Last November, a journalist who relocated from Vancouver to Calgary to avoid rising rents penned a widely read personal essay for The Tyee titled “I Left Vancouver Because Vancouver Left Me.” The piece, which focuses on journalist Jessica Barrett’s ongoing struggle to eke out a living space in an increasingly unaffordable city, resonated with Vancouverites and was shared over 18,000 times on Facebook. However, as critics were quick to point out, her diatribe is just one particularly popular example of an ongoing and troubling trope —the “Escaping Vancouver” narrative.
Though they draw on personal anecdotes and genuine emotion, the various iterations of the “Escaping Vancouver” narrative share a core unexamined underpinning: the idea that I, a hard-working, usually white, middle class person, did everything right, became successful, and yet am still unable to afford to live in the city of my choice. Unsurprisingly, they resonate with a particular audience now experiencing a deep sense of mismatch between their cultural expectations and the realities of living in a world shaped by the twin forces of economic globalization and neoliberal deregulation [i].
More recently the “Escaping Vancouver” narrative has been joined by a new counterpart, the “Staying Put” narrative, led by young professionals championing the Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) movement and arts and culture organizations like the Vancouver Mural Fest. This narrative suggests the middle class should remain in Vancouver by fighting back against displacement and the affordability crisis through increasing the housing supply and protecting cultural venues. While drawing from the language of the left, the “Staying Put” narrative presents urban real estate developers and new-build condos as the solution to Vancouver’s troubles, rather than as agents of up-scaling and displacement.
“Escaping Vancouver” and “Staying Put” present a dichotomy, where the options for dealing with the housing crisis are to either leave for greener, more affordable pastures, or stay and demand greater access to homeownership and Vancouver’s increasingly consumer-driven public lifestyle. Both narratives have failed to build a coalition with social justice and housing movements, which have been lobbying for affordable housing and fighting against the gentrification of low-income neighbourhoods. I want to challenge the embedded privilege that characterizes what might be termed “middle class self-help advocacy”—the tendency to rely on individualized solutions to collective social problems.
It is important to acknowledge that for the middle class, moving away and claiming a right to home ownership represent a personal choice. It’s a neoliberal solution to the neoliberal problem of housing affordability that cannot be equated with the forced displacement of low-income people by gentrification. As a result, we should consider how our genuine upset and anger at being ‘displaced’ can be used as fuel for allyship, solidarity, and collective social action.
Neoliberalism, Economic Globalization, and the Middle Class
Over the past 30 years, the Canadian middle class has been in a deeply contradictory position, as both the beneficiary and casualty of economic globalization and neoliberal deregulation. These forces can often feel abstract as they are linked to impersonal macro-institutions like free-trade agreements, the growing power of multinational corporations, and the increased speed of transnational and financialized capitalism. They do, however, have tangible implications for our daily lives. They are the reason we can buy imported produce and consumer goods, previously considered luxury items, at low prices. However, the increased circulation of capital associated with globalization, coupled with the deregulation of labour standards as well as housing markets, has created significantly negative effects for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, both locally and globally.
In Vancouver we know the increased commodification of housing and the growth of mortgage markets combined with a deregulatory stance from all levels of government has been a problem for at least the past 25 years. Those in the most precarious positions have traditionally borne the brunt of the effects of displacement and rising rents. What for low-income communities has been a long, painful process of economic and social exclusion is now being experienced, albeit with different stakes, by the lower-middle and middle class, who are beginning to be priced out of the very neighbourhoods they helped gentrify in the first place. Thus stories of displacement, which usually ran in more left-leaning news outlets in the city, including The Volcano, The Mainlander, and Vancouver Media Co-op, have now found their way into mainstream discourse.
Main Street and the Nostalgia for First-Wave Gentrification
A common thread running through the various iterations of the “Escaping Vancouver” and “Staying Put” narratives is a sense of nostalgia for the loss of “authentic” neighbourhoods due to commercial and residential up-scaling. One frequently referenced neighbourhood is Mount Pleasant, home to the trendy commercial shopping strip Main Street. This weaving of a nostalgia narrative is prominently on display in Barrett’s essay. Mid-way through the article she notes:
“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.”
What Barrett and others do not recognize is that, during this period, the area she moved into was experiencing early gentrification, making it increasingly unaffordable for low-income residents who had called Mount Pleasant home. Studying the Lower East Side neighbourhood of Manhattan, American sociologist Richard Ocejo points out it is often first-wave gentrifiers who are the strongest critics of later waves of gentrification, which force housing prices and amenities ever upward [iii].
The Main Street neighbourhood was situated within historically working class East Vancouver for much of the 20th century. Through the 1970s and 1980s it was home to a growing population of immigrants, and the main commercial strip supported functional amenities such as car repair shops and hardware stores. However, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with an influx of more middle and upper-class homeowners, the area began to shift and emerge as a dining and nightlife hub in the city. This process was also accelerated by the closure of the Little Mountain Housing Project in 2007, which displaced hundreds of low-income families from the neighbourhood [iii].
Increasingly since 2010, Main Street has undergone what academics refer to as third-wave or “super gentrification,” characterized by conspicuous consumption, elitism, and perhaps willful blindness to the role such consumption plays in upscaling the neighbourhood. As geographer Loretta Lees argues, super gentrification is linked to an influx of high-income earners who set the tone for neighbourhood amenities [iv]. These newcomers have drastically altered the commercial character of Mount Pleasant, as rising commercial real estate has priced out longstanding businesses.
What the “Escaping Vancouver” narrative expresses is a wish to return to earlier phases of gentrification, which, while harmful to low-income residents, allowed the middle class to retain its place of privilege. This is not to say that this sentiment is invalid as the super gentrification of Main Street has now become harmful to both low-income and middle class renters. However, a greater sense of awareness is needed to understand how first-wave gentrifiers often help to pave the way for later and greater up-scaling.
Moving Away and the Gentrification of Mid-Sized Canadian Cities
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the discourse of middle-class self help advocacy is the economic individualism that lies at its core. By moving away to a city where “if all goes well,” they can “buy an actual house, with a yard and everything,” authors like Barrett are confirming the central neoliberal expectation of human action: we are rational utility-maximizing creatures who must always look out for our own best interests [v].
This becomes additionally problematic when Barrett turns a gentrifier’s gaze on mid-sized Canadian cities like Edmonton, Calgary, and Ottawa, which are experiencing an influx of young professionals from Toronto and Vancouver. In a pre-move visit to Calgary, Barrett is delighted to find that “you can find bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods and hip cafes almost anywhere now.” However, the discourse of escaping fails to recognize how the choice to move to a neighbourhood in another city with affordable homes and cheap, cool amenities, will impact people already living in these neighbourhoods. Whether we decide to leave or stay, we should be looking for something more than living in a city with the next up-and-coming coffee shops.
“Staying Put” as a Solution to the Housing Crisis: Yes In My Backyard and the STAY Campaign
Over the past six months, interest in the “Escaping Vancouver” narrative has slowly been giving way to a discourse of “Staying Put” and struggling against the city’s ongoing affordability issues. This narrative has been promoted by Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY) housing affordability activism, and conversations about “cultural sustainability” and the need to protect Vancouver’s spaces of arts and consumption from displacement brought on by increasing real estate values. The “Staying Put” narrative, however, places a similar emphasis on middle-class homeownership and a consumption-oriented lifestyle while neglecting the broader effects of deregulated capitalism.
YIMBY organizations have been cropping up in recent years, led by young middle class professionals concerned with their ability to afford homes in the Lower Mainland. These groups, such as Housing Action for Local Taxpayers (HALT) and Abundant Housing, take on the mantle of housing activism, advocating for increasing urban density through rezoning, based on the belief that Vancouver’s affordability issues stem from a lack of supply of new housing. Much like the “Escaping Vancouver” narrative, YIMBYs express a legitimate discontent with the housing crisis, while critiquing existing homeowners for blocking new developments on the basis of self-interest “quality of life” motivations (known as Not In My Backyard-ers – “NIMBYs”).
However, as with YIMBY movements in other cities like San Francisco and Seattle, groups like Abundant Housing are antagonistic to traditional low-income housing movements, suggesting they frame real estate developers as enemies when they should be treated as allies. Meanwhile, developers have been unsurprisingly enthusiastic about YIMBYs and their efforts to dismantle existing zoning and add density to neighbourhoods. While YIMBYs are concerned with gaining access to homeownership, they don’t challenge the underlying commodification of housing that is fuelling the crisis for low-income people and renters.
The YIMBY movement has also been accompanied by culturally-oriented organizations like the STAY Campaign, sponsored by the Vancouver Mural Festival, which solicits unscripted “ethnographic stories” from Vancouverites in the style of the popular website Humans of New York. Presenting vignettes which pose the question “why does Vancouver need me?” the STAY Campaign’s goal is to create “a Vancouver where we can all stay —no matter our socio-economic status, profession, age or identity politics” through “a new movement of radical empathy.”
As with the “Escaping Vancouver” narrative, this presents an individualized approach to affordability issues, without building the political solidarity needed to reverse the city’s housing crisis and deepening inequality. Mirroring the problems of first wave gentrification, the campaign’s events take place in middle class spaces of consumption, like kombucha bars and craft breweries, with the vignettes presenting a lack of reflexivity about the role these tastes play in displacement and commercial up-scaling.
Less Individualism: Fighting Back Against the Commodification of Housing
So is there a better solution than middle class self-help advocacy? The answer is yes. We should be challenging neoliberalism rather than exercising the privileged choice to “escape Vancouver” or stay at the expense of low-income communities. This means fighting with those most acutely affected by housing inequality and building networks of solidarity, activism, and allyship, rather than seeking individual self-fulfillment here or elsewhere. It’s a call to recognize the interconnected nature of economic globalization and neoliberal deregulation, and to acknowledge that these are not issues that can be “moved away” from or solved by partnering with more private capital.
For those interested in fighting back, you are in luck. In the past several years there has been a growing number of distinct yet interrelated and inclusive counter-movements that have begun to challenge the hegemony of real estate developers, predatory landlords, Airbnb entrepreneurs, tech millionaires and mansion owners in Vancouver. These movements have given rise to a number of organizations and campaigns, including the fight against the gentrification of Chinatown and the 105 Keefer project, the Vancouver Tenants Union, and most recently the progressive platform of COPE and Jean Swanson’s run for City Council.
These movements have all emphasized the fact that struggles against displacement occur against the backdrop of the original colonial displacement of the Coast Salish peoples from their unceded homelands and that Indigenous rights and decolonization must accompany all forms of activism. While providing a ray of hope for the future of Vancouver, they reinforce the long-known adage —power will not cede itself and therefore it must be challenged.
[i] For an analysis of the cultural desire to own a single-family home, see UBC professor Nathan Lauster’s 2016 book The Death and Life of the Single Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Liveable City by Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
[ii] Ocejo, Richard. (2011) “The Early Gentrifier: Weaving a Nostalgia Narrative on the Lower East Side.” City & Community 10(3): 285-310.
[iii] Chudnovsky, David and Linda Shapiro. “The Sad Lessons of Little Mountain.” The Tyee September 12th, 2016.
[iv] Lees, Loretta. (2003) “Super Gentrification: The Case of Brooklyn Heights, New York City.” Urban Studies 40(12): 2487-2509.
[v] Harvey, David. (2007) A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Press, Oxford.