It’s fall, which means that my fourth year undergraduate planning studio at Dalhousie University’s School of Planning is working on another complex project. As some of you know, last year my students worked on improving the social and open spaces in Mulgrave Park. This year, students are developing a proposal for affordable rental housing on Quinpool Road.

Students work on an in-class exercise

For students in the fourth year honours program in planning, it’s the first time they have worked in a studio setting. I’ve designed the course so that they can develop skills in drawing and design to help bring them up to similar levels (some of them have taken drawing classes and some have not). For example, in-class exercises teach them how to draw floor plans, axonometric drawings, and site analysis diagrams.

But because it’s a planning studio, and combines students from urban design and environmental planning, the course also incorporates financial aspects of development, demographics and policy aspects, and sustainability. Our partner on the project, Jeffry Haggett, is a planner at WSP. He helped determine the site for the project, a now-vacant lot on Quinpool Road where St. Patrick’s High School once stood, accompanied the students on a site visit, and has provided them with technical information such as GIS data. Neil Lovitt, a planner specializing in financial considerations at Turner Drake, taught them how to do a pro forma to determine whether their proposal is feasible. Both Jeffry and Neil are alumni of our planning program, the Bachelor of Community Design.

Councillor Lindell Smith (center) brought his own experiences of living in social and affordable housing to the class

Yesterday, Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) Councillor Lindell Smith came in to discuss his experiences living in social and affordable housing in North Halifax. Smith grew up in the Uniacke Square public housing and the Gottingen Street neighbourhood, where he still lives. Just 26 years old when he was elected last fall, he is the first African Nova Scotian elected to city council in 20 years. He encouraged the students to think about the needs of the demographic groups near their site, and everyday considerations of people living in mid-rise and high-rise developments (e.g. access to open space, services for the community). For the mid-term review next week, Bob Bjerke is our guest critic. In addition to working as the chief planner in both HRM and the City of Regina, Bjerke was Director of Housing for the City of Edmonton, which is doing innovative policy work on integrating affordable housing and community supports.

Students are working in groups on their proposals, which must include:

  • a site plan and landscape plan
  • floor plans for the proposed buildings
  • information on their target demographic groups and relevant policies (e.g. land use, funding programs)
  • financial feasibility (pro forma)
  • a sustainability framework (e.g. financial, social, and environmental characteristics)

Groups will continue to refine and redesign their proposals until the end of this term. They developed group contracts the beginning of the term and will have a chance to evaluate each other at the mid-term and end of term. This helps keep group members accountable to each other and identifies uneven participation. Their individual grades on the in-class exercises also help evaluate their skill development and performance. In this way, the course also blends structured (time-limited assignments) and unstructured learning (group dialogue, consensus building and decision-making).

 

For students in my Housing Policy class, this experience was different from their usual lectures and quizzes. The two teams, each made up of two grad students and three or four undergraduates, gained real-world experience throughout the Winter term and made recommendations to planners at the City of Redmond last week.

Earlier in the term I wrote about my experience teaching an experiential learning, project-based course through the University of Oregon’s Sustainable City Year Program, which allows instructors to build courses around the needs of a municipal partner. This year’s partner, the City of Redmond, identified their Affordable Housing Plan as one of the projects where they needed some help. Students in my class worked on two questions: the first group conducted a policy review of the Affordable Housing Plan, Comprehensive Plan and local policies on affordable housing in order to recommend strategies that the City could implement. The second group conducted interviews with local planners, non-profit housing providers and developers in order to determine the key issues in the provision of affordable housing in Redmond. Today, I will explain how the projects progressed throughout the Winter term (January-March).

We visited Redmond during the first week of January,IMG_0885 hearing from city planners about the current Affordable Housing Plan (2007) and some challenges the city is facing in terms of lower than average median incomes, an increasing number of young families, and higher than average unemployment. With Heather Richards, Community Development Director at the City of Redmond, we toured several projects in the city that had been funded through housing tax credits for low-income housing, secondary units, and clustered units.

Students worked on their projects each week–they had a lecture on Tuesdays, but on Thursdays they had time to work on their group projects, exploring key questions related to that week’s lecture. For example, during the week on housing for specific demographic groups, they explored whether an employer housing program developed in the UK might be applicable to the Redmond setting. Each group had two graduate students who served as the project managers, organizing meetings and ensuring that things stayed on track throughout the term.

For their interim deadline in Week 5 of the term, Group 1, who was conducting the policy analysis, prepared a framework showing the structure of the policies/plans, how they reinforced each other, and what affordable housing tools they wanted to investigate further. Group 2 wrote their interview guide and developed their list of participants based on some contacts the City had given them. They aimed to conduct 10-12 interviews, but in the end they completed fourteen.

Group 1 chose to investigate a number of affordable housing tools through the use of case studies, which they appended to their final report. They then determined whether the tool would be suitable for Redmond given its current policy framework, culture, and legal considerations. When the City planners, Chelsea Dickens and Katie McDonald, attended class presentations in Week 8, Group 1 used the feedback to help narrow down the tools to focus on. In the short term, they recommended gap financing, the development of an affordable housing trust (created through linkage fees, condominium conversion fee, and construction excise tax), waiving system development charges for affordable housing projects (funded through the trust), and changing the definition of dwelling units to include those with shared facilities and smaller sizes. Long-term suggestions included a housing dispersal policy, ensuring the use of clear standards for permit approval, adopting inclusionary zoning, and introducing employer assisted housing.

Group 2, in their first set of interviews, found that thereIMG_0982 was an increasing gap between the average housing prices and average income in Redmond. Some of the barriers to affordable housing identified by participants included NIMBYism and social stigma from the public and within the city government, the development code, and the low return on investment. Tools such as gap financing, decreasing the service development charges, and rent subsidies were discussed. Surprisingly, homelessness was an issue affecting Redmond, which does not currently have a homeless shelter. Hidden homelessness, with couch surfing or sleeping in cars, is becoming more common, although the City planners did not necessarily want to acknowledge or address this issue in the Affordable Housing Plan. Group 2 recommended the use of the housing continuum model to understand how different types of housing are needed, and pressure on one type of housing puts pressure on other types. In this case, the lack of affordable rental housing forces people into ownership before they are ready (Redmond had a much higher than average rate of foreclosures post-2008) and into precarious housing situations like couch-surfing.

In both groups, the need for a regional approach to affordable housing was raised, since Redmond is located near other small cities in Central Oregon: Bend, Sisters, Prineville, and Madras. Group 1 recommended that Redmond and Bend collaborate on a Consolidated Plan to help them access funding from Housing and Urban Development, while Group 2 recommended that the city foster partnerships between the non-profit housing providers, developers, and the city. Lack of public participation was also a significant issue, with both groups recommending more extensive public participation and involvement in a new Affordable Housing Plan. An Affordable Housing Advisory Committee would be a good idea to bring together stakeholders with different perspectives. Better communication, such as explanations of the various tools available to developers to build affordable housing, could be encouraged on the city’s website–developers and other stakeholders need to understand the different types of housing that could be built and the need for them in Redmond. During this term, Oregon’s state legislature approved inclusionary zoning, which will allow cities and counties to require developers to include low-income housing in new developments. The students made use of this exciting new policy development in their recommendations.

Students presented their final reports to the City via teleconference during Week 10 of the term, and submitted their final reports (download the Group 1 Report here, and Group 2 here). As is their usual practice, the Sustainable Cities Initiative office has hired two of the students compile the reports into a single document for future reference.

One of the issues students struggled with was the social stigma associated with affordable housing, particularly the issue of temporary housing and homelessness, among City staff. It was also apparent that communication and collaboration were at very low levels in Redmond compared to Eugene and Springfield, where recent efforts have led to a regional consolidated plan and HUD funding to address affordable housing. From an instructor standpoint, the course had to be front-loaded somewhat, so that students started with research methods (content analysis of the Affordable Housing Plan in Week 2 and developing their research tools by Week 5), with the theoretical material delivered later in the term. This worked fine for the Masters students, but not as well for the undergrads for whom the housing issues and theories were new. And of course, the ten-week term is extremely challenging for project scoping and completion. Overall, though, the students adapted to these conditions and were able to produce excellent work, gain an understanding of the constraints of policy development and implementation, and make some contacts in the planning field.

When I received an offer from the University of Oregon to become a visiting assistant professor this fall, I decided to try and find out as much as possible about what it meant to be in this role. Although sessional, adjunct, and visiting professor positions have become much more common in recent years (in what some call the “adjunctification of academia“) I really couldn’t find many articles out there on what it was actually like to be a visiting prof, and those I did find were on the negative side.

I should preface this by saying that in community and regional planning, it is common for adjuncts teach many of our courses, as practical experience in planning is considered a major strength to bring to the teaching environment. We aren’t “ivory tower” academics in planning–for the most part, anyway. At UBC, where I did my Ph.D., courses such as cost benefit analysis, regional planning, and housing policy were routinely taught by planners working at local municipalities or in private practice. Often these were well-known planners like Ann McAfee, Larry Beasley, Mark Holland, and Michael Gordon. Although the Planning Accreditation Board sometimes frowns on the practice, the reality is that the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses of incorporating adjunct teaching into planning degrees. Here at the University of Oregon, non-tenure track faculty regularly teach courses such as land use planning, professional development, environmental impact assessment. They also lead the Sustainable City Year Program, Community Planning Workshop, and Oregon Leadership in Sustainability (OLIS) certificate, three hands-on opportunities for students to work on real projects with community partners. One of the reasons UO hired me was because I have a lot of practical experience, including consulting, working for non-profits, provincial and federal governments, and private practice.

This is not to discount the very real problem of universities taking advantage of young scholars, particularly since the Great Recession, but really since the mid-1980s, as full-time tenure-track positions have given way to part-time, temporary, adjunct positions. But, as planning is perhaps “more practical” than many other degrees out there, it means that our PhDs are often able to find jobs in government, non-profits, private practice, or in research organizations. I can think of two colleagues from UBC: one works at a very successful development firm and the other worked in government for several years and recently started a non-profit organization. It’s also very common to have years of work experience before starting a Ph.D. in planning. So we aren’t as hard pressed to shoehorn our academic skills into “real world” jobs if academia doesn’t provide us wtih opportunities, as I found when I attended meetings of the Versatile PhD in Toronto. Young people in PhD programs such as history, english, and sociology who were thinking about non-academic (or alt-ac) careers were having a particularly hard time transitioning from cv’s to resumes, research to practice, and scholarly work to client-based work. Even those in the hard sciences were facing a transition from lab work to industry professions.

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Getting used to the UOregon campus, this is me in front of the Dads’ Gates

Since I had a hard time trying to make the experiences of visiting profs in non-planning fields apply to my own situation, I’d like to describe what things are like so far. I think it’s important that other potential visiting profs out there know more about this option. First, it’s important to note that I am fully accepted as a member of the UO faculty, including attending faculty meetings, having an office where students can come during office hours, attending the annual faculty retreat and orientation for new Masters students. I’ve read other articles where the authors noted their peripheral status as a faculty member, but I’m happy to report that isn’t the case at UO, where I was whole-heartedly accepted and introduced to everyone from department staff to faculty in allied departments to students that I will be advising this year. Second, I’ve been given the opportunity to attend new faculty orientation, benefits orientation, and Canvas training (as the UO is switching from Blackboard to Canvas this year), all of which I’ve done in my first few weeks on campus. There are lots of other training opportunities through the Teaching and Learning Centre and the university library as well. Third, my colleagues have been exceptionally welcoming and excited about me becoming a part of their team for the coming year. They’ve helped get me used to the administrative structure of the department and university and answered lots of questions on teaching responsibilities, assignments, grading, and advising Masters students. The staff has also been exceptional in helping me adjust to life in PPPM (Planning, Public Policy and Management).

I am in a teaching-only position, as it only lasts from September to June, which doesn’t leave a lot of time to apply for/receive research funding. I am replacing two faculty members who are on sabbatical, and teach two courses per term for three terms. I have so far had ample time to plan the courses for the Fall term, which are familiar to me: a seminar in sustainable transportation and the masters research methods course on research design, very similar to the two courses I taught at the University of Amsterdam. The Winter term includes housing policy and an introduction to planning, which will require more work to prepare, and in the Spring term I will repeat the intro with a larger class (with TAs) and add land use planning as well. The schedule means that I start out easy (with courses I have taught before and smaller class sizes) and gradually need to put in more time (developing new courses and teaching larger classes), another clue that my fellow faculty members really thought about how to transition me into teaching this year.

The obvious downside is that I had to relocate from Toronto to Eugene, and an international move is not the easiest thing to do with just a couple of months notice. The administrative adjustment is not quick or easy, nor is finding an apartment and furnishing it for nine months–I was super lucky that a staff member in the department helped out with these tasks. Luckily, Eugene is a college town and everything from rental leases to internet service is based on nine-month contracts! There is also no guarantee that this position will lead to other positions in academia, tenure-track or otherwise. For those of you keeping track, I have been searching for a more permanent position in academia since 2010, but have been able to secure a two-year research gig, a ten-month government contract, and start up my own consulting practice in the meantime. I chose to see this gig as a nine-month contract similar to the one I recently completed in the provincial government in Ontario, and to accept the fact that the world is moving away from permanent employment and that there is a lot to be gained from learning new perspectives and teaching in a new context. Because UO’s focus is on integrating research and practice in sustainability, I will be able to take this experience into future teaching either as a tenure-track or adjunct professor. I’ve come to accept that in the future I’ll be doing some research, some writing, and some teaching–whether it’s as a consultant or as a tenure-track faculty member.

Classes start this week, and I’ll be updating you on how the term goes. But so far, this visiting prof gig is pretty sweet, and for those of you who are on the academic market, it may be a good option for you if you’re willing/able to relocate for a mere nine months, you are able to work in a supportive work environment and are well compensated. If you have small children or family to support in your current town, a partner with a location-dependent job, or if the salary you’re offered is not enough to compensate your relocation for a short term (e.g. for planners, it is less than you would make in a practical planning or consulting position in your own town), then you might want to forgo these types of opportunities. Also, if you have your heart set on a career in academia and can’t accept the fact that this type of position may not lead you there, you might want to skip it. There is no right or wrong path, only the one that makes the most sense for your life and situation.