Five steps for keeping Vancouver housing interesting

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      By Maria Stanborough

      One of East Vancouver’s most culturally important homes is for sale.

      The Be Okay house is a turn-of-the-century, three-storey home that has been the residence of some of the most interesting creatives on Vancouver’s east side for the past 13 years. The front yard offers a display of mannequins posed to explore the most pressing issues of the day, from food affordability to the madness of Halloween. Next to the sidewalk, there is a set of shelves that offer free items to the community. A chalkboard invites conversation, with the most recent message being, “Send Good Vibes”—an obvious response to the ominous “for sale” sign. 

      On the outside of the house is the message “Be Okay” flanked by crafted flowers. It is a site of inspiration in an increasingly bland and cookie-cutter city. And it may very well be lost to us when the house is sold.

      This has been the fate of many other homes that offered affordable housing to artists and other creatives in my neighbourhood of Grandview-Woodland. One by one, the “for sale” signs went up, and the slightly derelict homes with visual interest were torn down. I would guess the residents were demo-victed and ended up living further and further outside of Vancouver. 

      The loss of homes and studios for artists and other creatives is not a new conversation in Vancouver. The average one-bedroom unit here now rents for $3,000 a month; the average hourly wage for an artist is $18.78, or approximately $3,000 per month. In 2019, the Eastside Arts Society published its “A City Without Art” research paper that documented the erasure of approximately 400,000 square-feet of artist studios in 10 years, also forcing many creatives to leave the city.

      Photo by Maria Stanborough.

      On the weekend, I stopped by a garage sale of a woman who is being renovicted from her east side basement suite. She has a dog, and her plan is to get an RV and move to Penticton. Having an RV in Vancouver is unaffordable, she tells me, and she doesn’t want to end up homeless with her dog. She is a leatherworker and knows that Vancouver is no longer an affordable place for her as an artisan. 

      These stories break my heart. Almost 20 years ago, in my graduate urban planning class led by Larry Beasley (then co-director of planning for the City of Vancouver) I expressed concern about the changing feel of Grandview-Woodland. He told me that my neighbourhood was one he had no concerns about. 

      Indeed, Grandview-Woodland was a very cohesive neighbourhood in 2007, with the highest mix of co-op, affordable, Indigenous, and low-cost housing in Vancouver. This combination of residential offerings in close proximity meant that the neighbourhood was diverse and inter-connected. But this has all changed dramatically since the Grandview-Woodland Area Plan was passed in 2016. 

      While the plan proposed to protect affordable rental units in multi-storey buildings (which, by the way, it has failed to do), there was nothing to address affordable rental houses. The plan opened the doors for more density, and subsequently the loss of affordable rental houses, most of which became newly-built duplexes. I can name at least 10 funky houses lost within six blocks of my condo.

      It feels to me that the Be Okay home is the final straw. So, I propose five steps for how to keep who and what makes Vancouver interesting:

      1. Be collaborative. Work across departments, not in silos. The Be Okay house crosses a number of departmental interests, from heritage to culture to affordability to equity. If the City approached neighbourhood planning with dedicated interdisciplinary teams for each of the neighbourhoods, a collective of visions could inform planning decisions to ensure that arts, culture, heritage, affordability, and equity are as important in land use decisions as profitability.
      2. Be creative. Heritage homes are eligible for property tax exemptions. The Province is requiring changes to zoning on single-family lots to allow more density. Houses like Be Okay offer an opportunity for the City to work with property owners to find solutions to keep what is important to neighbourhoods, communities, and the city. A heritage home with a laneway house that still invites us to Be Okay is my ideal outcome for this house and, in turn, the whole neighbourhood.
      3. Be proactive. To address unaffordability for artists, the City needs to actively expand its existing land authority to focus on culture. Despite the Eastside Arts Society report, artist studios continue to be eradicated, with an estimated 30,000 square-feet demolished last year alone. Homes for creatives are being lost even more rapidly. There are funds available to secure land for public good. Make arts and culture a priority and start investing in these places. Invite local organizations to get involved and work together to support arts and culture in Vancouver.
      4. Be kind. Make mental health a primary focus of planning decisions. In 2019, I published an article on mental health and urban planning written in partnership with Aaron Licker. In that study, we explored how mental health is impacted by a number of planning decisions. Housing is at the top of that list, but other things to consider are access to green space, stability of the neighbourhood, and connections with your neighbours. Planning decisions could be centred more fully on how mental health is being supported (or not) with land use decisions that help protect housing for vulnerable populations, as well as foster connections and ensure more community stability. 
      5. Model beaviour. Cities learn from one another. Vancouver can develop an approach to support arts and cultural spaces, track the work, see what is and isn’t working, and share the information with communities across the province and the country. Vancouver is not the only city losing its creatives. In the East Kootenays, Fernie is facing an affordable housing crisis, with lower-income residents no longer able to find housing. Toronto is losing its artists to Montreal, and even that city is becoming less affordable. Vancouver has the opportunity to be at the forefront of positive change.
      6. Finally, be the change you want to see in the world.

      Maria Stanborough is an urban planning consultant and writer living in East Vancouver.