“Can we afford to stay?” “Should we rent and raise kids in a condo?” Talking about housing affordability in Vancouver is an everyday part of life here, but unless you’ve been hiding under a rock you may have noticed the discussion intensifying as it moves to the front of the public sphere.
On May 7, a packed room at SFU Harbour Centre engaged in a City Conversations dialogue that touched on everything from renting as a lifestyle to foreign speculation, with different generations and different perspectives clearly on display. Later this month, a housing rally will be held on May 24 at the Vancouver Art Gallery, an event hundreds of people are expected to attend.
While rallies in the past have focused on the need for more social housing or the stagnant rates for housing assistance, this one is primarily focused on an increasingly incensed population of Vancouverites who by comparison live pretty privileged lives. Their outcries stem from the realization that for too many the likelihood of raising a family in a home they can call our own grows more impossible by the day, that their generation’s future looks and feels increasingly precarious.
For years Vancouverites have raised alarm bells about the loss of affordable housing in low-income communities like the Downtown Eastside; now we are starting to see the dots connecting. Middle-income earners are beginning to understand what feelings of anxiety and powerlessness due to a lack of housing options feels like.
Contrary to what some might say, the solution isn’t for those of us under 40 to “suck it up” and move to smaller towns in the interior where housing is affordable (and job diversity is low). Many people are attached to the city, those who were born or raised here and the many more who have committed themselves to their communities. The people who have cried foul the loudest have familial and emotional roots tying them to this city and this should not be dismissed. We love this place and the people, services, culture, and opportunities in it.
Ironically, it’s the same argument at the heart of anti-gentrification concerns, as many of us would be considered "gentrifiers" ourselves. The affordable housing options we are desperately seeking have been increasingly built on the only affordable land left in Vancouver, neighbourhoods like the DTES. Our housing needs should not be addressed at the expense of others with even less agency than we have. We know we can do better. We know that government can do better, at all levels.
In May of 2013, mayors from across Canada raised alarm bells at the yearly meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, that Canada as a whole has a housing crisis on its hands. When it comes to housing, the federal government and provincial governments are failing to support Canadian cities. Since 1993, funding for co-operative housing has been erased and the National Housing Program essentially abandoned. Gone are the days when the federal housing minister could proudly declare, "good housing at reasonable cost is a social right of every citizen in this country." The year was 1973. Shortly after that, in 1979, Canada lost its Ministry of State for Urban Affairs. We have been flying blind through a disjointed and inefficient patchwork of private, non-profit, and public sector housing interventions ever since. Unable to deal effectively with the impacts of globalized financial and real estate markets on local economies and communities.
Senior levels of government can no longer pretend that Canada, or B.C., is some endless rural, resource frontier. Since 1979 we have become more urbanized than countries like the United Kingdom or Germany. We need senior levels of government to be meaningful partners with municipalities and regions and not just download more challenges to them, expecting plucky entrepreneurial mayors and benevolent real estate developers to save the day. While a range of issues persist, housing is especially critical. It is foundational to our future as an urban country, as a country. Period. The federal government can find $500 million dollars to advertise to Canadians, but there’s no funding for a national housing strategy? Come on.
We don’t have to accept that we must be the “Generation of Renters” or the first generation in modern times to be less well off than our parents. We don’t have to accept that an exodus of young professionals from Vancouver is either natural or inevitable. We can choose to make our voices heard. We can exercise our right to vote, more specifically for parties and candidates who agree this crisis has persisted for too long and who want to bring real leadership on this issue. We can choose not be complacent and to stand up for ourselves and for our future, taking a lesson from those less fortunate than us who have endured their own housing crisis for much longer. It’s time to follow their lead. It’s time to stand up for ourselves and for our communities. It’s time to stand with them too.
If you choose to act, come join us this May 24, 12 p.m., at the Vancouver Art Gallery as we share our stories of frustration, thoughts about solutions, and hope for a better future. Hope for the Vancouver we want, and the leadership we need.