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A Plea for a New Housing Approach at UBC

An open letter to the Board of Governors from concerned members of the UBC community.

92 UBC academics 6 Apr 2023TheTyee.ca

Signatories and their credentials are listed at the end of the letter.

[Editor’s note: The letter below was sent to members of the University of British Columbia’s board of governors on April 4 with 92 signatures by UBC academics, a number that has grown since. The letter was drafted by UBC professor of landscape architecture and urban design Patrick Condon and revised among the signatories. Condon initiated it independently of his role as an occasional columnist at The Tyee.]

Dear Governors:

Since the 1990s, and the construction and sale of UBC Hampton Place market condominium project, the university has been slowly privatizing the 1,000 acres of the remaining land endowed to it. The current "2050 Vision" is in this same spirit. The bulk of the new housing proposed is either market rental or market strata units. While exact numbers are, at this stage, intentionally unclear, what is clear is that new student housing and new affordable housing for staff and faculty will comprise a relatively small portion of the new housing proposed. The question is, "why?"

The plan, as written, leaves the answer to this question unclear, when, at key points in the housing plan, exact numbers of non-market university owned housing for students, staff and faculty are not given. The text says, "exact percentage to be determined by community engagement and UBC Board of Governors." These numbers are yet to be released.

What is alarming about this plan is that the option for all of the new housing to be affordable was not, and is not, considered. And yet a plan based entirely on providing affordable housing for faculty, staff and students is not only practical, it makes sense for the university and the B.C. citizens who, in the end, support it.

First, why it's practical, and then why it's imperative.

Why it's practical

In the City of Vancouver, out of control land price inflation has made it impossible for developers to produce affordable housing, particularly on the city's west side. In most cases, land now costs twice as much per "buildable" square foot as the cost to construct that same square foot. And it doesn’t help to increase the allowable density of a project in hopes of diluting the land share of the final purchase price, as adding density inflates land price. Sadly, only land speculators gain.

The university, in its now 30-year tradition of selling off chunks of the UBC endowed lands, is only adding to this speculative land inflation inferno. But UBC is the only place in the Lower Mainland that need not contribute to this tragedy. Why? Because UBC owns the land, or at least it does now. Thus, it can produce housing for just the cost of construction.

Amortizing (paying off) the cost of construction can easily be done by charging affordable rents, pegged to 30 per cent of current average faculty and staff salaries, with students housed at prices that are less than what the university currently charges. In short, and to keep this simple, the university can afford to build all of the proposed new housing itself, still keep the remaining UBC endowed lands as a public trust, and still make money.

A wrinkle that is often raised when this sort of suggestion is offered is that the university is currently not allowed to approach the financial markets for construction financing. But the 2050 plan, in many cases, alludes to the need for this restriction to change in order that they might achieve even their currently modest ambitions for non-market housing. So presumably this will change.

Finally, and most importantly, this proposal to bring students, staff and faculty closer to UBC through building affordable housing on our endowed lands is entirely consistent with the university’s long-held policy to create a fully sustainable campus. Indeed, a proposition to marketize UBC land is a radical inversion of sustainability goals, as it adds to lengthy commuting which raises UBC’s carbon footprint. In contrast, a sustainable campus, based on work-study-residence proximity, is climate friendly and healthier, as walking and cycling options become practical. Affordable housing would also address the vexed question of university recruitment and retention.

Why it's imperative

UBC is the single institution big enough to single handedly make a dent in our regional housing crisis. With its current proposal for thousands of new housing units it could, should it so choose, take enormous pressure off of the regional housing market. If rents at UBC were pegged, not to market rates, but to a reasonable share (say 30 per cent) of average incomes, the sheer mass of this affordable community would put downward pressure on the larger regional housing market. For proof look at Vienna, where over 50 per cent of housing is non-market (mostly co-ops). This puts downward pressure on the remaining market housing, since the non-market share is large enough to offer a more affordable choice.

UBC can also make a huge contribution to a much more sustainable region with a stroke of a pen. Numbers are hard to arrive at, but less than a third of students, staff and faculty now live on the endowed lands. And frustratingly it seems that the large majority of new market rate homes built on campus since the ‘90s are not owned and resided in by university students, staff and faculty. About half of these new strata units are investor owned, suggesting that UBC is a net contributor to housing price inflation, with recent housing efforts doing more harm than good.

Finally, the taxpayer expenditure of $4-5 billion for the UBCX subway expansion now (post COVID) seems very far in the future, if ever. It is not the purpose here to debate the efficacy of that transit plan, only to suggest that shifting the bulk of the transportation demand exerted by UBC's remote location would be offset, now and in the future, if the majority of its researchers, faculty, staff and students lived within walking distance. The wait for the UBCX now seems at least a decade off if not more. A housing first alternative can begin, literally, Monday.

Should the privatization stop here?

In the end the larger question raised here is this: Is it time to stop the privatization of our public assets? Since the 1980s Canadian politics has been in the grip of a privatization wave. Assets developed in common for the public good are more and more privatized, in the faith that the private sector can do it all better than the public sector. Housing, generally, has been the test case for this theory, with the federal and provincial governments largely abandoning their responsibility for affordable housing. Now, with the housing crisis apparently unsolvable, we can clearly see how this has worked out.

Make no mistake, even if UBC "leases" the land as proposed, 100-year leases paid entirely up front are the equivalent of an outright sale. This public university thus loses control of an enormously useful capital asset, UBC’s endowed land, forever. Once it's gone it can't be recovered. Perhaps we should do something truly sustainable and protect this public trust for at least the next seven generations, and at the same time establish a continuing stream of housing support for those same generations as well.

Respectfully submitted by:

Patrick Condon, professor, School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture
Penny Gerstein, professor, School of Community and Regional Planning
Christopher Macdonald, professor, FRAIC, School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture
Sara Stevens, associate professor, School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture
John Bass, associate professor, School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture
Ronald Walkey, associate professor emeritus, School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture
David Ley, professor emeritus, department of geography
AnnaLisa Meyboom, associate professor, School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture
Geraldine Pratt, professor, department of geography
Avi Lewis, associate professor, department of geography
Luke Bergmann, associate professor, department of geography
Bonnie Effros, professor, department of history
Philippe Le Billon, professor, department of geography
Elvin Wyly, professor, department of geography
Dan Moore, professor, department of geography
Suzanne Lawrence, staff, department of geography
Tara Cookson, assistant professor, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs
Benjamin Bryce, associate professor, department of history
Trevor Barnes, professor, department of geography
Jessica Wang, professor, department of geography; department of history Porter Abbey, master of science candidate, department of geography
Judith Burr, doctoral candidate, department of geography
M.V. Ramana, professor, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs
Gregory Henry, professor emeritus, department of geography
Olav Slaymaker, professor emeritus, department of geography
Kevin Gillard, operations manager, department of geography
Minelle Mahtani, associate professor, department of geography; McLean Chair, Canadian studies
Thomas Koch, adjunct professor, department of geography
Glen Coulthard, associate professor, political science, Centre for Indigenous Studies and Geography
Veena Sriram, assistant professor, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, School of Population and Public Health
Rick Ketler, research projects manager, department of geography
Katharine Baldwin, master of arts candidate, department of geography
Loch Brown, associate professor, department of geography
Iain D. Stewart, sessional lecturer, department of geography
George Porto Ferreira, graduate student, department of geography
Leslie Paris, associate professor, department of history
Michael Fabris, assistant professor, department of geography
Ralph Matthews, professor emeritus, department of sociology
Erik Post, doctoral candidate, department of geography
Laura Ishiguro, associate professor, department of history
Pheroze Unwalla, assistant professor of teaching, department of history
Stepan Wood, professor and Canada Research Chair in Law, Society and Sustainability, Allard School of Law
Rachel Stern, master of arts candidate, department of geography
Frank Tester, professor emeritus, School of Social Work and Wall Institute
Jenna Loesberg, master of science candidate, department of geography
Andrea Ku, master of science candidate, department of geography
Kirsten McIlveen, PhD candidate, department of geography
Desiree Valadares, assistant professor, department of geography
Naomi Klein, associate professor, department of geography
Chris Patterson, assistant professor, Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice
Leila Harris, professor, Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice; Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability
Claire Kremen, professor, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability and department of zoology
Sharalyn Orbaugh, professor, department of Asian studies
Christopher Rea, professor, department of Asian studies
Mark MacLean, professor, department of mathematics
Dan Hiebert, professor emeritus, department of geography
Daniel Roehr, associate professor, School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture
David R. Boyd, associate professor Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability
Tara Cookson, assistant professor, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs
Simon Donner, professor, department of geography, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability
Mark Johnson, professor, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability and department of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences
Timothy Cheek, professor, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs and department of history
Lorah Steichen, master of arts candidate, department of geography
Mari Fujita, associate professor, School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture
Amanda Giang, assistant professor, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, department of mechanical engineering
Cynthia Girling, professor, School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture
Naomi Zimmerman, assistant professor, department of mechanical engineering
Sheldon Green, professor, department of mechanical engineering
Clayton Ashton, lecturer, department of Asian studies
C.D. Alison Bailey, assistant professor, department of Asian studies
David Gramling, professor, department of Central, Eastern and Northern European studies
Christina Laffin, associate professor, department of Asian studies
Eagle Glassheim, professor, department of history
Kai Chan, professor, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability
Jason Lieblang, associate professor, department of Central, Eastern and Northern European studies
Fuyubi Nakamura, assistant professor and curator, department of Asian studies and Museum of Anthropology
Bruce Rusk, associate professor, department of Asian Studies
Markus Hallensleben, associate professor, department of Central, Eastern and Northern European studies
Maged Senbel, associate professor, School of Community and Regional Planning
Michael Hooper, associate professor, School of Community and Regional Planning
Mark Stevens, associate professor, School of Community and Regional Planning
Leonora C. Angeles, associate professor, Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice and SCARP
Annette Henry, professor, department of language and literacy education and Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice
Elizabeth Nijdam, lecturer, department of Central, Eastern and Northern European studies
Naomi Louie, master of arts candidate, department of history
Jerry W. Yang, master of arts candidate, department of history
Alicia Warkentin, staff, Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice
Tanya Jensen, staff, department of Asian studies
Kyle Frackman, associate professor, department of Central, Eastern and Northern European studies
Sean Feng, postdoctoral fellow, department of Asian studies
Becki Ross, professor, department of sociology and Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice
Rosanne Sia, assistant professor, Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice  [Tyee]

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