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Municipal Politics

I Left Vancouver Because Vancouver Left Me

A personal essay on loving, and leaving, a city after being defeated by its affordability crisis.

Jessica Barrett 30 Oct

Formerly with Vancouver Magazine and a Webster-winning columnist who’s been widely published, Jessica Barrett lives in Alberta.

“I can’t live in a place where the definition of success is ‘I’m not drowning!’”

We’d been arguing, my partner and I, for months in that way that couples do when life stresses have been piled on so high that you lose sight of the fact that you’re on the same team. Our occasional outbursts had become a cannibalistic routine of repetitive gripes we unleashed on each other on an almost daily basis. But this statement was a sudden left turn, an arrow of truth that hit me square in the heart.

I was, by many standards, the definition of success in Vancouver. I had a permanent, full-time job at the top of my field as senior editor of Vancouver Magazine, I had a rich network of professional connections, a solid group of close friends, and stable, albeit cramped and expensive, rental housing. Yet my entire life felt like a struggle. The effort required to keep these very basic building blocks in place had been increasing steadily over the last several years, and had recently reached a tipping point where the energy I expended vastly outweighed what I was getting in return. I was keeping my head above water, but just barely, and I was losing strength fast.

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Vancouver ‘was like living inside a fairy tale.’ Photo by Jessica Barrett.

I had moved to the city 15 years earlier, almost to the day, arriving by Greyhound a few weeks shy of my 20th birthday. The official reason was to finish my degree in contemporary dance at SFU, but really, my post-secondary trajectory was the excuse I needed to get out of my hometown of Edmonton and try something new.

Vancouver, with its exotic beauty, mild winters and bigger city vibe was a natural draw. It wasn’t instant love — my first winter living in New Westminster with a buddy from high school was a lonely and difficult one — but by the end of year two I was smitten. I’d moved into an apartment just off Main and 14th with two friends from SFU. Back then, circa 2003, the neighbourhood was an affordable up-and-coming area that was still rough around the edges. I adored it, and revelled in the abundant street culture, the cool coffee shops, cheap sushi places and Asian produce markets that sold foods I wasn’t totally familiar with. But the real clincher came that spring when a bunch of spindly and unremarkable trees on our block exploded in cotton candy blooms that bathed the whole street in confetti. It was like living inside a fairy tale.

That spring I took to riding my bike around town under those floral canopies and fell completely, unabashedly, in love. The affair wasn’t just fuelled by the natural beauty of Vancouver. I was equally intrigued by the social fabric of the city, the distinctions of culture and class evidenced in every neighbourhood boundary. Back then, the prevailing public debate wasn’t about the growing divide between rich and the rest of us, but about how to lift up our most vulnerable people to create a more inclusive city, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. As a newly graduated BFA, I spent my ample spare time exploring the city. I’d amble around places like Chinatown, Gastown and the Downtown Eastside, or the industrial rubble of southeast False Creek, pre-Olympic Village. I wanted to understand this strange city that wore its social problems on its sleeve in a way that, to me, seemed refreshingly honest. It was on one of these wanders that I wound up at the opening of InSite in 2003, completely by accident and unaware I was witnessing the beginning of one of the most successful public health programs in the world.

Looking back, it’s no wonder that I ended up trading in dance for journalism. I went to Langara College and, like many aspiring reporters, had dreams of charging into conflict zones and bringing down corrupt foreign governments with the power of my pen. But when I did get the chance to do some reporting overseas I found it, to my great disappointment, daunting and draining. I came back to Vancouver and landed what I thought would be a boring gig covering West Vancouver municipal council for the North Shore News and, to my great surprise, found it utterly fascinating.

The ins and outs of garbage collection bylaws, road repairs or squabbles over bike lanes are not sexy or glamorous, they are seldom the stuff of adventure, but they are the realest measure of real life. As my career progressed and I moved onto bigger outlets like the Westender and the Vancouver Sun, I developed a burning passion for local reporting. It gave me a rare vantage point from which to witness the intricate details of how cities get built. I saw how neighbours related to one another, or didn’t, and how people actually used and interacted with the places where they lived. I had a front row seat to the dramas of their day-to-day lives and insight into their decision-making. I felt like I’d been given a key to the psyche of the city. At some point in there, I started referring to Vancouver as “home.”

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‘I did yoga, planted guerilla vegetable gardens and rode my bike everywhere, even in the rain.’ Photo by Jessica Barrett.

In the last three or years or so, since the issue of housing affordability got an upgrade from an ever-present concern to a full-blown crisis in Vancouver, a few common narratives have emerged. We hear a lot about young adults born and raised in the city and forced to flee to the suburbs, or farther, in search of a place to raise a family. We hear about post-secondary students sleeping on campus couches for lack of alternatives. And we hear about the shadowy figures rumoured to fly into the city, park their money in real estate and fly right out again.

I was part of a different group, an in-between segment of society that came from away and made a conscious commitment to the city. We chose to invest our skills and energy and empathy and, oh yeah, hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent, in our adopted home.

Being from Vancouver became my identity, both personally and professionally. Through my work, I saw myself as a public servant of sorts, an ambassador for the city chronicling and investigating what unfolded around me so that others might have a greater understanding of the community we shared. In my downtime, I was a card-carrying West Coast cliché, and proud of it. I did yoga, planted guerilla vegetable gardens and rode my bike everywhere, even in the rain. I didn’t have biological family in Vancouver, but my network of close friends acted as one. We celebrated holidays together, supported each other through deaths and marriages and births. We grew up. We got more serious about our careers and our partners and started our own little families. We grandfathered apartments to each other and schemed and strategized and fantasized about how we were going to pull this thing off in the long-term, this whole living in Vancouver thing.

We talked about collectively buying houses and subdividing them into apartments, we debated the merits of condo living and we put our names on wait lists for co-ops. It would be difficult, we knew, to carve out a permanent space in this city — the price of real estate ever outpacing our earning potential, even as we graduated from entry-level earners to bona fide professionals — but we were creative, resourceful and willing to compromise to remain in the communities we had built and cherished. It didn’t seem impossible though, and nobody talked about leaving. Not seriously. Not yet.

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‘Property values, ever the stuff of shock and awe, had begun to skyrocket.’ Photo by Christopher Cheung.

In late 2013, I landed a journalism fellowship that took me away from Vancouver for a year. I split my time between Ottawa and Calgary and I was dreadfully homesick the entire time. I’m sure I drove everyone who met me crazy with my endless yammering about how great Vancouver was and how much I missed it. I made a beeline back the minute my fellowship was over, despite the fact I had better job prospects elsewhere in the country and no place to live. I didn’t care. I just wanted to come home. I bunked with my best friend for a few months and started a fledgling freelance career with a biweekly column at the Vancouver Courier.

I quickly found the city I’d returned to had changed — and not just in the way that condo towers had supplanted even more vacant lots, old houses or beloved music venues. The tone had turned hostile.

Property values, ever the stuff of shock and awe, had begun to skyrocket, defying even the most bullish predictions. Then the “million dollar line” moved out of Vancouver, erasing the division between east and west on the affordability scale. The revelation gave rise to a #donthave1million social media campaign which, for about a minute, became something of a millennial rallying cry. The response from the city’s powerbrokers — developers, newspaper columnists, etc. — was by and large blunt and cruel: if young people couldn’t afford it here, they should just leave. I shot back with a column detailing the absurdity of a city that is simply OK with the fact that its young cannot afford to live there and mused about whether it was time for me to leave for more welcoming pastures. It’s probably the most widely read piece I’ve ever written.

And it wasn’t an empty threat. My year away had opened my eyes to the fact that other cities also offered the uber-modern urban experience that Vancouver — ever narcissistic in its examinations — likes to think it has a lock on. Ottawa was a little sleepy for my taste, but I rode my bike to work on separated bike lanes well into the winter (you have not lived until you’ve cycle commuted in -10), and took in spectacular fall scenery from the waterfront promenade along the Rideau Canal. Calgary, I was surprised to learn, had mountain views, a gorgeous, accessible river network and dense, walkable inner-city neighbourhoods packed with hipster hangouts.

The thing these cities didn’t seem to have was the haughty elitism I came back to in Vancouver. Instead of dismissing the concerns of those who were young and starting out, they seemed to crave, even thrive on, the energy of young families and bent over backwards to try to keep them. Even visits to my hometown of Edmonton revealed a city coming into its own, fuelled by a young, energetic populace that wasn’t so ground down by the cost — financial and emotional — of daily living that they had nothing extra to give to the noble cause of city-building.

A vision of a life beyond Vancouver started to form, but the response to my column, ironically, gave a boost to my career that extended my tenure. As one of the only people in the city under 40 with a platform for my rather pointed opinions, I felt an obligation to speak for those of us who were finding life harder and harder. I’d like to think I made some small impact in making affordability a political lightning rod. There may not be a solution to the crisis on hand as of yet, but at least the conversation has changed. At least now people don’t deny this city has a serious problem.

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‘The tone had turned hostile.’ Photo by Christopher Cheung.

In 2015 I met my boyfriend out dancing at the Beaumont Studios, my favourite underground venue that is something of an institution in my circle of friends. It was like a scene from a movie. We locked eyes across the room, time stopped and that was kind of it. He had me by the heart before I found out he was visiting from Calgary. I knew from my fellowship year that I liked his hometown, I could even see myself living there one day, but as things progressed I convinced him to move to Vancouver. I believed in the work I was doing and I wasn’t done yet — even though I knew by then it wasn’t going to make a difference in time to make a difference for me.

We talked about having kids and there was no way we’d be able to do that in Vancouver, or at least not do it and be the kind of parents we wanted to be. We’d never be able to afford child care or own a home we actually wanted to live in, and as rents rocketed upwards that option became less and less sustainable as well. It was always our plan to leave, eventually, but I wanted to go out gracefully on my own terms.

Last January, I landed my dream job at Vanmag handling city issues, politics and features. It was literally the culmination of everything I’d been working toward for nearly a decade and I wanted to stick it out for a couple of years at least, long enough to make a lasting impact.

But the city I had once loved seemed to have other plans. I’d always considered myself something of a ninja in Vancouver’s rental market. I prided myself on my ability to score excellent, affordable accommodation in the face of overwhelming odds. I loved the challenge of the hunt.

This time, finding a place for my newly formed family of three —my boyfriend, me and his dog — was defeating and degrading. My place didn’t allow pets so staying put wasn’t an option. It took us four months to find a dog-friendly apartment in our price range with a reasonable amount of space (i.e. more than 450 square feet). In the two years since my last search, the rental market seemed to have gone completely insane. Half the listings we came across were scams, and apartments in once-affordable areas of the city, like the West End, or Main Street, were going for nearly $2,000 a month. Landlords seemed to demand everything just short of a claim on your firstborn child to consider you a serious contender. One woman refused us because I wouldn’t hand over my unredacted bank statements as proof of income to a total stranger.

While we searched we sublet, put our stuff in storage and lived out of boxes and slept on blowup air mattresses in bare rooms. My boyfriend started looking for work as a graphic designer and found the average pay in Vancouver to be $10,000 to $15,000 less than the same kind of work in Calgary, which, it bears noting, was in the middle of a recession at the time. Meanwhile, I had started my new job, which I loved, but the stress and instability of our housing situation made it difficult to focus on the demands of this new, high-stress position. I started to feel increasingly frayed and when I turned to my support network for backup I found it had thinned out. My friends with kids were busy tending to their young families, and in many cases dealing with their own housing issues, other friends were going through renovictions while balancing school and work, and still more had left the city altogether.

Last winter, when snowstorms left the city covered in sheet ice, my best friend slipped in the Richmond Ikea parking lot and broke her foot, and just like that her decade in Vancouver came to an end. The injury meant she couldn’t work at her job as a baker, but more pressing than the loss of income was the fact that she couldn’t cook food, get groceries or make it to doctor’s appointments by herself while on crutches. Friends and roommates could only provide so much help around our own busy work schedules. She had no choice but to move home to Alberta. It’s a perfect example of how tenuous life is for a certain population in Vancouver. When your entire support network is made up of people at the same age and life stage, dealing with all the same stresses, all it takes is one little slip for your whole world to come crashing down.

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‘The neighbourhood itself was like living on an abandoned film set.’ Photo by Jessica Barrett.

My own collapse came when my partner declared that, although he did not wish to end our relationship, he couldn’t stay in Vancouver. I couldn’t fault him for a single reason he gave. We had finally landed in a 600 square foot coach house behind a mansion in Shaughnessy. It had a fancy address but the place itself was falling apart. The windows, which had been painted shut when we moved in, were now wedged open and wouldn’t close; the dishwasher (a major luxury we were excited to have) had broken and become a mildew factory, the door would only close when locked and would only lock if I heaved on it with my entire body weight. The heater in the bedroom buzzed so loud that I had to wear earplugs while I slept and we didn’t have a smoke detector. There was no storage, no place to put a kitchen table and nowhere else for us to go. For this, we paid $1,700 a month to a woman worth millions who clearly didn’t need the rent. It was obvious we were paying her to be onsite security for the winter months she spent in California.

The neighbourhood itself was like living on an abandoned film set. Aside from our landlord, we only ever saw construction workers, landscapers, and on occasion, the squatters who lived in the empty mansion across the street — just a line on someone’s investment sheet somewhere.

I was depressed and utterly burnt out. I rarely went to yoga or rode my bike or saw my friends. I had no time or energy for anything that brought me joy. To add to the pile, my office, then a 15-minute walk away from our place, was moving to Burnaby — another casualty of the Vancouver rental market — adding a two-hour commute onto a schedule where I already seldom took a lunch break or left work on time and frequently attended events after work and on weekends. And I still freelanced regularly for extra cash, because in Vancouver you always need extra cash.

No matter which way I envisioned rearranging my life in Vancouver, with or without my boyfriend, I couldn’t see myself ever getting out of the energy deficit that was starting to have a serious impact on my health. I was getting anxiety attacks on an almost daily basis and when I did venture out to do chores on weekends I felt like a shell of myself. The city felt like a shell of what it once was, too.

All the places that felt like home, the coffee shops where I loved to write, the grocery stores where I had shopped all those years earlier, almost all of them were gone, either slated to become condos or simply languishing as vacant storefronts. Contrary to Vancouver’s reputation, I’d never felt isolated as long as I’d lived there until my last year, when the loneliness became unbearable.

When my partner said he had to go, I expected the voice in my head to plead: “don’t leave me,” instead it said: “don’t leave me here.”

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‘It was the city or my sanity.’ Photo by Jessica Barrett.

I promised myself that when I left the city I wouldn’t write one of those essays comparing it to an abusive relationship, or claiming I’d been forced out. In the end, leaving was a choice I made for myself, for my well-being and for the future I would like to have. But truthfully there was no contest — it was the city or my sanity. My sanity won.

Still, leaving on the verge of my most productive years felt like a bitter defeat and an utter waste of my experience and expertise. I know Vancouver like few do and few ever will. I am part of its institutional and cultural memory, I know its nuances, its bureaucracies, its quirks and social history — I also know where to find 24-hour dosas, a secret nude beach, and a raging after hours. I have a perspective that’s important in a city at serious risk of losing its soul.

But the fact is the life span of a city and the life span of a human run at vastly different rates. Maybe Vancouver will figure its way out of this affordability crisis, maybe it will continue to be a resort for the rich. I am curious to see what becomes of it, and I’ll be watching closely from the sidelines, but I can’t sacrifice myself to stick around and find out.

So what happens to me? Well, for now I’m bunking with my parents in Edmonton, enjoying some family time and resting up and getting to know the city I grew up in in a whole new light. In January I’ll be moving to Calgary, where my partner and I have found an affordable, spacious two-bedroom apartment right on the river and walking distance from downtown. If all goes well, we plan to save some money and buy a house in the next couple of years — an actual house, with a yard and everything.

Vancouver taught me what I value and what’s important to me in a city, but it also taught me it’s not unique to that city, at least not anymore. You can find bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods and hip cafes almost anywhere now. What I’m looking for is much harder to find. I want to live in a place that feels like it really wants me, a place where my life feels like it gives as much as it gets. When I find that, I’ll know I’ve found my home.  [Tyee]

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