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UC Irvine’s price-controlled community a prized perk for campus bigwigs

In many ways, it’s just another neighborhood campout in the park: Folks pitching tents, unfurling sleeping bags, singing along to “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” as “Encanto” plays on the outdoor movie screen. But you might also hear the physicists debating how fast the universe is expanding. Or the surgeons recounting the complexities of yesterday’s organ transplants. Or the economists arguing over inflation and interest rate hikes.

Yes, it looks like the typical Irvine neighborhood — exceptionally tidy, homes in every shade of beige, shocks of hot pink bougainvillea — but it’s not. This is University Hills, part of the UC Irvine campus, where every homeowner and renter must be on faculty or an important manager/employee. Figure at least one person in most every home can put a “Dr.” before his or her name.

Hundreds of UCI faculty and staffers have their noses pressed up against the proverbial windowpane here, eager to get into University Hills because homes here rent and sell for dramatically less than they do on the open market.

By design, there’s no income cap on who can buy or rent, meaning that faculty who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year are eligible (and perhaps favored).

Most UCs have some way to ease the sticker shock of California real estate for faculty and workers they long to lure. UCLA helps with loans. UC Riverside leases campus-owned housing. UC San Diego offers help with loans and campus rentals.

But UCI, with this singular “academic community in residence,” offers 1,226 for-sale homes and 384 apartments on more than 300 acres of university land. It’s the largest on-campus, for-sale workforce housing community in the nation, university officials say.

The community is back in the news thanks to U.S. Rep. Katie Porter, who taught at UCI’s law school before heading to Congress and is currently on unpaid leave from her $258,000-a-year post. She retains her below-market-priced University Hills home, though the community is meant to be the primary residence for faculty and staff. Porter’s critics attack her as a “socialist” who crusades for the little guy while taking advantage of the system for herself.

There’s a provision in the University Hills rulebook, however, allowing folks to keep their homes if they’re off doing public service work, university officials said. And if serving in Congress isn’t public service work, they don’t know what is. Despite the shortage of campus housing, the Irvine Faculty Association also supports Porter, saying she “has been a regular presence in the community and continues to be a valuable colleague, neighbor and friend to her fellow residents.”

If Porter doesn’t win in November, she’ll return to teaching at UCI, she said. But she plans to win, and what will happen with her home if she’s victorious remains to be seen. Her neighbors in Washington, D.C., though, couldn’t have much on her neighbors back home.

Superpowers

“Each of the scholars or the residents who live in University Hills has a superpower,” said Ken Chew, now a retired urban planning professor, in a short documentary on the community.

“On my street, I have a person who’s a time traveler — she can get into the minds of 19th century Frenchmen and travel and see with their eyes. I live next door to a numericist who can do all sorts of wonderful things — magic if you will — with numbers. I live next to someone else who can control super-hot flames. There are all sorts of people with unusual superpowers.”

Perhaps the community’s collective superpower is its ability to rein in California’s crazy housing prices.

A 12-foot tall barn owl box in the University Hills neighborhood  in August. The HOOT Group (Help Our Owls Thrive) designed the boxes to attract owls to help lower the rat population. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Consider this home on McClintock Court. It has 5 bedrooms, 3.5 bathrooms, more than 2,500 square feet of living space on a 5,240-square-foot lot (land that’s owned, importantly, by the university, but more on that in a minute). Redfin pegs the value of a home like this at about $2 million; this one originally sold for some $400,000 two decades ago and is taxed today on a value of $600,000, according to county assessor’s records.

Former UCI provost Michael Gottfredson moved into that house in 2002, kept it when he took unpaid leave to become president of the University of Oregon from 2012-14, and then returned to UCI to rejoin the faculty. Like many folks in University Hills, Gottfredson wasn’t exactly hurting for money: UCI paid him $257,400 in 2020, not counting benefits, and he left the University of Oregon with a severance package approaching $1 million, according to records from the state controller, Transparent California and the Chronicle of Higher Education. His wife was a UCI employee, too.

Others shielded from the whims of the housing market — including, importantly, the ability to cash in on crazy gains — earn even more than Gottfredson.

There’s Diane O’Dowd, vice provost and professor of development and cell biology, who earned $304,563 and serves on the volunteer board that oversees University Hills, according to IRS filings from the Irvine Campus Housing Authority, the nonprofit created to build and run the community. (O’Dowd started in 1989 as an assistant professor, spent a few years on the waitlist and purchased her current home in 1996 as a newly tenured professor, making less than $100,000 in salary, officials said).

Also on the board is Tyrus Miller (humanities dean, $285,799), and University Park homeowners include basketball coach Russell Turner ($609,398) and many others who earn rather handsome livings, according to property and pay records.

This should not be a shock.

Come here!

University Hills was conceived in the early 1980s as a tool to attract and retain stellar faculty and staff for UCI, not to provide affordable housing to the needy.

While some question the fairness of this — one might also raise an eyebrow about how Gottfredson kept his home while going off to work for the University of Oregon, but high-level faculty and administrators can retain faculty status for up to five years after leaving, officials said — there’s another wrinkle that has emerged over time: How to handle the aging of University Hills.

When faculty and staffers retire, they can keep their homes for the rest of their lives. Surviving spouses can stay, too. And folks are living longer than they were 40 years ago, when University Hills was conceived.

Some carp that it’s becoming a retirement community, forcing active faculty to wait for a place to live on a sometimes-macabre watch for homes to return to for-sale stock.

And just because you’ve been in line the longest, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re next when one becomes available. If the university really wants to attract some new star to UCI, it can employ the University Hills priority list.

Here’s the official pecking order: Newly recruited members of the Academic Senate and the senior management group; current members of the Academic Senate and the senior management group; newly recruited members of the university’s non-Senate academic staff and management and senior professional group (i.e., clinical and adjunct professors, lecturers, post-doctoral and professional researchers, specialists and librarians); current academic staff and management and senior professionals; and other university staff.

As it stands, nearly one of every five homes in University Hills — 18% — belongs to a retired faculty member or staffer, officials said.

An entrance to University Hills at the corner of California Avenue and Anteater Drive in Irvine, CA, on Monday, October 3, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
An entrance to University Hills at the corner of California Avenue and Anteater Drive in Irvine. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Moving in, moving out

One certainly doesn’t want to toss an emeritus professor out of the home he or she has lived in for decades.

But, of the 1,226 homes that can be sold in University Hills, only about 30 come up for sale in an average year. Of the 384 apartments, about 150 open up for rent in an average year.

“Over the years….we’ve talked about ways of providing incentives for people who are retired to move out of the big homes, and the thought comes up every few years, how about a very high-quality, high-density option for people who don’t need the big house anymore?” said Joseph DiMento, a law professor who was on the nonprofit board in the 1980s and 1990s, in the University Hills documentary.

“That hasn’t been realized.”

It’s certainly not an issue unique to UCI. Officials are heading to NYU soon to examine its ideas as it grapples with one of America’s toughest housing markets.

“The university has two key goals: To create new human knowledge and to transmit that into the classroom,” said Victor Van Zandt, the CEO and president of the Irvine Campus Housing Authority, the nonprofit that runs University Hills.

“Here, when people retire, they are emeriti. They’re still involved in research, committees, other parts of campus life. They’re still giving back. Orange County gets the benefit. It’s the multiplier effect.”

But, clearly, there are not enough homes for all the folks who might want one. There are 1,551 “ladder-rank” faculty, 6,490 campus staffers and 6,335 medical center staffers, for a total of nearly 19,000 UCI employees (not counting more than 6,000 student employees), according to university figures.

There are plans for more building: A vintage set of about 100 apartments is set for tear-down this fall, and more than 200 new units will replace them. Will high-rise, high-density developments eventually replace stretches of single-family homes, a trend seen elsewhere in Irvine?

Time will tell.

University Hills at UC Irvine in Irvine, CA, on Monday, October 3, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
University Hills at UC Irvine. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The landlord

The idea of campus housing for faculty was part of UCI’s grand plan since it was founded in the 1960s. By the time the 1980s rolled around, it was clear that the high cost of housing was becoming a major issue in drawing people here.

“Clearly, the university wants to recruit outstanding faculty, but it didn’t want to be the landlord,” said CEO Van Zandt. And so the nonprofit Irvine Campus Housing Authority was born.

The nonprofit was charged with planning, building and maintaining the community. It leases the land from the regents and essentially sub-leases it to homeowners, charging them “ground rent” for its use. That’s an important detail: While faculty and staffers own the homes in University Hills, they don’t own the land beneath those homes. The lease is for 99 years, which is up in 2082, though smart money is on it being extended.

When it’s time for homes to change hands, there are rules for who can buy (essentially, staff or faculty) and how much the homes can sell for (essentially, not a whole lot more than was originally paid).

Aerial view of campus, 1968. Early Campus Photograph Albums, UC Irvine, Libraries, University Archives.Source: Calisphere Permalink: https://calisphere.org/item/ark:/81235/d8rr70/
Aerial view of campus, 1968. Early Campus Photograph Albums, UC Irvine, Libraries, University Archives. Source: Calisphere Permalink: https://calisphere.org/item/ark:/81235/d8rr70/

Officials say University Hills has been an important part of UCI’s success, removing an obstacle to recruitment. Now ranked among the top 10 public universities in the nation, three faculty members, one post-doctoral scholar and one alumnus have received the Nobel Prize.

But it’s still Irvine. The Monday Night Football group rotated from house to house back in the early 1990s, then-financial aid czar Otto Reyer recalled in the documentary — but everyone would inevitably wind up in the yard talking while the game played to an empty living room. He remembers then-Chancellor Jack Peltason holding court during the contentious Clarence Thomas hearings, explaining what it all meant in relation to the U.S. Constitution.

“You felt like you were in a classroom with the expert that could give you all the answers,” Reyer said with awe.

And it can be an exceptionally warm community, said Zack Nelson, who has served as a homeowners representative.

His family’s moving truck had been delayed. They faced a barren, empty apartment. Within hours of posting that on the community listserv, neighbors snapped to action, offering air mattresses and card tables, pots and pans, even food and toys for the kids.

“That just blew me away,” he said in the documentary. “I challenge people to find a community, a development, where people think as much in the interest of the actual community as they do here. I can’t wait to see the next 30, 35 years. It’s going to be great.”

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