Housing crisis

‘Fixer-Upper’ and our invisible university workforce housing crisis

Fixer-Upper: How to Fix Broken Housing Systems in the United States by Jenny Schuetz

Published in February 2022

I have argued that higher education is in the midst of an unseen faculty and staff housing crisis.

Invisible not because people in the process of not being able to find housing to buy or rent reasonably close to the teaching or staff jobs they are starting are unaware of the issues.

Rather invisible because our higher education community almost completely ignores faculty/staff housing as a topic of inquiry and conversation at our conferences, professional groups and industry publications.

Perhaps Jenny Schuetz’s fantastic new book, Upper fixatorwill give us the opportunity to talk about housing for the university workforce.

As we learn in Upper fixatorthe roots of the housing crisis in higher education reflect national history.

With a few exceptions (I’m thinking of NYC schools), universities have mostly approached faculty/staff housing as not being their problem. When you think about it, you think the private market will supply.

Over the years, a market-based solution for university workforce housing has proven spectacularly inadequate. The result is that colleges and universities go through surges of prioritizing and deprioritizing workforce housing. The houses close to the campus are bought to be made available to the employees, to be resold on the private market when the management of the university changes direction.

Academia’s laissez-faire approach to workforce housing has somehow worked. Until it doesn’t. What has happened is that national, state, and local policy failures to ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing has finally caught up with higher education.

University leaders realize, perhaps too late, that recruiting talented faculty and staff to come to their institutions is considerably more complicated if that recruit cannot find affordable housing.

Where Upper fixator is particularly helpful in unpacking the roots of our national housing crisis. Schuetz systematically explains how housing does not adhere to the normal mechanisms of supply and demand. Housing supply, and therefore housing prices, are the product of an incredibly complex array of local decisions, zoning regulations and incentives.

Builders have little incentive to develop affordable housing for middle-income workers. The challenges of land acquisition, permits and meeting local building codes mean that it is almost always more beneficial for builders to develop housing for the wealthy.

In the United States, local residents strongly influence what can be built and where. Since the wealth of most households is tied to their homes, all incentives are aimed at ensuring that supply stays low and prices stay high. Political efforts to limit local property taxes, such as California’s Proposition 13 in 1978, discouraged homeowners from moving, thereby artificially reducing supply.

Unlike wealthy countries that have invested in massive social housing programs, the United States has done little to ensure its citizens have access to decent and affordable housing. In the United States, housing is not a right. The supply of social housing has been steadily eroding, while funding for Section 8 housing vouchers is significantly below demand.

Nationally, the result is a growing number of families who are burdened with costs, spending more than 30% of their income on housing. In many localities, the fastest growing proportion of renters are those who are heavily cost burdened, as defined by spending 50% or more of household income on rental costs.

The upshot of the US housing story for colleges and universities is that institutional leaders will have to put workforce housing much higher on their list of concerns. Without sustained investment, the imbalance between the demand for housing for academic workers and the available supply will increase.

Housing is, of course, a tricky proposition for universities to manage. Buying local housing for faculty and staff reduces the supply of housing for local residents and can drive up prices. Building new housing for the college workforce is almost always a lower priority than building new student residences and apartments.

It is also tempting to think that this new era of remote, flexible and hybrid working will solve our university workforce housing crisis. If faculty and staff can live anywhere, why invest in growing the supply of housing close to campus?

And, of course, university budgets are severely constrained and growing year by year. Academic staff housing can be an issue for some faculty and staff. Yet it does not seem to reach the level of existential crisis that so many other higher education challenges present.

At the very least, we should have broader, more inclusive, and more systematic campus discussions about faculty and staff housing.

maybe read Upper fixator will catalyze some of these conversations on campus.

What are you reading?