Renters of Vancouver: “I was a single mom with two kids, and I didn’t want to hide in a basement”

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      “Renters of Vancouver” takes an intimate look at how the city's millennials are dealing with the housing crisis.

      “The story begins when his dad left us. I had two boys—a four year old and a one-and-a-half year old—and I was living under the poverty line. I was a single mom with two kids, and I didn’t want to hide in a basement somewhere.

      I decided to rent out a big house and open it up to other tenants, and invite as many people as possible to stay for free as well. It was a way of creating a better quality of life for my kids, and of making connections—because the most important thing in life is connections.

      Now we’ve been sharing our houses for 25 years, and we’ve had well over 500 people live with us.

      We belonged to the precursor to Couchsurfing, called Servas. It started a long time before the internet. The guy that invented it wanted to know how we can promote peace, and his idea was that we needed to invite strangers across our thresholds with complete trust. We took that philosophy to heart, and we’ve hosted hundreds of people from around the world.

      Now individuals come to us from Couchsurfing, Servas, and GlobalFreeloaders. They stay for two to four days, and they don’t pay anything. We welcome them into our house and our family. We don’t just offer a bed—for us, staying in our home is about conversations, and understanding who people are and what their culture is.

      We’d also take in ESL students, predominantly Asian or Brazilian, and they’d stay for up to 18 months. One of them, Sean from Taiwan, liked it so much that he kept extending his schooling. Another time, a woman from Japan wanted to get married in Vancouver, and we were her Canadian parents. After she set a date, we organized everything, including where she could stay and have her reception. I was even the person who conducted the ceremony.

      We’d also have people we found on Craigslist—mainly those in their 20’s and 30’s—with international visas. We love meeting visa travellers, because they’re really interested in finding out new things about the city. During the Olympics, for example, we happened to have two people from Japan, and one from the Czech Republic. We put a Czech flag on one cheek and a Japanese flag on the other, and went to a Czech v Japan sledge hockey game.

      I never paid attention to who was or wasn’t paying rent. I know people who take in students and keep a really close eye on things like not giving them a particular kind of cheese, because it costs slightly more. I never cared about that. I just wanted quality and connection. Whoever stayed with us was part of our family.

      We’ve had everyone from elephant trainers to ornithologists. There was one Thanksgiving dinner where we had a person from nearly every continent, apart from Antarctica. Our record for the number of people staying with us was 32. We had a full house, and also a group of 24 cyclists from Austin who brought their tents and pitched them all over the yard. We did that four times.

      We really enjoy introducing people to our culture. We had a girl stay with us for a short while, for example, who didn’t want to talk to us at all, but we wanted to make an effort to ensure she had a good time. She had school during the day, but we’d pick her up and take her to things like discussions in the forest, where we’d learn about eating needles and berries. And then we went to a workshop at the seashore and learned about how important seaweed is in ecosystems. At the end, she was smiling. She still communicates with us all the time online, and wants her brother to come and stay with us even though he’s just nine. Recently she went offline, and I thought we’d lost her. When I went home, I found a written letter explaining that she’d lost all her contacts, and gave us all her details so we could still stay connected. It was huge for us that she had such a strong desire to keep in touch when she initially didn’t want anything to do with us.

      It’s not all been great, though. There was one guy who had a daughter, and she lived with his ex. He would often vanish for periods of time. One day I got a call from the bank to verify that I’d written a cheque for $230—and I knew that I didn’t. This guy had gone to the back of my drawer, flipped to the end of the chequebook, and taken out two cheques for himself. I think he was totally desperate, and that it was a down payment for a place because he wanted to be near his daughter. When I phoned the police, they told me to lock the door, inform him that his stuff would be left on the porch at a certain time, and it was up to him to pick it up. When he came by he knocked on the door, and I asked him about the cheques. He looked me in the face, and said ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ That was a sad thing to happen to us—but out of literally hundreds of people, that was the only negative experience.

      We love having people in our home. In 25 years, we never missed paying our rent. And when we moved out, the house would be cleaner and in better shape. We’ve always been really good tenants.”

      Got a story to share? Tweet Kate Wilson here, or email k_wilson@straight.com 

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