Vancouver's future is dimming due to unaffordable housing and overloaded public transit. How the University of British Columbia builds student housing could make a major dent in both problems.
But not if the university sticks to its current plans.
For starters, not only is UBC building too few units on campus, the new projects it proposes will force students to pay more than top dollar, even by Vancouver standards.
That became apparent in February, when UBC unveiled a proposal to build "Nano Unit" student apartments on campus. What would students pay? Seven hundred dollars a month for 140 square feet, or five dollars per square foot per month. That would put the per square foot cost of the "Nano" micro unit among the most expensive rental housing in the city, or about twice the price per square foot of apartments in nearby Kitsilano.
But these units, even at this price, will likely fill up fast, as there are over 6,000 UBC students on the waiting list for on-campus housing.
That's where UBC misses its chance to ease the city's transit woes. Most students at UBC would live on campus if they could. But they can't. As it stands now the university capitalizes on this shortage to demand rents that are often more than double the market rate.
Close to campus, students face vacancy rates below two per cent. So many wind up living miles away. And their resulting commutes put increasing strain on an overburdened transit system.
Students making that trip to UBC heavily travel down Vancouver's Broadway corridor -- precisely the route that a 2012 study identified as risking gridlock, which in turn, said the report, hurts job development region-wide. The city of Vancouver was one sponsor of that report. The other? UBC.
But UBC's managers, instead of striving to lessen transit pressures by housing on campus as many students as possible, seem to be pursuing a different strategy. The university appears to be set on supplying numbers of units well below demand, which (perhaps not coincidentally) heightens competition that sustains sky-high rents UBC can charge.
This begs five key questions:
1. Does the university have a plan to house all the people who want to live on campus?
The answer is no.
Right now UBC has housing for only 28 per cent of its full time students. By 2035, the university plans to house 16,000 of its expected 39,000 full-time students, or around 45 per cent of them.
But what if UBC's student body grows by 50 per cent in 25 years, as projected in a KPMG report sponsored by UBC and the City of Vancouver? In that case, UBC's ratio of on-campus student beds to full-time students would slip below 35 per cent.
Adopting a target of housing fewer than half of all full-time students on campus might have made sense in 2012, when the ravages of the housing affordability crisis were not nearly so extreme, and when it looked like a Broadway subway was just around the corner. But things have changed.
2. If the university wanted to house all of its students on campus would there be space to do so?
The answer is yes.
UBC has ample land to provide beds for all the full-time UBC students who want them. Last year, UBC Faculty of Land and Food Systems student Halina Rachelson made a study that determined there is enough space on campus to house all 39,000 full-time students expected by 2035. Where? In presently marginally useful spaces between existing buildings.
That there is that much room available may surprise some who view the campus as largely complete. The fact that the university is now building expensive-to-construct high-rise housing blocks might also suggest that land is scarce. It is not. As Rachelson proved, UBC uses campus space very inefficiently, with buildings covering less than 30 per cent of the ground area available.
Rachelson created a "mass void" analysis map to demonstrate her findings (see top of this article). There are scores of sites where gaps between buildings could be filled in with more human-scale, four- to six-story mid-rise buildings, connecting one existing mid-rise building to the next. Think of the "streets and courtyard" model of Yale and Oxford Universities, and you will have some idea of what that would be like.
3. If the university did add all this housing would it be a safer, more attractive, more active and sustainable place?
The answer is that it could be.
Putting far more students on campus could be done in the "street and courtyard" style found in cities like Paris, Berlin, Oslo and Barcelona -- and in university settings like those at Yale and Oxford. The design allows students to circulate on active, energizing streets, or find rest and contemplation in quiet courtyards only a few steps away. Trips to classes or other on-campus destinations would be shorter if housing were mixed throughout campus instead of distilled into a few high-rise hubs. Female students might feel safer after dark because a more densely inhabited campus creates more "eyes on the street" and fewer hidden, lonely pathways.
This version of UBC might even improve mental health for students. Much research (such as here, here and here) suggests that mid-rise living, within visual and shouting distance of urban streets, encourages prosocial behavior more than high rises.
4. If the university housed all of its students on campus what rent would it need to charge in order to return a reasonable profit?
The answer is less than half what UBC intends to charge.
Specifically, about $2 to $3 per square foot per month (depending on unit size, as the smaller the unit the higher the square foot cost). Not only is that less than half the per square foot rents being charged by UBC for their new "Nano" units, it's well under rents charged in nearby neighborhoods.
Part of the savings would come from choosing mid-rise structures. According to the widely accepted Altus Cost Construction guide and UBC sources, the cost of building concrete and steel high-rises rather than mid-rise wood structures adds between $100 per square foot (Altus) and $250 per square foot (UBC) to the per square foot cost of building. Plus, mid-rise wood structures better withstand earthquakes and contribute less to climate change (concrete is responsible for seven per cent of global greenhouses gas; wood construction sequesters carbon indefinitely in the wood fibers).
When you take into account, as well, that UBC doesn't need to buy the land under the housing units it will construct, it's even harder to understand why the university feels it must charge twice the going rate per square foot commanded by apartment developments in nearby neighbourhoods. In fact, the university need only charge between $2 and $3 per square foot per month to achieve what the industry considers to be a reasonable profit (six to 7.5 per cent annual return on investment after amortizing financing and expenses).
5. If UBC housed all the students on campus who wanted to live there, how would this help Vancouver be more livable city?
By dramatically reducing pressure on Vancouver's rental stock and on its public transit.
Housing most full-time students on campus would dramatically reduce the competition for scarce rental units outside the campus borders, freeing up homes for working families currently shut out of the housing market.
And by making fewer students commute to and from campus, no longer would public transit along the Broadway corridor be slammed by peak hour stresses during the school year. With enough students living on campus, less costly solutions to our Broadway transit problems might be found -- solutions that can be implemented now, not decades from now.
Reaching UBC's potential as a community
The relationship between the university and the region is important, and under increasing strain. Pushing it to a possible breaking point are the failure last year of the regional transit plebiscite and the university's recently announced pricey and limited approach to housing its own students.
The federal government will not be the healer of this growing divide. With the Trudeau government's budget what it is, the Lower Mainland's proportionate share of green infrastructure investment would be about $185 million annually. This means, in all likelihood, that if the Broadway subway is ever built, it won't be finished for decades -- too late to help students and too late to unclog the Broadway corridor (see sidebar).
We can't wait that long. UBC should be a good regional citizen by providing enough beds to house its students who want it. And by ceasing to push the costs of its operations onto surrounding cities.
Build enough housing on campus the right way, and UBC will reap another great reward. The campus which now often feels like a glorified office park, would finally reflect its stated aspirations. UBC would become a true community of learning -- one worthy of joining the ranks of other great mixed use university towns like Oxford, Cambridge, Heidelberg and Bologna. All are mid-rise, all are vital, walkable, safe, and sustainable.