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In Vancouver, a Renter's Rat Race

Just here from Montreal, I figured finding a decent, no-frills place would be easy. Crazy me.

Katie Addleman 25 May

Katie Addleman is a freelance journalist who recently worked at The Walrus in Toronto.

This series on affordable housing was made possible in part through the support of Tides Canada Foundation, the Catherine Donnelly Foundation, and the Van Tel/Safeway Credit Union Legacy Fund, held and managed by Vancity Community Foundation.

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On the hunt for an affordable room of one's own.

"This could be your office," Scott said. We stood in an old house in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, where I had come to inquire about a room for rent. He indicated an indent in the crumbling wall next to the kitchen.

"I'll build a wall here, and, you know, cover all this junk up." He waved a paint-covered hand over the jumble of wires and cables erupting from a chink in the ceiling. Like a firework, I thought. I had been thinking of explosions since I entered his home. Bald, in his mid-forties and of solid build, he had the sun-ripened look of a raisin. His home was a construction site.

"Yeah, it'd be perfect!" he went on, growing excited. His coveralls hung loosely from his body, bobbing around it like a scavenger bird as he moved. "It'd be right here. Can you see it?"

I squinted; I couldn't see it. I cocked my head and squinted fiercely. Scott gesticulated helpfully, his hands drawing corners and walls in the air, but I was having trouble visualizing any kind of domestic set-up. The house was more or less in ruins. Woodchips littered the grey, uncut carpet. The shower was a rusty hose poised over a hole and housed in a closet. Staples and patches of primer decorated the walls.

And it could all be mine -- well, one-third mine -- for $600 a month.

Is this what renting was like in Vancouver?

"Where's the other roommate?" I asked.

"He's upstairs in his room. He pretty much never comes down. He's a longshoreman."

I turned the word over in my head, looking for an image to stick it to, but couldn't come up with anything. I had only just moved here from Montreal, and my marine vocabulary was still markedly fetal.

"What's up with the industrial fire alarm?" There was a big red one over the glass-paneled front door. "Was this place some kind of business before?"

Not exactly, Scott told me. It was a psychiatric hospital.

I thanked him for his time and told him I would call.

You're not in Montreal anymore

With a vacancy rate of 0.5 per cent and the second-highest average monthly rent in the country, this city is in the midst of a housing crisis I would have laughed at in Montreal, reading about it in the paper while enjoying a bagel in my sunny kitchen or on my back balcony, or even in my bedroom, perhaps in front of the brick fireplace (hardwood floors and original details throughout). And while the rents have lately risen in Montreal, I don't know anyone renting a living room couch. In Vancouver, I know three.

I met them when I went to tour their apartments as a prospective roommate. Their Craigslist postings had not mentioned the peculiar arrangement in which they expected their new roommate to live. Could they not find the appropriate classifieds category? (Housing/Accomodation > Shared > Couch) or did they not see the arrangement as peculiar? They'd have reason not to. There are very few budget bedrooms available here.

In December of 2008, the CMHC, Canada's national housing agency, confirmed in their annual report that rental vacancies were down all over the country. Of the 34 cities surveyed, the top three -- those with the lowest vacancy rates -- were all in B.C. The CMHC placed the blame for the shortage primarily on the now-embedded "Go West" mentality of Canadian migrants; though construction of rental units continues, it hasn't been sufficient to satisfy the need.

I blame the scarcity of reasonably priced accommodations for the otherworldly human landscape of the downtown core, its streets strewn with people wandering bleary-eyed under the high rises, their skyward faces seeking addresses and that Holy Grail, the "Suite Available" sign. Line-ups for open houses snake around city blocks at 50-people long, and while they wait the hopefuls size each other up for weak spots, like animals.

Tour of the city

In lieu of taking a room in Scott's unfinished former hospital, I opted to keep looking. My primary source for leads was Craigslist, that OED of treasures and trash. I composed an introductory e-mail with just the right balance of statistics (25, female, employed) and charm (short digressions about favourite cereals, for example -- everyone likes cereal!). I agonized over self-descriptive adjectives ("exceptionally tidy" or "responsible, but fun"?). I sent out dozens of these e-mails. More often than not, they yielded no reply. I imagined them papering the walls of some mythic den in renter's hell. I started only looking at postings with phone numbers.

Sometimes I went to condo viewings, joining in the awkward flirtations between lessees and landlords in the sterile lobbies of West End buildings. I checked out basement rooms in condemned houses shared by 10 people who wouldn't tell me what they did for work (only that they were 'very busy'); and everywhere I went I clutched the notebook I used for recording what I'd seen, its pages filled with the details of hopes raised and dashed: 110 Jervis, $1200 all-in (AMAZING PLEASE CALL ME); 404 E. 12th, $1000+util (small but doable. Roozmate weird).

Eventually I found myself outside a house near Main Street with a porch and a front garden. I stood on the sidewalk, checking my notebook: the address was right; the price was reasonable. A narrow path through tomato plants led invitingly onwards. I rang the doorbell. John, the tenant who had advertised for a roommate, had a beard and wore a Rossignol tee. He welcomed me warmly and ushered me inside. We passed through the living room and into the kitchen. It was expansive, lined with wooden cupboards and surrounded by windows, with a gas stove in one corner and a stainless steel fridge in the other. A wrought-iron spice rack adorned the counter top. The backsplash was Mexican ceramic. I started to sweat.

'See you soon!'

I sat at the table while John ate nachos and salsa, and we spoke of journalism and my impressions of Vancouver. He had a friend who published a biking magazine in Montreal, he said. I had never heard of it. I pretended I had. "You like to bike?" John asked me. "Sure, recreationally," I said, "but I'm no athlete." I demonstrated by weakly flexing my bicep and making a sad face. Ha, ha.

"Best sport in the world," John said, rising from the table. "I'll show you the upstairs." He put his plate in the sink and gave it a quick rinse. My heart raced -- he was exceptionally tidy, too! Upstairs, the bathroom was clean and well supplied of toilet paper. I noticed that John and I used the same soap. I pointed this out to him excitedly. Another commonality! All my life, I had been destined to live as John's platonic roommate.

Then, the room: it was painted a shade of green not quite reminiscent of hospital hallways. There was furniture. There was a window, from which I watched a bus pass by. It spewed exhaust on the tomato plants in the front yard. John asked me what I thought. I loved it, I told him. Loved it! I could take it right away. I could give him a deposit. I could provide him with references and statements from my bank.

"Cool," he said. "It's nice living here."

He was showing the place to more people that evening and would make a decision by the following day. "I'll be in touch," he said, walking me out. "See you soon!" I called behind me as I bounded down the stairs.

John called as promised. "Hi, John!" I said brightly. I'd recognized his number on the call display.

"Oh -- uh, hi," he replied. He sounded flustered. He must be busy. "Listen," he continued, "I'm sorry, but I've offered the place to someone else. I thought I'd let you know."


"The place. On East 10th? You were here yesterday. I'm giving it someone else."


"Yeah. Anyway. Good luck with the hunt." He hung up the phone.


One of the Craigslist hordes

I crumbled like so much drywall. I felt like John had broken up with me. He'd broken up with me and hadn't even let me explain. For days I thought on our meeting, wondering where I had failed. Had it been wrong to admit that I wasn't that into biking? I hadn't noticed his bike pendant necklace until after! I cursed my honesty and turned back to Craigslist, bitterly.

I could barely stand it anymore. I thought of leaving town. On days that I felt strong enough, I kept going, wandering hopefully into derelict buildings, looking at condos I couldn't afford with dozens of others, being passed over for candidates with bigger pay stubs or better banter. And then, one day, a moment: it was a phone call, it was a voice, it was the word yours. The place is yours. It was God. It was God's voice. I fell on my knees.

"So you take it?" said God, in a squeaky voice. "God, yes!" I cried.

I had scored a temporary sublet -- three months of shelter in downtown Vancouver. It was better than nothing.

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