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May-June 2017

Inside the search from hell Canadian millennials must undergo for affordable housing

Nadine Bachan—like many young Canadians—spent months trying to find an apartment she could afford in Vancouver's market

Nadine Bachan

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Vancouver Especially is a public art piece from 2015 by Canadian artist Ken Lum. The installation is a small replica of the mass-produced “Vancouver Special” home. Between 1965 and 1985, about 10,000 of the two-storey homes were built as an affordable option for poor and immigrant families. In 1970, they were valued at $45,000. Lum originally planned to produce his replica for the same price and scale the work in relation to current property prices. But in the city’s current housing market, a $45,000 Vancouver Special would be so tiny that the artist was forced to enlarge the replica eightfold. Photo Courtesy the Artist and 221A, Vancouver. Photograph by Dennis Ha.

Four strangers are congregating by my doorway. I cautiously step outside and the most well-dressed of them extends his hand and makes introductions. He’s the real-estate agent and the others are his team. I say hello then retreat back inside, listening to the muffled voices outside my window.

I live in the garden suite—an elegant synonym for “ground-level basement”—of a 1920s-era house that’s been owned by the same family for generations in the Kitsilano area of Vancouver, B.C. My ceiling hits six feet at its highest. The house tilts on a sinking foundation. It’s run down, but the rent is cheap. However, the presence of the agent means the property will soon be listed. I have to leave.

It shouldn’t have been a problem. I am the ideal tenant: university- educated, a non-smoker, single-occupancy, no pets, glowing references from colleagues and previous landlords, and supported by a network of family and friends.

But in 2016, Vancouver’s average rent went up 6.4 percent, while the vacancy rate dwindled to 0.7 percent. Although the general rule for living expenses dictates that housing costs shouldn’t exceed 30 percent of our income, it’s a difficult standard to meet when the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver is $1,900—the highest in Canada. Meanwhile, B.C.’s minimum wage is currently $10.85 per hour; the province will be raising it to just $11.35 in September. This is dire straits for those unable to find gainful employment, many of whom are shouldering student debt that incurs daily interest at a rate as high as seven percent.

It’s not so different elsewhere in Canada. The average rent for a one- bedroom in the Greater Toronto Area is more than $1,400. Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton, and Victoria aren’t far behind, with prices hovering over $1,000 per month.

It’s the perfect storm for a living crisis. Whether it’s living alongside roommates in cramped quarters, living with their parents, or leaving cities altogether, overqualified and underemployed millennials scrape by for the present, unable to save or plan for the future.

***

My search for an apartment isn’t easy. For the first month, I scour Vancouver for a new place, inquiring about dozens of listings, and landing appointments to view only a few apartments. None meet my expectations, and I quickly learn I can’t be choosy.

The process is competitive. One owner tells me that within an hour of posting about an apartment she received messages from 500 interested applicants. At a place I check out on the mid-east side of the city in the trendy Commercial Drive area, I see four people sitting on the porch, agonizing over applications. Inside, there are at least six others doing the same. I fill out a form then leave, passing another small crowd of people making their way up to the see the rental space.

Affordable housing conditions are frequently subpar. Vacancies posted more than once are suspect. Searches of these addresses take me to forums with warnings about tyrant landlords, terrible neighbours, and sometimes, bedbug registries.

During my second month on the hunt, I visit an eight-unit heritage building near Granville Island. The owner repeats the word “charming ” as he shows me and another interested applicant the old gas stove, rusty fixtures, and a claw-foot bathtub. The other applicant asks if there’s any asbestos in the building, and I smirk at the ridiculous query. But the landlord replies earnestly: “Around the pipes in the laundry room.” I watch amazed as the woman continues to snap photos and fills out an application.

Some landlords have even pitted potential renters against each other in bidding wars, stating a reasonable rent quote as a “starting point” and awarding the property to whomever is willing to dole out the most. This is supply-and-demand at its most ruthless. When we are reduced to dollars and nickels, we stop being people in the eyes of those that hold any kind of power over us. It’s unethical and downright heartless.

***

Back at the house, my landlord arrives from New York City to take care of her remaining possessions. The back lane is quickly filled with piles of decades-old garbage. An antique dollhouse is temporarily stored next to the dryer. I peer in at the intricate details—three storeys, hardwood flooring, big windows—and think: Shrink me down and I’d gladly live here.

Weeks on the market, the house still has no interested buyers.

“It seems the house number is inauspicious,” the landlord says. “So, we’re changing it.”

Foreign investment, mainly from China where an unsteady national economy has pushed a grab of real estate in North America, has been a detrimental factor in this situation. Six percent of residencies in Vancouver sit empty and out of reach because of foreign buyers. While a new property tax has addressed this issue for first-time buyers, the plight of the renter goes unheeded. Condos, prime real estate for prospective rental units, have been snatched up by hands from afar.

These foreign investors, though, still have their standards. The number four is superstitiously unlucky—so much so that many buildings in China omit floors four and 14. There are two fours in this house’s address. That’s double death. More than 25 official departments of Metro Vancouver are involved in changing the house number. The process is quick; the change is approved within the week. Meanwhile, I have been apartment-seeking for two months with no end in sight. The protracted nature of my journey may be an anomaly; the process of selling this house placed time on my side to be more critical. For my colleagues who also recently went apartment-hunting on a time limit, it took about one frustrating, anxiety-ridden month to find a place.

The new address of the old house has a number eight, which is phonetically similar to the sound fa, signifying “fortune.” It’s one of the luckiest numbers in Chinese culture. I scroll through countless rent postings and wonder Where the hell I am going to live? as another f-word falls from my mouth.

***

Halfway through my third month of searching, the owner of a one-bedroom suite near Jericho Beach tells me she’s in no rush to get a new tenant. We chat for an hour as she shows me the insides of the cupboards, under the sink. “I want whoever lives here to make sure they’ll be happy,” she says.

The apartment is in a wood-frame building and sound carries. The footfalls of the upstairs tenants sound like they’re wearing lead boots. My view is of the apartment’s dumpster. The rent is high, just barely within my budget. And yet, I feel like I’ve hit a jackpot. I sign a rental agreement and make plans: to hire the mover, to take measurements of the new space, to ask my parents for a loan transferred to my bank account that will cover moving costs and the security deposit.

I begin packing. After 10 weeks on the market, the house has finally sold for the asking price of $3.5 million—to a developer. As I load the dryer for the last time, I look at the dollhouse, now wrapped in thick protective plastic. I can no longer see the interior. Its final destination is a museum where it will be encased under glass, forever vacant.

On moving day, the mover wishes me good luck after transporting me and my things to the new apartment. I smirk and say, “I’ll see you in six months.”

Joking aside, I am sincerely fearful. My new landlord could increase the rent next year. A developer could approach with a too-good-to-refuse offer to buy the lot. My lease might not be renewed. In the back of my mind is one nagging truth: anything can happen.

For now, I focus on the reality that greets each day I have spent, and will spend, in this place: I’m home.

Nadine Bachan was born in Trinidad and raised in the suburbs of Toronto. She currently lives in Vancouver, and is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at UBC. Her work has appeared in Hazlitt, Maisonneuve, the Best Canadian Essays series, and the forthcoming edition of The Broadview Anthology of Expository Prose.

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