University Hills: A Study in Faculty Living : Academia: Proximity to campus and low-cost homes lure UCI employees to this unique enclave.
Remembering the directions to John and Kathy King’s home in the hilly southern end of the UC Irvine campus is a bit like cramming for a history exam.
Drive past Blake (the English poet and painter), Curie (the husband-and-wife French physicists), Dickens (the English novelist) and Gibbs (the American mathematical physicist). Then hang a right at Harvey. You remember William Harvey: the British physician who discovered how blood circulates in the body.
Welcome to University Hills, the 100-acre academic enclave where the streets are named after famous scholars and each household shares one thing in common: At least one family member works at the university.
Take the Kings’ cul-de-sac.
Their neighbors include one of the world’s experts on attention deficit disorder, a psychologist who does brain research, an orthopedic surgeon, the head of the German department, and professors of social ecology, management and philosophy. Their next-door neighbor? He’s a low-temperature physicist.
Bordered on the west by an ecological preserve and backed by open land, University Hills is pure Southern California in look: mostly earth-tone stucco homes with red-tile roofs on quiet streets called courts.
It’s the kind of place where everyone seems to know everyone else and people feel safe taking an evening stroll. You never know who you might run into.
Former UCI Chancellor Jack Peltason, now UC president and living in the Bay Area, still owns a home in University Hills. And Thomas Keneally, the Australian author of “Schindler’s List,” who was hired as a distinguished professor of English and comparative literature in 1992, rents a three-bedroom house there.
“If you look at it, it looks like the sort of ideal American suburb in which Steven Spielberg shoots some of his stuff,” said Keneally, an inveterate traveler who lives in University Hills not only for its proximity to campus but to John Wayne Airport.
“It seems quiet on the surface, but when you go to parties at people’s homes you find there’s a ferment of all sorts of concepts from various disciplines--science stuff and social theory.”
Indeed, where else could someone go to a party and meet, as Keneally did, the great French philosopher and deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, who spends five weeks a year teaching at UCI?
Here, at what local wags call Nerd Hill, Keneally finds the cocktail party chit-chat “transcends” the normal suburban banter. “Lawn mowers and automobiles get their mention as well, but there are some remarkable people up there and that makes it an interesting place to live.”
Created a decade ago to lure prospective out-of-state faculty members, who would take one look at Orange County’s high-priced housing market and turn heels, University Hills offers homes that are substantially below the cost of comparable houses nearby.
Today, about 1,800 people make their home in University Hills and, although university recruitment has fallen off dramatically in recent years, about 100 faculty and staff members already working at UCI have their names on waiting lists for both attached and detached homes.
The Kings moved to University Hills from their longtime home in Santa Ana six years ago, in part because of the opportunity to build on one of the 13 custom lots then available.
“But the main attraction to us, honestly, was to be able to live close to work,” said Kathy King, whose husband is a professor with a joint appointment in information and computer science and management. “John’s office is a 10-minute walk or a two-minute bicycle ride.”
The idea of providing faculty housing dates back to 1960, when renowned architect William Pereira drew up the original master plan for UCI. But it wasn’t until the early ‘80s, when UCI was undergoing record growth and competing nationally for faculty, that the concept made it off the drawing board.
At the time, UCI was recruiting 60 faculty members a year.
“Many prospective faculty members would come out and say they’d love to come to UCI, but they can’t afford the homes in Orange County,” said Leon Schwartz, president of the Irvine Campus Housing Authority. “We heard that often, particularly at the assistant professor level.”
James Nowick, an assistant professor of chemistry, says being able to buy a home in University Hills was a factor in his coming to UCI from MIT three years ago. Having rented an apartment in Cambridge, Mass., for $1,200 a month, however, he was used to high-cost housing.
“Cambridge, New York and Southern California are among the most expensive places in the country,” he said. “But if I were coming from Wisconsin, Minnesota or even Chicago, I would look at Southern California and have complete sticker shock.
“I think many faculty would not be able to purchase (a home) and would be driven away by the high cost of real estate.”
Currently, the approximately 223 condominiums in University Hills sell from $95,000 to $300,000 and the 275 detached homes go for $150,000 to $350,000.
Those prices are at least 25% below market within a five-mile radius of campus, Schwartz says. Beyond five miles it gets a little closer in price, he says, “but you’ve got a 50-minute drive to get here.”
(University Hills also offers 100 one-to-three bedroom rental units for $600 to $900 a month, which is slightly below the cost of off-campus apartments.)
The primary reason the houses and condos can be sold far below market value is simple: The cost does not include the land.
Homeowners pay a ground rental fee to the Irvine Campus Housing Authority (ICHA) and share a portion of the appreciation with ICHA when they sell, Schwartz says. “But when they decide to move, they not only do not have to pay a brokerage fee, they also have a ready buyer in the university.” (New recruits go to the top of the waiting list and when necessary ICHA will buy and hold the home until the recruit arrives.)
There is nothing like University Hills in Orange County, Schwartz says.
In fact, he said, “we are relatively unique across the country. A couple of other universities are trying to emulate this, but it’s been difficult to do,” due to factors such as the need to have available land and cooperation between city and university planners.
Schwartz says Stanford University “has more homes on their campus than we do, but we were created a lot later than Stanford and we learned from some of their mistakes.”
Stanford, he says, had no resale controls and “the people who moved in initially found the value of their homes quickly approached the value of homes in Palo Alto. We tried to always maintain an affordable base.”
Three factors control the resale of homes in University Hills: the cost of living, increase in university salaries and the increase in construction costs. Based on the highest of those three factors, someone who bought a home in University Hills four years ago for $200,000, could sell it today for a maximum of $232,000. But, as Schwartz says, depending on which ground rent plan was selected when the house was bought, the seller would have to share part of that appreciation with ICHA.
Residents can live in University Hills as long as one member of the household is working at UCI. But those who retire from UCI can continue living there and when that person dies, the surviving spouse can remain.
The guidelines, however, sometimes lead to sticky situations. When one professor underwent a divorce, his ex-wife refused to leave their house. One year and one trip to court later, they both agreed to move.
Then there’s the question of “domestic partners,” or what Nowick calls “a sour note to this recruitment issue.”
Offering housing “is a very powerful tool for recruiting and hiring new faculty,” Nowick said. But because he and his partner are not married, Nowick says his partner would not be able to continue living in their home when Nowick dies.
“I don’t see this as a major problem because I’m a young person,” he said, “but nevertheless it’s an inequity and something that’s getting discussed at the chancellor’s level with the goal of rectifying the inequity.”
For University Hills residents who continue working at UCI, Schwartz has trouble recalling any who have simply picked up and moved. The community is especially children-friendly.
Lesley Danziger, whose husband, Jim, is a political science professor at UCI, says they moved to University Hills from Laguna Beach four years ago to cut down on their commute to work in order to spend more time with their children.
“University Hills is a highly concentrated family community and it’s easy for kids to get together with other children,” said Lesley Danziger, who teaches English at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.
Before they made the move, the Danzigers gave some thought to what many newcomers may consider the negative aspects of living in a so-called “company town.” But, she says, they quickly discovered the actual diversity of University Hills outweighs its homogeneity.
Not only are a broad range of departments represented on her street, Danziger says, but she was most surprised to find it to be so multicultural.
“On our street alone there are at least 20 different cultures represented--Ethiopian, Chinese, Iranian, Italian, Japanese, Armenian, English--so the cultural diversity is immense,” she said.
For Kathy King, the biggest advantage to living in University Hills “is just being able to be part of the university community, to be physically located within the university community and be able to avail yourself to all that’s available here--the library, theaters, fine arts programs, the campus bookstore.”
But there’s another fringe benefit to living here. Classified ads in the community newsletter that King co-edits reflect the varied expertise that’s available--everything from music lessons to foreign language instruction.
“That’s one thing that might make our community unique,” said King, “because it’s all right here. My kids and I take piano lessons from a teacher two streets away. We have other friends whose kids take chess from one person in the neighborhood and tennis lessons from somebody else.”
Of course, living in an academic enclave is not for everyone.
Veteran UCI physics professor Gregory Benford, for one, knows dozens of colleagues who live in University Hills, but he chooses not to.
“There’s the company town syndrome,” said Benford, a longtime resident of Laguna Beach, which has a sizable UCI contingent. “UC should reach out to a broad cross-section (of people) and I think in Laguna . . . you’re closer to the sensibilities of common citizens and so I prefer it.”
He said, however, that “if I didn’t live in Laguna I would live in University Hills.” The reason? “First, friends. And then convenience. The flip side is you never get away. I think many physicists--particularly experimenters--live on campus so they can work at odd hours.”
Nowick sees proof of that.
One of his chemistry department colleagues who lives in University Hills is “in all night long,” he said. Another one “is here all the time” and yet another returns to campus at 9 p.m. when Nowick is finally calling it quits.
Nowick has been known to bicycle down to his office at midnight to put the finishing touches on his lecture for the next day--something he wouldn’t do if he lived far from campus.
“I guess you could say in a way the university is getting more from their faculty by doing this.”