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Building a home minus the mortgage

Generation of Vancouver renters broadens definition of home

Ken Lum’s latest art installation, Vancouver Especially, certainly puts a fine point on it. Although at this point, I’m not sure what purpose is served by heaping more emphasis on Vancouver’s insane housing prices.

We all know the appalling statistics (well, appalling to those of us who didn’t purchase a detached home in 1973). It seems like every week comes with more depressing news on the affordability crisis.

Last week, I read confirmation of what many renters and recent buyers already know: the divide between east and west that used to indicate cheaper housing has completely eroded. The average price of a detached home in East Vancouver is now over $1 million, and there is not a single single-family home in the city valued at under $500,000.

And then there’s Lum’s installation to put it in historical perspective.

Surrounded by green Astroturf and a white metal fence, his version is smaller but otherwise identical to the thousands of utilitarian houses, known as Vancouver Specials, strewn around the city. Once regarded as the epitome of architectural eyesores, Lum’s exhibit positions them as nostalgic emblems of simpler, less expensive times.

The artist has said he was inspired to riff off the form when he realized his $45,000 budget for the project could have bought one of the aesthetically distinctive structures in the 1970s or ’80s. A small cubbyhole in the front of his version illustrates how much — or rather, little — space that amount buys you in Vancouver today.

The piece, he has said, is intended to make people think about affordability, but also what a home is and what it represents. I took that to heart.

Contemplating the piece on Union Street at the intersection of Strathcona and Chinatown, two of the most rapidly gentrifying areas of the city, I wondered: must one be a homeowner to have a home of one’s own?

Surely not. I admit, my perspective on this issue is informed by the fact that I can only stare at the people lined up outside open houses or condo sales centres with a kind of through-the-looking-glass awe. But in this real estate climate, lamenting home ownership as a lost pillar of the North American dream isn’t serving anyone, save developers.

Over my years in Vancouver, a few peers have managed to purchase property. But so rare is the event that it sends shockwaves through my social circles. “How did they do that?” we whisper to each other. “They must have had help,” we decide, calculating income comparisons and family contributions based on pure conjecture.

The reaction isn’t so much one of jealously as it is of surprise. Because most of us have put buying not just on the back burner, but out of our minds completely.

What else can you do when prices are at farcical levels and only ever poised to rise?

I am not asking for pity. In fact, I take issue with the implicit portrayal of perennial renters as an altogether unfortunate lot. In the housing debate, we are painted as little more than serfs who’ve been robbed of our chance at home equity and are condemned to nomadic lives dictated by the whims of unscrupulous landlords.

I don’t deny there are downsides to renting. But dwelling on it doesn’t do any good.

Rather than mortgage ourselves to the hilt for 450-square-feet, many of my contemporaries have chosen to rent indefinitely. We balk at the underlying assumption behind the sky-high real estate prices that a home is an unemotional investment, not something you discover, decide-upon or create.

Being a renter forces you to broaden your definition of home beyond the precise piece of ground beneath your feet.

Home, for me, is in the story of my life here. It’s in the buildings and neighbourhoods I’ve lived in and the communities I’ve helped build. Home is in the well-worn paths to the grocery store or the coffee shop that I’ve walked so many times I could do it in my sleep. It’s in watching the seasons pass — each year greeting the magnolia and cherry blossoms in spring, and wild blackberries in the fall. Home is in the memories I’ve created here, it’s in the parks and beaches where I’ve gone on first dates or met new friends.

Home is even in being a witness to this city’s evolution. It’s in watching parking lots and shops and restaurants turn into condos, seeing spaces that were once publicly accessible cordoned off and sold. It’s in knowing the rent will continue to rise and choosing to stay, for now.

I may never own a piece of this city, at least not in the legal respect. But I do have a home here. I have built another kind of equity. And I will take that with me whenever, wherever, I choose to go.

jessica.barrett@gmail.com