community and a more enjoyable student experience. Many of my students complain that there is little campus spirit or community feeling and that they feel lost in this huge campus. Dormitories, or at the very least smaller community “houses” that students are assigned to and where they can spend their time between classes and have intramural activities (house sports teams, social events, etc.), would be a huge improvement to the overall campus experience.

    I agree with the general spirit of trying to provide more options for faculty to live on campus, but I worry that this housing plan will overlook the interests of the many faculty who do not want to live on campus. Part of what attracts “world class” faculty to UBC is the fact that the university is in a city. Although more shops, cinemas, and cafes will go a long way toward creating a community feeling, they will not be able to duplicate the vibrancy or diversity of living in or near downtown Vancouver, and will retain a suburban feel. I am all for providing options for faculty who want to live on campus, but not at the expense of those who do not. The university needs to continue and improve its policies of subsidizing housing options for faculty who want to live outside of the campus.

  5. K says:

    It seems to be a great mission to encourage students to live on campus (and one that can possibly generate money for the university). As someone who attended a college in the USA in which student campus life is as much a part of the college experience as going to class, I often remark that UBC students are missing out. I also feel generally positive about the idea of developing campus and its surroundings into more of a city environment – the endowment lands are beautiful, but it sometimes feels that UBC is not actually in Vancouver at all.

    That said, creating a system in which faculty members themselves feel any pressure (financial or social) to live on campus seems counterproductive to me, and unlike what was stated in the article, largely unlike any system in the US (Columbia and NYU do have housing near/on their campuses, but they are also smack in the middle of Manhattan and therefore nothing like the UBC area). Personally, I would want nothing less than to live on campus. At the end of the day getting away from UBC, my students, and this fairly insular lifestyle is essential to my happiness. Faculty deserve to be able to afford housing in the city where they work – and should not be forced to live down the street from their office or down the hall from their research assistant to do so. I don’t believe it is in students’ best interest to be taught by faculty who’s daily experience of the world consists of going to the grocery store with other faculty members, going to the gym with other faculty members, discussing politics and social issues with other faculty members, etc – such limited experiences of different people and opinions is sure to stifle creativity and diversity. Nor do I believe it is in faculty members’ children’s best interest to interact only with other faculty members’ children. People choose to live in cities because they are diverse places that provide lots of different kinds of experiences – creating a bunch of on-campus housing and renting it cheaply to faculty members without providing financial help to live off campus feels a bit like forcing undergraduates to live in dorms.

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  7. henry says:

    I’m so happy to hear that UBC is hopefully getting serious about the issue of faculty housing. I have a number of friends who are on faculty at NYU, Columbia, and Stanford. For each and every one of them, their institution’s faculty housing program is an integral reason as to why they are there. Because Manhattan is such a peculiar case (many high income individuals fighting for a space on a tiny strip of an island), NYU and Columbia primarily provide heavily subsidized rental units. I’m not sure we in Vancouver are in exactly the same boat. My guess is that our situation is a bit more similar to that of the Bay Area; my impression is that Stanford’s program is more heavily tilted toward homeownership assistance.

    You also mention the issue of proximity to the university. Again, I have been told that this is crucial, as it frees up time (otherwise spent commuting) and aids in faculty productivity. At the same time, if we are to expand faculty housing on campus, it has to be done in a way that ensures that faculty housing is located in true “neighbourhoods” … places that foster a sense of community; faculty “ghettos” are not the way to go.

    I would love to see UBC be bold and move in a similar direction to these institutions. And let’s be realistic here; being bold in this situation does not mean taking on risk … it means being forward-looking. Oxford University in the UK also owns large swaths of residential properties, reserved for faculty. Among the folks at that institution, there is a favourite saying: “the University has never lost money in real estate.”

  8. l says:

    I am excited and relieved to see that UBC is finally taking the issue of faculty housing seriously. With prohibitive housing and rental prices, UBC needs to be able to offer faculty some incentives in order to maintain a high level of recruitment and retainment. It also needs to recognize that faculty who require rental housing are not all young singles and that many of us have families, children and pets. I am delighted by the ideas presented here and I look forward to hearing further details.

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