British Columbia·Analysis

It takes a village: How UBC became Canada's largest community without a municipal government

"They want to have their autonomy, but at the same time they want to be connected to the region. That's the challenge in figuring this out."

People living in and around UBC elect one person for Metro Vancouver — and they don't have a say over land use

An aerial view of the UBC Point Grey campus shows many of the highrise residences on the campus and endowment lands. (Russ Heinl/CBC)

If you want to find the most unusual election in British Columbia this year, all you have to do is go to Vancouver's city hall and drive eight kilometres west. 

After you get past Blanca Street, you'll find commercial amenities, condos and mansions — and at the centre of it, a university with a $2.6 billion operating budget. 

On Oct. 20, the approximately 15,000 people who permanently live there, along with the 12,000 students that live in seasonal housing, can vote for school board and for one person on Metro Vancouver's regional board.

And that's it. 

"It's a confusing situation," said Justin LeBlanc, the only person running for regional director of Electoral Area A, which encompasses all areas of Metro Vancouver that don't have a municipal government. 

LeBlanc has lived in the area for 14 years but admitted he didn't know what to put as his municipality when registering with Elections B.C. 

"We have an urban environment but are unincorporated and have no municipal governance? It's not quite right."

Company town

To understand why UBC and the surrounding area is the most populated place in Canada without a directly elected government, one needs a bit of a history lesson. 

For decades, UBC was a relatively mid-sized, provincially-focused university, and there were only a few hundred homes west of Blanca: too small to be its own municipality and just far enough from Vancouver that amalgamation was never a pressing concern. 

While 11,000 permanent residents live on UBC property, the majority has no affiliation with the university.

But over the last 30 years, UBC literally built up its own community, selling land on 99-year leases — primarily market-based apartments to people without a direct connection to the university but whose money builds up UBC's endowment.

People who live on campus belong to the University Neighbourhoods Association, paying a services levy to UBC and a rural tax to the provincial government.

People who live between UBC and Blanca are part of the University Endowment Lands (UEL), and pay property taxes to the provincial government. 

While amalgamation or some form of political representation has sometimes been floated, it's never come to fruition: UBC understandably prefers the current setup. Permanent landowners are generally happy with the status quo they bought into, and most renters are students and leave before they become politically active. 

Which means today, Electoral Area A has a mishmash of different legal authorities and groups responsible for different services but no elected group linking everyone together. 

"I think that integration between the growth of UBC and the regional growth strategy needs to be a little more connected," said Metro Vancouver chair Greg Moore, who praised outgoing director Maria Harris as an effective liaison for community needs and concerns.  

"Does it have to happen through governance? Well, that's one way, but there's probably another way, informally, that UBC could work better as well." 

Review to come? 

Until 2010, UBC's land-use plans were overseen by Metro Vancouver, meaning people opposed to the university's development plans had a nearby local body they could appeal to.

The breakdown of where UBC has put its housing, nearly half of which are apartments taller than five storeys and 73 per cent of which are purchased at market rates. (UBC)

But then the provincial government passed legislation that prevented Metro Vancouver from having oversight. 

"I guess for residents at UBC in the area ... they get absolutely zero vote on deciding what members are there determining the future of land use planning for their community," said NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert during legislative debate.

At the time, the provincial government described the change in oversight as an interim situation.

Moore said the province never approached him about a formal governance review — but said it would be tough to reconcile UBC's desire for complete oversight of its lands with the compromises that come with regional transportation, growth and affordability strategies.   

"That's the rub, right? They want to have their autonomy, but, at the same time, they want to be connected to the region. That's the challenge in figuring this out."

In a statement, UBC said the current governance partnership is "effective" and "any desire for change would need to be based on strong community interest."

As for the provincial government, it did not make Municipal Affairs Minister Selina Robinson available for an interview, but said work was beginning for a formal governance review of the UEL. 

No governance review is planned for UBC at this time, in part due to its complexity, but the government said it "continues to monitor this governance arrangement and is always open to feedback from the community." 

For his part, LeBlanc looks forward to the challenge of being the only directly elected representative for such a large region — but hopes that he has company in the years to come. 

"I do think there's a democratic deficit. Neither [the UEL or UBC residents] really have true control over where they live." 

Read more from CBC British Columbia

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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