The city of Vancouver is looking to UBC for housing solutions.
The interim report of the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability, a committee formed to examine the housing situation in Vancouver, recommended that the city develop a housing authority that is a separate but city-owned entity that will “deliver on its objectives for social and affordable rental housing.”
The proposed housing authority is strikingly similar to UBC’s housing model. Although UBC does not have an actual housing authority, UBC does have a separate entity, UBC Properties Trust, that manages the land the university makes available for housing. Properties Trust can lease the land to itself to develop non-market housing, offered exclusively to faculty and staff. By doing this, the university retains ownership and control over the land, and operates at a cost-recovery basis.
“The biggest cost in Vancouver is the cost of land. So if you build it on city-owned land and you lease it to the corporations, who then build it, it’s just like UBC and you then have the ability to have much, much lower rent. In this way, the city retains ownership of the land, just like how UBC has done,” said Olga Ilich, co-chair of the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability.
Al Poettcker, president and CEO of UBC Properties Trust, thought the city of Vancouver saw benefits to UBC’s housing plan. “They did like the fact that UBC was building rental housing at the same pace as the market housing based on the required 20 per cent [of non-market housing].”
Nassif Ghoussoub, chair of the UBC Board of Governors’ Community Planning Task Group, notes the difference between a city model driven by serving the community and a university model that is essentially an academic business, focused on attracting and retaining faculty and staff. While the eligibility criteria for UBC non-market housing is restricted to those affiliated with the university, the range of people under the city’s target income group of $21,500–86,500 may be hard for the city to regulate past the first year.
“What about in the second year or after a while, the household starts making more than [the target income]? Will they be evacuated? Will people be regularly checking on the household income? I really don’t see how this is going to be managed,” said Ghoussoub.
Ghoussoub said the future of communities need to be considered in order for a plan to succeed. “So that when people get better … financial situations, they can move on and leave space to other people.”
The city hasn’t committed to the development of a new housing authority yet. Poettcker emphasized that Vancouver has not studied the UBC model in detail, as the task force discussions were mainly on principles rather than implementation.
The non-market housing at UBC is at least 20 per cent, and at times, 40 per cent, lower than market value. But Poettcker said prices are not the main target. “What we try to do is make sure that anything we have to borrow to build the housing is paid for.
“If you wanted to lower rent much further, there would have to be additional subsidies. So the university’s got to make decisions about what its prime goals are going to be. And I think … teaching and research is what the university focus should be.”
Ghoussoub said that both UBC and the city of Vancouver are taking the first steps toward more affordable housing, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
“The city is forgoing revenue loss by providing affordable housing on leased land, similar to UBC…. I think the decision has been made on the political level.”
Poettcker said that the plan may improve the housing situation, but there is no clear solution in sight.
“From the perspective of those who need affordable housing, it’s never going to be a complete answer. There’s just not very much land available in the city of Vancouver or at the university.”