In one of world’s most beautiful cities, homelessness is the new norm
Written by Diane Slawych
It’s no surprise that Vancouver’s housing crisis is hurting the poor, but it turns out even the city’s wealthy residents are negatively affected, according to the producer and director of a new film, which has its world premier at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto this week.
“What we have found really surprising is that almost no one we talked to is happy with the situation,” explained Charles Wilkinson, during a Q&A after the screening of his documentary "Vancouver: No Fixed Address".
“People who are doing really well, whose houses are assessed for a lot more money, are concerned that our communities are disintegrating because they’re filled with vacant houses.”
Even the kids of wealthy people can’t afford to have children, Wilkinson told a sold-out crowd at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. “That means we don’t get grandchildren. So it’s cutting across all economic lines.”
And, he added, with the level of unrest that comes with poverty, “rich guys are scared that their Maseratis are going to get keyed and it does happen more and more frequently.”
While many have made a fortune in Vancouver’s skyrocketing real estate market, thousands more struggle to find affordable housing. In a city where the average home sells for $900,000, and the minimum wage is $11 an hour, homelessness has become the new normal.
We see two buskers and their dog living in the street, images of tents crammed together in vacant lots, and meet the pensioner who lives in his van and escapes to Mexico occasionally where he can rent a place for an affordable $300 a month. Others have opted for cramped communal quarters in order to make ends meet, or moved away entirely.
The film explores the many causes of the problem from a lack of housing supply and government inaction to greed and foreign ownership. We’re told of the many loopholes in rent control (“reno-victions” as they’re called, are now rampant); that the arrival of Airbnb has decimated the rental stock; and that some of the biggest donors to political parties are real estate developers.
And there’s another lesser-known cause. During extensive travels, Wilkinson found that as a result of rapid over-exploitation of B.C.’s resources, such as logging, mining and fishing, throughout the province, many towns can no longer survive. “They’re boarded up, there’s nothing left.”
“There were generations of lives that were built there and these places were expanding slowly into cool little towns where people loved growing up... but there’s no opportunities there anymore.”
He says the houses are worth almost nothing and kids end up moving to Vancouver to look for work. “That’s one of the things that accounts for the premium in real estate here.”
In the province where Greenpeace was founded and Adbusters magazine was established, one resident laments the lack of any vigorous protest, siting as evidence a demonstration against tuition hikes in Quebec that attracted 400,000 students, while the biggest protest she’d witnessed in Vancouver drew a mere 10,000 people.
Meanwhile, residents continue to look for workable solutions. One man lives on his boat, while a group of others have formed the B.C. Tiny House Collective, whose mission is to incorporate tiny homes into existing neighbourhoods.
“A renters union is forming,” said Wilkinson “and I think they’re going to have real teeth, because so many people rent and at the moment there’s no security, and housing is considered to be a human right by the United Nations.”