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Blind Man with a Pistol

Michael Stewart's picture
Michael Stewart is the blogs coordinator for rabble.ca. BMWAP is a blog about culture and capitalism. Damn right, it's confusing; it's a gas, baby, you dig. Follow him on twitter: @blindmanspistol

Vancouver's underground city

| February 4, 2013
Photo credit: Vancouver's Rent Assembly

In Edinburgh, there is a tourist attraction called the underground city. For around 10 quid, tourists can behold the South Bridge vaults while a low-paid costumed fop festoons you with ghost stories about plague victims and aggrieved cobblers. In reality, the vaults weren't actually underground -- they simply seemed like they were. Disappointingly, the so-called catacombs were simply the lowest levels of nine-story tenements eventually paved over to build the capital's Royal Exchange. The "underground" label comes from the fact that the sun never hit the lower reaches of the slum, which housed the city's poor and destitute.

Here in Canada, the term usually refers to a spate of interconnected shopping malls built out of necessity due to either frigid temperatures or the need to maximize commercial real estate, depending on who you ask. Here in Vancouver, with our temperate winters and crapulous housing market, we've developed a much different kind of underground city: a depressing epidemic of basement apartments.

Edinburgh was the last city I lived in before Vancouver, so you'll have to forgive me for the vulgar and entitled move of comparing the living conditions of the 19th-century Scottish poor to that of the Lower Mainland's lower-middle classes. But if you're in the income bracket forced to find rental accommodation in order to stay within three bridges of the Seawall, you'll be navigating insidious euphemisms like "garden suite," "surprisingly sunny ground-level" and "lower Vancouver Special."

This dismal state of affairs is the consequence of the cockamamie stereotype that is Vancouver's real estate market. I like to say that talking about buying a house in the lower mainland is like talking about eating in space: both enjoy equal access to reality. Yet those who still dream about popping ramen in orbit show the increasingly normalized gall of charging cartoonishly inflated rents for shitty basement flats in order to support their 50-year mortgage.

I don't mean to suggest that the living conditions of the average basement suite in Vancouver is akin to the much more urgent situation facing the city's low-income residents, who face a much more urgent housing crisis. However, the typical basement denizen -- students, service industry workers, artists and other factions of the precariat -- is nonetheless vulnerable to exploitation. What's more, since basement apartments have become common practice for would-be homeowners contending with ludicrous home prices, many of these tenants have inexperienced, first-time landlords who look upon their tenants as burdensome aggravations standing in the way of a deserved revenue stream, rather than people looking for a stable place to live. And who would blame them with advice like this from landlords' rights groups?

While rent and real estate prices get all the press, it's important to look at how the practice of tenancy in Vancouver distributes renters in its topography and its architecture too. With the co-operative model stalled when federal and provincial support dried up in the 1990s, if you can't afford to own property, you'll find your options limited to damp, mouldy and dark corners of the city. As low-income residents find themselves pushed further and further eastward, those in the next income bracket up find themselves pushed further and further down.

One of the most sinister characteristics of Vancouver's housing psychosis is the way it pits lower-middle class tenants against low-income ones. We saw this with Reliance Properties' "micro-lofts" on Hastings. Leaving aside the damaging capitalist fantasy that people have the right live wherever they please, the target market for these 250-square foot flats is the same people trying to escape Vancouver's underground city. Since these micro-lofts are part of the vanguard in the ongoing gentrification of the Downtown Eastside, would-be tenants see their chief opponents in the current residents of the neighbourhood, the city's most vulnerable -- and never the developers or politicians responsible for municipal policy.

It seems timely, then, that our friends from The Mainlander, the Kootenay School of Writing and the Vancouver Renters Union are conducting a Rent Assembly for Vancouver tenants in May 2013. The Rent Assembly asks for proposals interrogating the concept of rent as such and how to foster tenant solidarity across income brackets in a city so hostile to the 55 per cent of its citizens who cannot afford to own. The rent is definitely too damn high, but the whole cultural practice of rent in Vancouver ensures that tenants are an underclass both economically and literally. The organization and collective action proposed by the Rent Assembly offers a chance to bust out of the subterranean foundation which supports not only the brick and mortar houses above it, but the whole parasitic and sociopathic real estate market of the lower mainland.




So, let me get this straight.  

If you are poor, i.e. a renter, you have a right to live in Downtown Vancouver but it's not a damaging capitalist fantasy... it's your right.

However, if you have just enough money to buy a small (by North American standards) micro-condo in Downtown Vancouver, then it is a damaging capitalist fantasy, and you have no right to do so.

How exactly does the micro-loft owner 'colonize' the locals... by that I mean directly and personally exploit them? Or is the micro-loft owner's mere presence on the street enough to perpetrate the offence?

Are you perhaps exercising a double standard in your argument about our rights?

I agree that a sweeping program of social housing would be a viable solution.... although I worry that you advocate a curtailment of civil liberties and free will as the only route to achieve it.

An authoritarian solution would perhaps bring too much other baggage with it... possibly including a patronizing neo-colonial administration sector.


I didn't grow up in Vancouver either. This is part of a larger argument I'd be happy to make at another time (it was just an aside in this post, for example), but yes, the idea that I deserve to live in Gastown because I want to is a deeply problematic one rooted in assumptions of privilege -- it's akin to the idea that white settlers have "the right" to live anywhere in unceded First Nations territory. It simply means that when we talk about where people should live, we need to include those assumptions in any urban planing conversation which determines who can live where.

I have written a lot about housing in Vancouver, and many of my posts include concrete suggestions. Should I end every post with a stenographed laundry list of solutions? Indeed, this post ends with a concrete suggestion of how to build solidarity among renters to fight this particular predicament (among others) renters find themselves in. It's a bit disingenuous (and a little predictable) to dismiss a call for change with the same old "no solution" chorus the left has dealt with for centuries.

But, since you ask, there are several simple solutions that could be implemented immediately: restore funding and subsidies for new co-operative housing units. Build, immediately, 10 000 units of social housing a year. Call a moratorium on condo development. Protect rental units from turning into strata. Allow communities in danger of displacement (like the DTES) to make their own decisions about what happens to their neighbourhood -- they're awash with solutions they've been proposing to deaf ears on council for years. Run citywide education campaigns to reduce the stigma attached to renting. Enforce tenancy protection laws. Strengthen tenancy protection laws. And so on.

The cost of living does vary from city to city, so a cheap cost of living is a perk. And that cost of living should include transportation, not just housing costs. That's a huge piece that is often missing when looking at the cost of housing in isolation.

Your writing seems high on vague ideas, and short on specifics. "I'm not saying that people shouldn't have the capacity for mobility, or shouldn't have the ability to live close to work, school, amenities, etc. I'm just saying that the presumed "right" to do so should be critiqued."

What exactly does that mean? Dumb it down for me. Too many double negatives in there for my liking.

I didn't grow up in Vancouver. I'd say roughly 10% of the people I know in the city did. Presumably we're driving up the costs of housing here. Displacing people who did grow up here. Are you saying my right to choose to move from Winnipeg to Vancouver should be questioned?

@filmprof I'm not sure what you mean by side, but yes, meaning Vancouver, and, in a broader sense, Canada too. More specifically, I was talking about the belief that if you want a waterfront view, or want to live in a hip neighbourhood, and so on, we are bred to believe we have the "right" to. This is simply a part of capitalist -- and colonialist -- ideology. I'm not saying that people shouldn't have the capacity for mobility, or shouldn't have the ability to live close to work, school, amenities, etc. I'm just saying that the presumed "right" to do so should be critiqued.

@UWSofty "not that bad" sounds like damning by faint praise to me. That's exactly the point: they are liveable, especially when compared to the criminal SROs in Vancouver, but they are by definition second-rate to the housed owned by landlords. I'm troubled by your comparison to Winnipeg, however: you talk as if affordable rent is a "perk" of a city rather than a fundamental right. Obviously if we, as a society, reform the way Vancouver does its urban planning to focus on people of all income brackets we would extend that opportunity to Winnipeg too!

I've lived in a number of basement appartments. They're not that bad. Most are only half underground, so there's still windows and natural light. More importantly, they allowed me to live closer to downtown in desirable neighbourhoods at a price I could afford.

Now, you might deplore the capitalist system, but supply and demand drives the prices in Vancouver. The rent in Vancouver is high because people want to live here. I know dozens of people that would move to Vancouver in a heart beat if rent/housing prices was cheaper. That's what keeps prices high.

There aren't many cities in Canada that you can easily get around without a car all year. If I wanted cheap rent, I'd move to Winnipeg. But then I'd be stuck in a car-bound, misrable existance.

"Leaving aside the damaging capitalist fantasy that people have the right live wherever they please..."  

You mean, like, in Vancouver? Whose side are you on?

Thanks for the tip, Hal. But actually, crapulous, while often used for drunkenness itself, in fact denotes the sickness that follows drinking. Don't you think that's an apt term for Vancouver's real estate market? I've thought in the past that drunkenness or addiction are good terms to describe Van's housing psychosis. With the onomatoepoeic connotations you rightly point out, "crapulous" seems the perfect word to me -- which is why I used it.

@Kaitlin: Thanks! But the credit goes to the Rent Assembly CFP. I agree it's lovely!

"Here in Vancouver, with our temperate winters and crapulous housing market. . ." Crapulous means drunken, not crappy, just for the English doctoral student's info. Great word. Wrong place for it. 

That's got to be one of the best accompanying photos to a housing article I've ever seen.

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