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Downtown Eastside: Open House

Property: Oneesan, 502 Alexander St.

Susan Edwards has previously lived in both a converted church and grocery store over a long nomadic life but admits she never expected to find herself residing inside a former shipping container. The 70-year-old moved to Vancouver from Ontario four years ago to be closer to her daughter but soon found herself on the receiving end of a number of renovictions. Last year she came across news reports about a new 12-unit social housing complex opening up in the Downtown Eastside and operated by the Atira Women’s Resource Society that uses modified shipping containers stacked like Lego.


“I was just fascinated by the idea of turning them into houses,” Edwards said. “I applied for the intergenerational mentorship program but I wasn’t eligible for that, so instead I am here as a renter.”


The housing complex is named Oneesan, a Japanese word meaning “elder sister” chosen in honour of its location in an area formerly known as Japantown, and because many of the women provide guidance to residents of the Imouto Housing for Young Women building next door.


The units are each approximately 290 square feet and cost $82,500 each to build, although each one is slightly different, with doors, windows and kitchens in different spots depending on how they were assembled.


“I don’t have a lot of furniture and I really love it because living very simply is kind of my thing,” she said. “I love the little apartment.”


Edwards, a former teacher, publisher and CBC employee, admits she had some initial concerns due to the neighbourhood’s reputation but feels much more at home since moving in Sept. 1.


“I had never been in the Downtown Eastside and I had not wanted to come even look at it, but suddenly here I was living right here. It’s been incredibly educational and fascinating.”