UBC housing expert digs for meaning in modern market

Profile: Tom Davidoff, director, Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia

| Rob Kruyt photo

Growing up in Brooklyn in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Tom Davidoff experienced all the things one might associate with the city at that time. The crime rate was high, and Davidoff’s family was held up at gunpoint shortly after moving to the area. He also got bottles thrown at him while walking to school through an Italian neighbourhood (Davidoff’s family is Jewish) and experienced first-hand the deep racial tensions that carved the city into ethnically regimented boroughs.

But in a family where both his parents were urban planners and heavily involved in politics – Davidoff’s mother worked for Elizabeth Holtzman's 1980 U.S. Senate campaign – it was New York’s budding economic clout that caught his attention more than anything else.

“Wall Street was taking off and so was Donald Trump, and Ed Koch was in the news,” said Davidoff, who is now director of the Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Sauder School of Business. With the headlines of the day dominated by the flashy real estate tycoon and the enigmatic mayor, who led a public-housing renewal drive, New York was a hothouse climate of influences.

“To put things into perspective, all the urban politics, the conflict, it was very there at that time,” he said.

Davidoff went to Hunter College, a public secondary school for the intellectually gifted, located in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He graduated in 1989 and entered Harvard University the same year. He said he initially thought about going into politics as his parents were very active in the scene – but he also wanted to be Howard Stern.

The notorious radio personality had just started working for WXRK in New York and was starting to garner national attention for his hilariously filthy on-air antics.

“I can remember running home after school to lie down to listen to Howard Stern,” he said. “I loved him, and he was very influential, and hysterical.”

Davidoff graduated from Harvard in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in social sciences, still uncertain about his career path. He did, however, take a job as a project manager for Forest City Ratner, a real estate development company based in Brooklyn. One of the main projects he worked on was trying to coax big-box retailers to set up shop in some of New York’s outer city boroughs, which were still dealing with a host of social issues.

Davidoff said there were blatantly racist tenant representatives in the neighbourhoods being considered for redevelopment who strongly resisted the arrival of new businesses and owners not identified with the same ethnic group.

“It was an incredibly interesting thing to work on,” he said. Davidoff worked with Bruce Ratner, the famous real estate developer who now has a minority stake in the Brooklyn Nets. “It was a fantastic team and I was beyond lucky to have the opportunity.”

Davidoff also got a first-hand lesson on life in the fast lane of real estate development and everything it encompasses.

“Before that, I thought politics was all about ‘Let’s think of ways we can be nice to each other,’” he said. “And it’s not. Fundraising was an issue with the politics of real estate development.”

After three years of working for Forest City Ratner, Davidoff still had the idea of becoming a politician. With that in mind, he headed back to school, enrolling in Princeton University’s master of arts program in 1996 to take urban and regional planning at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. It was here that Davidoff saw the crossover of economics and math. It was a defining moment in his academic life.

“Economics without math is at risk of not being taught very well,” he said. “[In] the intellectual part of the field, it helps to think about a lot of the problems mathematically. When they’re training undergraduates sometimes they try to protect people from doing too much math.” 

Davidoff noted one professor in particular as an influence – Robert D. Willig, who still teaches economics and public affairs at the school, and he remembers working on papers that he found interesting and applicable to the real world.

“I remember writing a paper about how there weren’t enough movie theatres in New York,” he said. “I was able to think through a mathematical model that was appropriate.”

He said the exposure to mathematical economics was transformative and still shapes his thinking to this day.

“You know how some people are exposed to Marxism as an undergrad and it’s like, ‘Oh my God,’ and it’s a bolt of lightning? Mathematical economics for me in grad school was like that.”

After graduating from Princeton in 1998, Davidoff headed straight to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to get his PhD in urban studies and planning. Here, too, data – not politics – drove his studies.

“It was about doing good economic analysis, not heavy-handed ideology.”

After graduating from MIT, Davidoff took a leap all the way to the West Coast, accepting a teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business as an assistant professor in 2002. Davidoff said leaving the East Coast was an eye-opener, both academically and geographically. When the economic downturn began in 2008, he suddenly found a heightened sense of interest in both economics and the housing market.

Davidoff, however, didn’t receive tenure at Berkeley, and he was soon on the job hunt. He said he first thought about staying in the San Francisco area, as his family – he has a wife and two kids – were settled there.

He said there is a very regimented job market in economics, in which you send out an example of your best academic work, called a job market paper, to different universities along with letters of recommendation, and then go through a long feeling-out process with multiple meetings both on and off campus. Davidoff said UBC had an excellent reputation for housing and economic studies, and he’d met a few of the professors before, including Tsur Somerville, a senior fellow in UBC’s Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate.

Davidoff said part of the reason he picked Vancouver was the calibre of the academics in the field here, many of whom he now counts as friends and has lunch with on an almost daily basis. Somerville said Davidoff’s intellect is unparalleled, even at one of Canada’s top universities.

“He’s thinking so much faster than everybody else, so we’re usually just struggling to keep up,” Somerville said, adding that Davidoff’s ability to break down complex economics issues carefully and communicate the ideas clearly is a benefit for students and the general public, given his regular appearances in the media commenting on Vancouver’s whirlwind housing industry.

“He’s really good at saying, ‘Here’s an issue – what does it actually mean in dollars and cents?’”

Now settled into the Vancouver lifestyle – Davidoff received his Canadian citizenship on the day Donald Trump was elected president – he has moved from North Vancouver to Kitsilano, which he enjoys much better. He noted his realtor had to fire him when he was looking for a place with his family, as he tends to overthink things. Davidoff added he hasn’t written off taking a flutter at his first love, politics.

“I gave it some thought this past year,” he said when asked if he’s ever considered running for elected office. “But I have a pretty good gig right now. I get to bike to work and if I’m not there right at 9 in the morning nobody cares.”