fredag 24 januari 2014

University Hills

Today we have been in the US and at University of California, Irvine (UCI) for exactly one week. It feels like a lot longer because so much has happened in such a short amount of time. I will use this blog post to write (and analyse) a few things I have noticed, that I think are interesting or that baffles me. I will more specifically write about University Hills, where we live, and about enrolling my kids in school. I might have misunderstood something, but the factual statements below are true to the best of my knowledge (for whatever it's worth).

University Hills
I didn't realise it beforehand, but the house we rent is not only located right next to the university, it is in fact located in a neighbourhood and on land that belongs to the university. This is truly exotic and almost bizarre to me because only professors and staff who work at the university are allowed to buy these houses. I'd never even heard of such an arrangement before we came here last week. If you live here and want to sell your house, you can only sell it to someone who works at the university. If you quit your job at the university, you have to sell your house (unless your partner still works there). There are apparently quite a few rules that regulate and limit the prices of the houses, but the university has basically created a separate, sheltered housing market of its own, with house prices that are perhaps half of what comparable houses in neighbouring areas cost. It costs less to buy a house here, but you will on the other hand not be able to profit from prices soaring in the local, southern Californian housing market.

You might ask "why"? Why create a separate housing market for university employes? One important reason is that Irvine (and neighbouring areas) are very affluent and the university has to make sure that it can attract and keep its personnel. That's not possible if a professor's salary isn't enough to pay for a nice house to live in relatively near to the university (and in a nice neighbourhood with good schools, regular pick-up of trash and so on). This still sounds pretty weird to me because if a university professor can't afford to buy a house, who can? Where do all the people who have jobs that earns them less money than university professors live? Apparently it was decided some decades ago that it was better for the university to own land and build houses than to raise university professors' salaries to compete with other successful professionals who also want to live in the area (including doctors, lawyers and indeed even some actors, sportsmen, pop stars and other celebrities). There might of course also have been other reasons, including social reasons, for building a professors-only neighbourhood.

University Hills is apparently a successful and attractive option for local professors (and university staff) because it is expanding - new houses are being built as I write this. Someone told me that half of the UCI faculty lives in University Hills! Can that be right - it sounds like a lot to me. The Wikipedia article on University Hills says there are 1180 houses here (and that the first houses were built 30 years ago) and University Hills is an "important recruiting tool" for the university. The house we rent here was among the first wave of houses being built and I know for a fact that the people we rent from have lived here for more than 20 years. The Wikipedia article on UCI says there are 1100 faculty members and 9000 staff at UCI. (Here are more detailed figures about the UCI workforce - but do all qualify to live here?)

The whole University Hills arrangement is pretty amazing to me. It means that a large part of the faculty work, live, have friends and large parts of their social networks within an area of just a few kilometers. I believe I live in something that can be compared to a premodern village where "everybody know everybody" - but where only university professors live. Or is this perhaps a ghetto for professors (good to keep them contained!?)? It's anyway very interesting to me since I read soo much about communities and virtual communities for my Ph.D. back in the 1990's. I have by now lived in University Hills for a week but still can't wrap my head around the concept. Or rather, I can't wrap my head around the implications of this (to me) alien arrangement.

Still, here are some observations this far. I would presume that the arrangement makes people stay at UCI for longer than at other, comparable universities. Moving elsewhere also means you loose not only your professional colleagues, but also some (or many) of your social contacts. I can imagine that it would be very difficult to move away if you've lived here for 10+ years (and have children who have grown up here). University Hills residents have started a website with lots of information as well as a sharing of experiences and tips about kids' activities, dentists, electricians and stuff happening in the community.

Most amazing to me is perhaps the University Hills-only (you have to have a local street address to join) mailing list I joined last weekend. I sent a short note asking if anyone had bikes to sell, borrow or give away to me and my family. Within one hour I had gotten no less than seven answers (!) and another equally large bunch of answers arrived in short order (within a day). What proved to be a bit more difficult was coordinating and find times to go look at the bikes (it took three days or so for us to have a set of four bicycles and I had to turn down several very generous offers).

There just are a lot of garages in the neighbourhood with a lot of bikes in them, and some people are happy just to get rid of their old bikes as long as someone else has use of them. Some want the bikes back when we leave and others just want to get rid of them. First prize in neighbourly friendliness goes to the one neighbour who wanted to give away a bike and a helmet since her son would have his birthday soon and has been promised a brand new bike by his grandfather. Not only were we offered to get the bike for free - we were also invited to the birthday party tomorrow (with a "reptile show" - whatever that exactly is)! I have a hard time imagining that would happen in Sweden, but then again we don't have a KTH Hills neighbourhood with "subsidised" houses right next to our campus. Is that perhaps something KTH should think about?

As to the University Hills distribution list, I am also fascinated by the "I-have-these-things-that-I-don't-need-any-longer-and-I'm-putting-them-on-the-sidewalk-outside-my-house-and-you-are-welcome-to-get-them" messages. Attractive stuff often disappear in no time at all in this "non-monetary economy" that runs on goodwill. It of course also runs on affluence - people here have a lot and can afford to give away stuff they don't use/want/need any longer. Beyond giving away things, people just as importantly also give away information and advice freely. My second message to the list was a request for local Swedish speakers to get in touch with us. We were especially interested in getting in touch with Swedish-speaking kids in the neighbourhood. People on the list forwarded our message to others not on the list and we managed to get in touch with a few Swedes (a Swedish family with two children, a Swedish guy who has a dog).

All in all, I can't praise this distribution list enough and I will for sure use it again, soon. One reason it works so well is of course because of the geographical vicinity of everyone to everyone else, as wells as the fact that a large degree of social control is present in such a small and close-knit community. You don't want to be known for being an a**hole among your friends, neighbours and professional colleagues. I'm sure there just has be some disadvantages too of living so close to your colleagues, but it's harder to see them as no one is forced to live in the neighbourhood (the existence of easily accessible escape hatches differs from the premodern village). You can always move elsewhere if you don't like it here. I of course write all of this with the caveat that we have only been in the US/California/Irvine/University Hills for one week at this point. I will most certainly have different understandings and more nuanced opinions half a year from now.

School is free in the US. There are no fees at all and that is a huge benefit for us. Enrolling the kids in school hasn't been hassle-free though - to say the least. We started working on this half a year ago and one of the hardest problems was to understand the steps that were involved in the opaque process of enrolling the kids in a school. Much energy has thus been spent on just understanding what is to be done when. We did all we could before we came to the US but quite some was still missing (which we of course didn't realise before we arrived). One especially frustrating battle (we lost) was with the Aeries Internet Registration system (for students new to the Irvine Unified School District). The system required us to submit a local telephone number as well as other information that we just didn't have access to before we arrived, and it wasn't possible to progress in the system without this information.

In hindsight I still have to say that the process has been quite smooth. Monday was a holiday so we turned up at school on Tuesday (we had warned them in advance). After completing a heavy load of paperwork, our kids were schedules for a language test two days later (Thursday). With the results of that test in our hands, the kids got a school placement already the same day and started in school (Turtle Rock Elementary) already the following day (Friday).

What we had not thought about though was the fact that while school is free, after-school programs and activities are very expensive. All of these programs are run by private companies or by the city of Irvine and they can easily cost 500 USD or more per child per month. That's a lot more than what we pay for state-subsidised preschool ("förskola") and after-school programs ("fritidshem") in Sweden. I payed 120 USD per month for preschool and 60 USD for the after-school program back in Sweden - and you can get that price reduced if you don't earn enough money... It has to be said thought that there are few "options"or "alternatives" to what you are offered in Sweden. It's more of a "take it or leave it"-situation and everyone to a fault takes it.

The activities that are offered in the after-school programs here seem to be a lot better structured and thought-through than what our kids get in Sweden though. Also, you can choose to enrol you child for five days per week, but equally well choose one or three days per week (with corresponding price cuts). Still, the question is if the difference in quality can justify the difference in price? Also, it's unfortunate that not all American children get access to these excellent programs. I guess this is the different between Sweden and the US in a nutshell; in Sweden everybody get access to the same good-enough "lagom" solutions, while Americans have access to an a la carte menu of almost infinite options that are great but expensive (so that many can't afford anything at all). If you have enough money, life is good here, but if you have less, it's bound to suck big time compared to Sweden.

All in all, we haven't figured out exactly what to do about after-school programs yet, but we for sure need some for our kids. Not the least since our youngest goes to kindergarten (which is only half-day and ends at 11.20). We surely need to extend our workday longer than than to 11.20 or not much will be accomplished during our six months long sabbatical here at UCI...

Here's an example of a message from the University Hills mailing list (March 2014):
We have a Bose Lifestyle 5 sound system available. ... The sound quality is very good, and it works great with Airplay. The $100 price includes friendly installation in your home by the Chair of the UCI Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department.

PS (140519). Here's an excellent newspaper article about University Hills, "UCI's tenure tract". The article states that 65% of UCI's 1100-plus faculty live in Uhills as well as some other staff (higher-paid administrators I would presume). 

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