Marcus Youssef: If council truly values arts and culture, it will support a motion that prioritizes social and co-op housing

An award-winning playwright says something needs to be done now to stem the exodus of artists from Vancouver

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      Playwright Marcus Youssef spoke to Vancouver city council last night about a motion to allow social housing projects up to 12 storeys in many neighbourhoods in Vancouver. Here's a written version of his presentation:

      Mayor Stewart, councillors, thanks so much for taking my call. I know you’ve been listening to literally hundreds of people, and I appreciate it.

      My name is Marcus Youssef. I speak to you not as a housing policy expert, which I am definitely not, but as a member of the city’s arts and culture community. I’ve been working as an artist in this city for 30 years. I’m a playwright, educator, and actor.

      I was honoured to receive the Mayor’s Arts Award a few years ago and I was the inaugural chair of the city’s Arts and Culture Advisory Committee. I have also spent a bunch of my free time advocating for the central role I think artists can play helping build a more equitable city, a city that is more local, more human, more connected, and more FUN.

      Vancouver is bleeding artists. I can name dozens. My friend Juno Ruddell, for example, and her husband Mike. Two of the funniest, smartest actor-writer types I know. They had a company here but then kids and a one-bedroom and … they moved to Hamilton. That was 2017. It worked out. Juno is now the star of that rarest of things—a successful CBC TV series. It’s called Working Moms. Great for them. And our loss.

      Or the ones on the edge. I live in Grandview Woodlands, just around the corner from my long-time collaborator, musician Veda Hille. She and her husband Justin are lucky to rent one of those places. It’s tiny but they have a good landlord and so-called affordable rent. But their kid is almost a teenager and … we’ll see what happens next.

      Or best selling Chilean-Canadian writer and theatre artist Carmen Aguirre, winner of Canada Reads and a single mom, who lives in perpetual housing precarity. Do we really want to risk losing Veda or Carmen?

      Never mind the fact that they are established. What does housing insecurity mean for the majority of artists in this city who don’t yet have Veda or Carmen or Juno’s networks and access? Artists who are racialized, artists with disabilities, artists marginalized by poverty and class. Artists from communities who have been thoughtlessly though usually not consciously excluded from the city’s cultural institutions and programs for decades.

      Ironically enough, this is occurring right at the moment when we as a sector are actually, at long last, beginning to face the undeniable fact of that exclusion. 

      You know who’s not leaving? My friend, writer and stand-up comedian Charlie Demers and his wife, policy researcher Cara Ng. Or actor Andrew McNee and his partner Karen, who’s a teacher. These artists are okay, relatively secure. Like my long-time associate Chelsea Haberlin, who recently took over the company I ran for 15 years, Neworld Theatre. They’re all low- to middle-income, in their 30s and 40s with kids in tow. You know why these artists aren’t leaving?  

      Because they live in co-ops. Over and over again the artists I know who are able to stay are those who are lucky or connected enough to snag one of those rare, coveted spots in a co-op built in the 1970s. Co-ops, and social housing, are the last decent shot artists in this city have of not being forced out, and maybe of even continuing to contribute to the cultural life of this city.

      Because we do want local artists right? We do want our own, distinct, local culture? Right?  

      Here’s a layperson’s observation: a policy is proposed that advantages nonprofit housing over the for-profit sector, and many people rush to city council to say we can’t prioritize social and co-op housing because it will make land speculation—a problem caused by for-profit housing—worse.

      I don’t get that. I’m no expert. But I don’t get it.

      This is something city council, with its very limited jurisdictional power, can actually try. Even if it may fail. That’s what artists do, too. We try things, before we know if they will succeed. If they don’t, we keep working on them, until it’s clear they never will. Then we admit we failed, gripe about the bad reviews, and move on. And we don’t risk failure and public criticism and sometimes very real threats to our careers because we think we’re going to make a lot of money. We do it because we hope it might make our collective experience of this life a little better.

      I think that’s how we should treat policy, too. I think enough smart people who are experts have said this could work, and that with a little luck and good, collaborative process, this motion could help this city be more than the playground for the wealthy that I believe it is in grave danger of becoming.

      As an artist, as someone who is housing-secure largely because of class privilege, who has received support from this city that has allowed me to take my work to four continents across the globe, and as someone who has watched so many of my friends and colleagues be forced to leave, I support this motion. I strongly and respectfully urge you to do the same.

      Playwright Marcus Youssef is a recipient of the Mayor’s Arts Award and was the inaugural chair of Vancouver’s Arts and Culture Advisory Committee.