Hot Spot: Oxford Tract

UC Berkeley is located in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. The East Bay has seen rapid growth in rent levels since 2010, particularly with growth of the Bay Area tech and biotech industries. At the same time, yearly in-state undergraduate tuition and fees have increased from $8,383 in 2007 to $17,000 in 2018. According to new campus figures, about 96% of first year undergraduates live in university housing, but overall, only 25% of undergraduates do so. Most students must enter the private housing market, and therefore are in a parlous predicament of being squeezed between high, and ever-growing, housing, food, and campus expenses. Lower-paid staff, especially food service workers, lecturers, postdoctoral fellows, and new assistant professors in the social sciences and humanities, also confront harsh housing affordability conditions. A rapidly expanding student population, as the university becomes more accessible to California’s diverse people, has contributed to the competition for housing in close proximity to campus.

It was not until the past few years that UC Berkeley began to look more systematically into expanding student housing options in real earnest. The University is one of the largest landowners in the City of Berkeley, holding numerous properties around campus in addition to its Central and Clark Kerr campuses (alongside the University Village in Albany and the Richmond Field Station). There is potential for redevelopment of multiple vacant lots, car park structures, and buildings no longer in use (e.g., the old UC Press and former Berkeley Art Museum buildings). Indeed, one positive step has been toward building the new David Blackwell Hall on Bancroft Street—named for Berkeley’s first tenured black professor— which is set to open in August 2018. Nonetheless, the university has lagged behind in providing affordable housing to its students, compared to other UC campuses. 

This search for housing development has brought into view a deep challenge: must new student housing necessarily displace or weaken UC Berkeley’s food and agriculture research and educational facilities?

Oxford Tract Greenhouse
Oxford Tract Greenhouse

In January 2017, the UC Berkeley Housing Master Plan Task Force identified the Oxford Tract Research Facility as a site of high priority for development of new student housing. It projected that 1000-3000 beds could be provided through traditional high-rise dormitory towers. It noted: “Existing academic research will need to be relocated. Food service operation will need to be included, as well as other uses that will need to be studied further (such as parking, retail, student support areas, etc.)” Eight other possible sites were identified, but it is clear that Oxford Tract is viewed as offering a particularly large scope for redevelopment. In Summer 2016, then Interim Executive Vice Chancellor Carol Christ formed the Oxford Tract Planning Committee (OTPC) to appraise the costs and benefits of reconfiguring and/or relocating the current functions of the Oxford Tract. 

The OTPC released a report on February 1, 2018 with recommendations as to the next steps for evaluating the impact on College of Natural Resources research, teaching, and outreach if the Oxford Tract were indeed to become a site for student housing. It presented two options for trying to integrate some facilities with student housing, and suggested that more research be done on possible configurations as well as on other places that the facilities could be moved to. In any redevelopment scenario, Oxford Tract would shrink greatly, and at least some of the facilities would still need to be moved.

Student Organic Garden
Student Organic Garden

The report did not include a formal economic analysis. It did explain that Oxford Tract is used intensively for research and teaching relating to agriculture, plant biology, and biofuels, precisely because it is so close to campus. Its use fulfils CNR’s land-grant mission, dating back to the founding of the university in 1868. Oxford Tract includes three greenhouses, plant growth chambers, an insectary, laboratories, a quarantine facility, and 1.5 acres of farmland for field experiments. If the Oxford Tract facilities were to be moved elsewhere, students, staff, and faculty would have to travel much further to other sites. This could impede research experiments, field laboratory sessions, and teaching. At least five courses and three DeCals use the farmland for their class activities. Over 40 professors, more than 200 researchers, and hundreds of students would be affected. The facilities would need to be rebuilt elsewhere, at a cost that has not yet been determined. The Oxford Tract area is also home to the Student Organic Garden, which has existed since 1971 and has served as an extremely valuable site for many generations of students to learn hands-on skills in agriculture.

Supplementing the OTCP study, the work of Environmental Economics and Policy undergraduate and Haas Scholar Allegra Saggese proposes that the context of climate change and non-monetary values must be considered in analyzing current and future uses of the Oxford Tract site.

The Long Run Effectiveness of Social Cost-Benefit as a Policy Tool: Evaluating the Oxford Tract Proposal in an Ecological and Environmental Economics Framework

By Allegra Saggese, Environmental Economics and Policy 

Introduction

Cost-benefit Analysis (CBA) is a common  economic modeling tool designed to aid policymakers by weighing costs and benefits to social welfare of a proposed policy. UC Berkeley is considering development of multiple sites for student housing, including the Oxford Tract Research Facility (OTFR). If conducted, a CBA could provide economic insight into the impacts of development of OTFR as an economic analysis was tasked by the OTFR Planning Committee in Spring 2017. But in the context of climate change, uncertainty in valuation methods leads to inaccurate estimations of future costs and benefits of a project. How do we make technical recommendations which include methods to capture long run risks and uncertainty associated with increasing scarcity of resources? How is this best applied?

Oxford Tract view

Methodology

Financial and welfare data was collected from UC Berkeley’s annual budget, funding and recharge costs to estimate operating expenses. Social and welfare estimations were pulled from previous literature that analyzed returns to public research on agricultural productivity. To conduct the CBA, a discount rate of 6.1% was chosen, as it is the expected rate of return on long term US debt assets, the most secure and most invested in debt financing option of the university. Time was chosen based on UC Berkeley accounting principles of longevity of assets. A literature review performed from studies in welfare, environmental, and public economics was conducted for history and current debates in the methodology under climate change scenarios. Documents relating to the University’s political strategic goals regarding housing and environmental goals were used to design the parameters of the cost benefit analysis.

Results

The results of my work are a production of the sociopolitical mapping of the stakeholders involved in this decision-making which mapped both the referent group and structure of institutional goals under the Office of the President. Committees served as the main functional bodies which engage in the question of evaluating the OTFR for its functions. OTFR itself consists of agricultural research labs, greenhouses, growing fields, a bee garden, and 1 acre garden. When evaluated under a traditional CBA framework, development of land for student usage yields a higher Net Present Value (NPV) estimate and would lead policymakers to select Policy Scenario 2. Despite this result, upon conducting an overview of CBA literature from environmental and ecological economic perspectives, this methodology operates within a framework that cannot capture volatility in environmental assets or a low growth assumption that yields different intergenerational consumption preferences.

Oxford Tract Cost Benefits AnalysisOxford Tract Cost Benefits Analysis

While both policy scenarios presently provide returns on investment, many factors were not considered in CBA and these limitations should be addressed with further recommendations as outlined in conclusions. Transportation costs, increased emissions, light and noise pollution, and destruction of native bee garden are environmental factors that were not evaluated under social welfare. Calculated separately with the Stern discount rate, Benefits to Cost Ratio is lower for both policy scenarios, demonstrating less deference of future costs but still does not fully capture qualitative and environmental concerns. To avoid making policy decisions under assumptions that do not accurately reflect future scenarios under climate change impacts, CBA needs to be more sensitive to institutional and social contexts of decision making.

An alternative CBA, considering principles of ecological   economics and environmental economics would include the   constraints of natural resources as a primary assumption in the model – restricting reliance on   growth and altering the discounting methodology. This can be done in tandem with a steady state or de-growth model, that demands a constant capital stock, almost identical returns on future consumption, and increasing values of environmental goods   and costs of environmental pollutants.

Conclusions

While both policies result in positive NPV, Policy 2 yields a higher NPV due to revenue generating. But, methods used to derive this estimate fail to account for an increasing demand for agriculture research/education given climate change’s impact on agriculture production, increased future costs of pollution, social and institutional goals of waste reduction, food system development, and environmental protection.

Alternative solutions must be considered when evaluating assets that are directly linked to the valuation of future consumption of natural resources given uncertainty in the context of climate change. This uncertainty creates volatility in our pricing of goods and services, especially those related to natural resources. All neoclassical methodological approaches to CBA hold paradoxical assumptions in climate change models and their demands on social preferences and costs of goods and services. CBA performs necessary economic analysis, but needs to be constrained by growing scarcity of natural resources, increasing value of said resources, and increasing variability in value given changes in future societal preferences.

Policy Recommendations:

  • Make land use decisions which reflect the goals of the University of California Zero Waste by 2020 and the UC Global Food Initiative, which include but are not limited to “us[ing] the power of UC research and extension to help individuals and communities access safe, affordable, and nutritious food while sustaining our natural resources.”
  • Account for UC Berkeley’s role as a public sector entity that is obliged to ‘optimize’ California’s public welfare, by considering both the larger context of food and agriculture and the housing to be provided for students. Ask how much social benefit Californians receive through market relief of housing students on campus instead of private rentals, and how much social benefit Californians receive from the public research, teaching, and innovation occurring at Oxford Tract.
  • Engage students, faculty, and community members in expanding cost-benefit models to include more advanced and progressive metrics that use ecological economics premises, include a much broader range of costs and benefits, move away from just relying on readily monetized measures, and properly assess the issues according to the needs of of generations of students and Californians over the next few decades.
  • Investigate other viable student housing sites before any decision to use Oxford Tract or other Berkeley-owned agricultural lands, with priority being given to options that would provide affordable housing for low-income students, meaning below market-rate.  
  • Any prospective alternative field research sites require expert assessment with regard to requirements for instructional and research purposes. This calls for expanding input into evaluation beyond the current emphasis on administrator, financial, and real estate advice. Many on-campus organizations and researchers can provide this expertise, including: the College of Environmental Design’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation; College of Environmental Design’s Institute for Urban and Regional Development; the College of Natural Resources many ecological, agricultural economics, and social science experts, including those with the Energy and Resources Group; and the Center for Business, Law, and the Economy at Berkeley Law.
  • Undergo a transparent and inclusive decision-making process in addressing the campus housing crisis.. Increase engagement in campus decision-making through progressive strategies such as participatory budgeting, outreach to the City of Berkeley and to the campus community, and distributive weighting toward the needs of affected faculty, students, and researchers at the Oxford Tract.
  • Work toward strengthening UC Berkeley’s field/garden, scientific infrastructure, and teaching facilities as part of a concerted campus-wide strategy to make the university a world-leading place of sustainable agriculture and food innovation. This is not incompatible with rapidly increasing affordable student housing: UC Berkeley can lead the way in showing we can have both better housing and better urban food systems, and thus rethink the prevailing paradigm of urban development.