In an era of economic boom, the University of Calgary is finding itself in a dire situation. No, the university is not going to close its doors, but major repairs and renovations are needed on residence buildings--and five may be too far gone. The residence buildings are only a small portion of the estimated $360 million in deferred maintenance required around campus.
The university is also experiencing a housing crisis, much like the surrounding city. In Aug. 2007, 775 students found themselves on waiting lists for residence. Most of those were forced to find other sources of accommodation for the 2007-08 school year. As the campus expands, so does the need for affordable student housing. Currently, only 1,786 beds exist for the 24,141 students eligible to apply for residence.
The university is now paying for the lack of planning of previous builders, according to Student Services associate vice-provost Jim Dunsdon. Every building in the residence community requires repairs, but some of those buildings are in such disrepair that rehabilitation at this point might not be economically viable. Those buildings are the five that were erected in anticipation of the 1988 Winter Olympics: Norquay, Brewster and Castle Halls, completed in 1983, and Glacier and Olympus, completed in 1987. These buildings, as indicated by Morrison Hershfield Consultants, have a Facilities Condition Index rating of 49 per cent to 61 per cent, where anything over 40 per cent is poor. According to Alberta Infrastructure guidelines, "poor" is defined as a building that requires upgrades to comply with minimum codes and standards. Deterioration has reached the point where major repairs or replacements are needed. The report recommended these buildings receive major structural rehabilitation--or be replaced.
According to Dunsdon, some of the upgrades required in these buildings come with a price tag higher than the university can manage.
"They have heating and cooling systems that are going to need to be replaced," remarked Dunsdon. "The replacement of the [systems] would essentially require you to remove the drywall, replace all the piping and put the drywall back up. When you get into doing that the costs go through the roof."
In response to the MHC report, the University Residence Services have laid out a rehabilitation and renewal project aimed at tackling some of the major concerns. The project would cost approximately $20 million, and essentially deal with the major electrical, plumbing, and structural upgrades that are needed in the Family Housing complex, Kananaskis, Rundle and Cascade Halls. The plan also calls for the maintenance of Norquay, Brewster and Castle for the next four years, and of the Glacier and Olympus for the next eight years, followed by replacement of both. According to the report, buildings no more than 25 years old could face the wrecking ball before the calendar hits 2012. The removal of these buildings would only further exacerbate the problem of waiting lists for students seeking housing, as these five buildings combine to house 450 students. Still, Dunsdon was quick to maintain that living conditions in these buildings are perhaps not to the level students and administrators would like, but still acceptable. The real problem, he explained, is the lack of planning in the past.
"The state of our deferred maintenance problem in residence is unacceptable," said Dunsdon. "We haven't done the planning that we needed to do in order to make sure these buildings are around for a long time. The number that Morrison Hershfield gave us goes anywhere from $80-140 million in deferred maintenance."
When faced with staggering numbers like this, a rehabilitation project of $20 million is nowhere near the required amount in order to get residence back on track. Still, in the eyes of Residence Students' Association president Lance Stewart, it is a big step in the right direction. The $20 million is entirely self-financed by residence services, he explained. The university does not provide any funding for residence maintenance, and the provincial government has denied funding for student housing, according to Stewart. Therefore, the money for rehabilitation will be garnered from student rent, and residence services "squeezing."
Students currently living in residence have to contend with exceptionally high living expenses in Calgary and according to Students' Union vice-president external Mike Selnes, those costs are unacceptable.
"The costs are ridiculous," said Selnes. "We have to find a new business model for student housing. Without any provincial assistance, we can't assume anymore affordability."
The university is currently facing a three-headed problem: the living conditions and state of the buildings are not desirable, the cost of student housing is too high and the amount of beds available too low.
U of C president Harvey Weingarten announced in Oct. a plan to erect a new residence building that would accommodate 600 students. However, questions have been raised surrounding sources of funding for the new buildings.
"This is an extra $80-100 million building," said Stewart. "Where is this money going to come from? Residence services has no money in the first place, so if they are squeezing themselves dry to do a $15-20 million rehabilitation project, where are they going to find $80-100 million?"
According to Dunsdon, donations like the $25 million Ruth and Don Taylor gave in support of the digital library rarely find their way to residence projects. The provincial government does not provide funding for residence services and the university is facing a staggering amount of deferred maintenance costs, but have committed $150 million digital library, and the estimated $1.5 billion West Campus expansion.
The new International House is currently being built with completion scheduled for Dec. 2008. This new residence will provide approximately 160 new beds, but half will be dedicated to visiting scholars and students. Seventy to 80 beds will not address the needs of the waiting lists, a list that could exceed 1,000 as early as next year, according to Stewart.
Stewart went on to explain that the Calgary market as it is today is definitely not helping the problem; the costs of capital expansions in 2008 will likely be exceptionally higher than what they were in the past.
"A building that might have cost $40 million five years ago might now cost $80 million," said Stewart.
Solutions to these problems are not easily instituted. According to student leaders like Selnes and Stewart, a general change in policy by the provincial government, followed by a change in policy by the university needs to happen to obtain more funding for residence capital projects. For now, current and prospective residence students are left wondering where a great deal of required money will come from to avert the budding crisis.