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Education Universities struggle to attract professors amid soaring housing prices

University of British Columbia professor Jennifer Klenz prepares lunch for her five-year-old daughter, Maddy, in their Point Grey apartment on May 19. Dr. Klenz says she is uncertain she will ever be able to buy a house in Vancouver, despite being a permanent faculty member.

Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

Universities in Vancouver and Toronto are struggling to find ways to entice professors to move to cities known for eye-popping house prices and out-of-control bidding wars.

In Ontario, schools are looking for changes to provincial laws that would allow them to build affordable long-term housing for faculty. This month, planners and senior administrators from Toronto universities, McMaster in Hamilton, the University of Ottawa and others, met to discuss the challenges of recruiting new faculty in their housing markets. Young professors want to live close to their work, but many are worried their starting salaries make a downtown home unaffordable.

"For young faculty, they want to bike or walk to work, they don't even want a 30-minute commute, they are looking for 10," said Ravin Balakrishnan, the chair of U of T's computer science department.

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The faculty housing crisis is most acute at the University of British Columbia. A new 1,000-square-foot condo on campus sells for about $800,000, much less than the $1.8-million average price for a detached house, but still out of reach for many new professors.

Last year, UBC missed out on 18 hires who turned down job offers because of how unaffordable Vancouver has become, according to a survey of the university's deans. For another 70 appointments, the housing issue was a key part of negotiations, the deans reported.

"The big question here is 'How good does UBC want to be?'" said Christopher Rea, an associate professor of modern Chinese literature at UBC. Dr. Rea has been involved in years of discussion with the university on how to improve faculty housing options. "If someone is good enough to get a job offer from UBC, they can get a job offer from somewhere else," he said.

Currently, UBC offers loan guarantees and a second mortgage program. Critics say the loans have been too small to make a substantial dent in Vancouver prices, and the current program is unfairly open only to faculty whose recruitment and retention is "of critical strategic importance."

During the first two years of the mortgage loan program, 105 professors applied and 76 were approved, according to the university.

At the University of Toronto, Dr. Balakrishnan has been in a lot of negotiations with new hires over the past year – the department is halfway through hiring for 11 new tenure-track positions. So far, starting salaries in the department and consulting opportunities for those in the field mean that faculty have been able to keep up with this spring's daunting prices. But the issue is increasingly coming up, he said.

Within two years, U of T and the other schools involved in the discussions hope to persuade Ontario's provincial government to introduce and pass legislation that would enable postsecondary institutions to offer long-term ownership of homes to professors, while barring faculty from selling the properties to anyone but the school. Currently, the maximum number of years for such agreements is 21 years. The group is looking to extend that to 99 years.

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"If we don't do anything, our position is that it's a risk to remaining competitive," said Christine Burke, the director of campus and facilities planning at the University of Toronto. "We want to make sure that we are competitive with other premiere institutions that have instituted various home ownership programs … and to ensure that affordable housing options remain available to faculty for generations," Ms. Burke said.

The model U of T is advocating has been used at Stanford, Princeton and UBC. It's only one among several that universities worldwide are trying out to deal with a global crisis in housing affordability for those earning middle and even upper-middle class salaries.

From Sydney to Oxford, it's not just retail workers, bus drivers and teachers who are priced out of living where they work, but also university professors and staff.

Jennifer Klenz, a UBC botany professor, says she is uncertain whether she will ever be able to buy in Vancouver.

Dr. Klenz became a permanent faculty member a few years ago, after a decade of teaching as a sessional instructor, leaving her with few savings. Now, in addition to rent on the West Point Grey apartment she shares with her five-year-old daughter, she pays almost $1,000 in monthly daycare fees.

"I'm in one of best places I could be in terms of my career, but I will end up being a renter, or maybe I will get together with a group of people and buy a vacation home," she said.

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Recently, she talked to her department about whether she was considered "critical," and therefore eligible for the mortgage loan program. She was happy to discover she met the criteria, although she thinks it could be made clearer.

"There is at least a faint glimmer that I could buy into [an] on-campus housing option," she said.

What many UBC professors would like to see is the university build and sell homes at-cost, a model that was successfully used at nearby Simon Fraser University for a project in 2007. UBC also completed a similar project a decade ago, but a plan to revive it was shelved last year.

Dr. Rea says that when he goes to conferences in Hong Kong or Taipei, he has seen ads for the units on campus that he and his colleagues can't afford marketed to foreign buyers.

"Should UBC be leasing its land for a hundred years to the open market and mostly to the global rich?" he asks.

UBC plans to roll out a new faculty housing strategy this fall.

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Making it easier for professors to live on campus is not just about affordability but also long-term urban living, schools say.

"We are thinking in an integrated fashion. Where do we go when we retire? Do we go live in a condo someplace, or does what we know about mental resiliency mean maintaining a life on campus or nearby?" said Scott Mabury, vice-president of operations at the University of Toronto, who is involved in the sector-wide discussions in Ontario. "It's a lifelong life of the mind, that's the attraction."

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