University, we’re told, is supposed to be about the “big questions,” about the process psychologist Abraham Maslow described as (bear with me here) “self-actualization.”
But most students at UBC are concerned about a more fundamental segment of Maslow’s famous pyramid: whether they’ll be able to pay rent.
It’s probably the most pressing issue facing UBC and Vancouver as a whole. Only a small subset of people can actually afford to live here. From a university perspective, it’s also the single biggest impediment to raising UBC’s international stature. The university competes globally for faculty and students, and the cost of living in Vancouver is a big turn-off.
With that in mind, the UBC Board of Governors (BoG) has been developing a strategy for housing more students, faculty and staff on campus. The Housing Action Plan, passed at the BoG’s September meeting, sets out new guidelines for controlling rent on housing owned and operated by the university.
And as usual, students are getting short shrift.
In a nutshell, here’s what the plan does for faculty and staff.
Ten per cent of all new housing built on campus will be made available to own for tenured and tenure-track faculty members at 33 per cent below market value. The average cost of a home on Vancouver’s Westside is around $1.2 million. Another 20 per cent of new housing will be reserved for faculty and staff, kept at 25 per cent below market. Because it’s both owner and developer of the land, UBC doesn’t have to subsidize anything; it can simply not charge as much.
Obviously, UBC’s Greatest University in the World ambitions are hurt by the high cost of housing in Vancouver. It’s hard to attract high-powered professors and rockstar researchers when they find out that only 10 per cent of university employees actually make enough to afford a house anywhere close to campus. Those who do accept positions with the university and don’t earn that much may opt to commute from the suburbs, which tends to turn people into stress-filled balls of hate. Nobody wants that.
UBC has other motives for housing more of its own on campus, too. For one, there’s the argument that housing more UBC-affiliated people on campus will make the campus less of a cultural wasteland. Students and faculty might develop an actual connection to this place when hanging around after 5 p.m. is at least a little more desirable. Plus, a stable, year-round population would make for a more vibrant campus that’s able to support more transit, business and academic activities — including the possibility of a full-blown summer semester.
And as revealed in a blog post by Nassif Ghoussoub, the elected BoG faculty rep who spearheaded the plan, it sounds like UBC expects this to make campus residents less critical of the university’s development agenda. From a post from last October: “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.” UBC is always telling itself that non-academic development on campus is fine because the revenues go back into the endowment, which benefits the academic side of the university and ultimately its biggest stakeholders: students.
Which brings us, finally, to the issue of student housing. What does this plan offer for students who want to live in this academic Eden without breaking the bank?
Well, not much. The student-focused bit of the plan is pretty basic. It assumes supply is the issue, and pledges to house 50 per cent of full-time students on campus. The flagship Ponderosa Housing Hub, currently a hole in the ground at the intersection of West Mall and University Boulevard, will add 1,100 new beds for students.
Don’t expect to see any real cost controls on student housing. While rooms in the new hub will be below the market rate, that still puts rent in the $745–900 range — hardly affordable for anyone who doesn’t get significant help from their parents. Beyond that, BoG’s promised to advocate for an increase in the B.C. student loans housing allowance, which looks good on paper but is really just kicking the can down the road.
It’s here we see the double standard: UBC is willing to go to the ropes to defend faculty and staff from the big bad Vancouver housing market. It’s willing to simply charge less for housing, because, ultimately, it can. But when students complain, we get a callous dismissal. As UBC Housing has said in the past, the system is completely full, even at Ponderosa-level rents. Some of you can afford it, so we don’t really see a problem here.
Because of the way student housing is set up, it has to cover the costs of its operation without any additional money from the university. But even then, it consistently runs a surplus, meaning UBC could afford to charge less for student housing.
But it won’t. Unlike the profs UBC hopes to recruit, we’re not on the sexy, jet-setting, bleeding edge of the knowledge economy. But ultimately, most students do vote with their feet — by leaving this place the second that classes end.