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Community as Classroom: WSB Students Impact Real Estate Development Through UniverCity Alliance

By Clare Becker

January 23, 2018

For Wisconsin School of Business students participating in the UniverCity Alliance, the boundaries of their college experience extend well beyond the classroom or campus. True to the Wisconsin Idea, these students and the WSB faculty teaching them are having real-world impact in communities across the state involved in the UniverCity partnership with the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

A multiyear initiative, the campus-wide, cross-disciplinary program brings faculty, students, and community members together to help address key regional issues. After spending the 2016-2017 academic year in the city of Monona, the program partnered this year with Dane County, focusing on four project areas: closing the affordable housing gap, economic development, frequent users of county services, and water quality and nutrient management.

Jaime Luque
WSB Assistant Professor Jaime Luque

With expertise in real estate and affordable housing, WSB’s Jaime Luque, an assistant professor of real estate and urban land economics, and Thomas Landgraf, a senior lecturer in the department of real estate and urban land economics, have spearheaded the School’s participation in UniverCity. Luque led projects across Dane County this past fall while Landgraf facilitated work with students in the village of DeForest; Landgraf will focus on the city of Verona this spring.

Verona: Building analytical skills

In Verona, like in semesters past, UniverCity students will work with local stakeholders and housing authorities to design and conduct feasibility studies for critical affordable housing priorities. Students will examine possible sites for affordable housing units and assess potential services for client populations, working closely with developers to better understand issues of pricing and incentives. Some locales may be completely new developments, while others are redevelopments of what’s already in place.

Ron Cramer, senior instructional designer and learning technology consultant at WSB, says the process students go through in evaluating a site is an invaluable learning experience. Cramer works directly with the local housing authorities in the selection of potential sites and says not all of them are ideal—which is exactly the point.

“Some of these sites are not going to be great locations, but the purpose is to have students make that assessment and say, ‘Here’s why it’s not a great site, and here’s what you would need to do if you wanted to turn that around,’” Cramer says.

Students are essentially performing the role of a real estate developer, including presenting their analyses to local officials.

DeForest and Fitchburg: Housing for families

During the Fall 2017 semester in DeForest, students in Landgraf’s capstone course, Real Estate 611: Residential Property Development, gained hands-on experience in assessing spaces for single and multi-family dwellings.

Thomas Landgraf
WSB Senior Lecturer Thomas Landgraf

Luque’s students from both Real Estate 420 and the master’s level 720 Urban and Regional Economics courses worked in DeForest as well as 30 other sites across Dane County and presented projects to community stakeholders during the Big Event on Housing Affordability and Homelessness in Madison, a forum held at WSB in December 2017.

A five-member student team from Luque’s class was the winner during the Big Event forum. The group designed a Fitchburg-based community apartment development for victims of domestic violence and their families. The final proposal included access to resources such as education, transportation, medical care, and social outlets.

A benefit for students and communities alike

The UniverCity partnership makes a deep imprint on both students and communities. For students, the knowledge gained around real estate, public policy, and municipal government is a profound learning experience. Their interaction with city leaders and real estate developers makes classroom learning come to life, pairing well with an embedded focus on improving communication skills through the project’s written reports and public presentations.

Communities benefit through the focused opportunity to harness the university’s resources and community leaders are able to apply the students’ research and recommendations to address actual issues facing their residents. It’s a win-win partnership with effects that extend well beyond the year of formal collaboration.

Educating future generations

Another positive takeaway of the UniverCity program is that students start to see a career in affordable housing development as a viable option, says Suzanne Dove, assistant dean for academic innovations and a UniverCity Alliance advisory board member.

Cramer echos that notion, saying that he can see a pathway where students start in Luque’s course, go into greater depth with Landgraf’s course, continue with an internship in the field, and eventually connect with other projects and housing authorities who are looking for talented students. Together, they can “build out the solutions” to help close the affordable housing gap in Wisconsin.

“It’s about educating future generations of developers for affordable housing,” Cramer says. Video courtesy of UW–Madison UniverCity Alliance.