Sunday, January 20, 2008

Issue of the day: The UNA - Interveiw with Mike Feeley

The UNA aren't the fat-cats we students like to imagine. The University Town Neighbourhoods are the five outlying areas of UBC's campus that have been leased out to private developers for the purpose of building high-end residential neighbourhoods, and thereby growing UBC's financial endowment. The university has envisioned these neighbourhoods as part of making UBC a "complete community" in which people live and work sustainably. They've set (and met) ambitious goals to have 50% (I think) of the neighbourhoods inhabited by people that teach and work at UBC. Students on the other hand, see the neighbourhoods and their inhabitants as a manifestation of the privatization and selling-out of our land to build a suburb completely separate from the University's academic mission. There's truth in both perspectives.

The University Neighbourhoods Association (UNA) is the pseudo-municipal council for people living in the University Town neighbourhoods. It is often the target of student ire, being stereotypically branded by students as one of the reasons UBC is "selling out," screwing over students, and generally going to the dogs. Now I know it's a shocker, but stay with me: the residents of the University Town neighbourhoods don't necessarily represent competing interests to those of students; in fact, they experience many of the same problems we as students have with the governance structure of UBC.

I sat down with UNA board member and UBC engineering prof Mike Feeley a month ago to try and dig down and find the kernel of truth behind the hyped-up animosity between students and U-town residents. And what I found was that it shouldn't even be there. One of the first things Mike said to me was that U town residents themselves are not the people that decided to develop that land. "Once the development happens, the relationship changes to one between people," he said. The UNA, though it approximates some functions of a municipal government (like garbage and noise regulation, running its own community centres and gardens, allocating the tax and levy for U Town residents) is in fact an opt-in society constituted under the Society Act of BC, and completely subject to the jurisdiction of the UBC Board of Governors, much like the AMS.

Therefore, there is a formal problem of "taxation without representation" - the UBC BoG collects the property tax and services levy from the U Town residents, and then hands it to the UNA to spend. But, not all residents are members of the UNA due to voluntary membership, and the UNA itself is not formally represented on the BoG. It has always played a role as an "advisory board" to the BoG. There's a debate within the UNA as to whether formal representation, or the current role is in fact more effective in advocating for residents interests. So it's not completely cut and dry.

Some of the biggest issues the UNA looks at are

  • Running the Old Barn Community Centre (and the new community centre being built in South Campus)
  • Having control over "public" areas like gardens so that they are taken care of and planted with things that are appropriate for children and the community - not necessarily the way developers plan them.
  • Access to recreation facilities like the pool, rinks, and gyms, at cut-rate prices. (the UNA makes a contribution to the ancillary that runs them, UBC athletics, to the tune of 1/4 million a year)
  • Promoting community and volunteerism in the community.

There are some interesting dynamics at play in the UNA, I found out. On the UNA board, there are three appointed members - two from the university (AVP Planning, and AVP finance/business), and one from the AMS (the VP Academic). These members are controversial, since true municipal councils don't have appointed members. "Why students are there is a bit hard to understand," said Mike, "but they've brought a bit of energy to the board, and been tremendously helpful to our shared interests with students. The relationship with the AMS is tremendously important." The elected seats on the UNA board, (which will increase in number as the neighbourhoods grow) are dominated by members of the U Town community that are work at UBC - and by talking to Mike, these people are hardly emblems of capitalist treachery.

Hawthorne Place, the neighbourhood that was built over the old parking lot across from Totem Park, has proven to be quite a surprise in many ways. The university expected the type of people that would purchase there to be wealthy empty nesters. In fact, 70% of the residents in Hawthorne are faculty and Staff and UBC and from 700 families that live there, there are 650 children. Three main community dichotomies exist in the community: university connected/not; new immigrants/not; and families with kids/no kids, older. In Hawthorne, anyway, it seems that the younger university-connected set is the most involved, and thus has most of the political influence in the UNA. The character of Hampton place is quite different though, and it remains to be seen what sort of community emerges in the South Campus neighbourhoods.

It has to be noted, that though UBC has been successful in ensuring that many faculty and staff are able to live in the U Town developments, the same cannot be extended to students. Mike Feeley: "If you're a faculty member, you can barely afford to live here. If you're a student, you can't. If you're a labourer, work for plant-ops, a secretary - you're living in Surrey. I happen to think that's wrong, and it's a problem we need to address." There are three buildings in Hawthorne that were actually co-developments reserved for faculty and staff only, and built without some of the fancier fixtures to allow for more affordable price points. Mike lives in one of these. He added that this problem is not one that just exists at UBC; it's the same problem Vancouver as a whole faces as land values increase and the city become less and less affordable.

To me this is something UBC needs to address pro-actively. These communities are now being constructed from scratch, and there's no reason not to do it right. By ensuring that affordable housing exists in the Neighbourhoods alongside the more expensive developments, UBC will go a long way to ensuring that U town is truly a complete, sustainable community. If students can participate in the community by living in it, you'll see all the animosity and us/them dissipating. As for the UNA, it's not clear if they're interested in lobbying for political advancements like affordable housing, forwarding the Governance Review, above their work on recreation, sustainability and community events - that'll be up to the leadership in the community. Here's hoping they will.

What the candidates say:

Erin Rennie: "Forge a fair relationship with the RCMP, the UNA, and the UBC Admin.Demand more legitimate governance at UBC."
Matt Naylor: "This past year we have been struggling with the continued alignment of student [sic] by the RCMP and others, such as the University Neighbourhoods Association. They need to learn that to be on a university campus means that, on occasion, students are going to be around."
Mike Duncan: Couldn't find anything.
Rodrigo Ferrari Nunes: Couldn't find anything.

Alex Lougheed: "The UNA has a new board chair this year. This means its a good time to make new relationships with them. However I question their position in the current governance model of UBC, and many of their attitudes towards students. I hope to change our relationship with them, and their perceptions of us so we have more common understandings, and can work together. If we were to lobby together, there is no way the administration could ever say no."
Nathan Crompton: Couldn't find anything.
Rob McLean: "The goal of 25% of students being able to be housed on campus is far too modest given our diversity. As a student who has lived in low-cost housing on campus for the last three years, I can attest to the need for more Fraser Halls and less Chaucers. In my opinion, if it isn’t for students of people related to the university (faculty or support staff), it does not belong near campus (especially on Wesbrook)!"