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.