June 19th, 2023 – Over twenty tenants living in Vancouver’s West End neighborhood filled a small community space on the evening of June 19th, 2023. Attendees included a large number of seniors, some having resided in the neighborhood for more than three decades, alongside younger newcomers to the area. Organizers minded coffee, welcomed guests, and handed out literature. They had all gathered on this rainy Monday evening to hear a member of the Vancouver Tenants Union deliver a “Keep Your Landlord in Check” workshop, ask questions related to their tenancy concerns, and gauge their own interest in becoming involved in the neighborhood’s newly revitalized chapter.
The West End Chapter of the Vancouver Tenants Union has been operational since mid-June 2023. Last Monday’s “Keep Your Landlord in Check” workshop drew a crowd of concerned, engaged area renters. This is not surprising – as of 2023, the West End includes the largest concentration of purpose-built rental housing and nearly one third of all renting households in Vancouver. In an area with so many renters, common ground and shared challenges are not difficult to find.
The concentration of renters living west of Burrard Street in Vancouver is not an accident of history. The flight of early Vancouver’s most affluent residents to Shaughnessy during the 1910s resulted in a large number of rooming houses and multi-unit rentals operating in the neighborhood by the early 20th century. After the second world war, downtown business interests successfully lobbied for a rapid upzoning of the area that resulted in the frantic construction of taller, mostly purpose-built rental housing in the West End. Equally sought after small Floor Space Ratios also allowed for the construction of new towers occupying entire lots, leaving little room for green space and maximizing the number of rent-generating units in a single property. The large number of affordable one-bedroom, bachelor, and studio units included in said buildings would, following the logic of developers, create a dense community of downtown office workers and shoppers where none previously existed. This would allow the West End and downtown core to economically “feed off each other,” as Donald Gutstein writes in his 1975 analysis of neighborhood development.
These conditions, coupled with the gradual worsening of Canada’s perpetual housing crisis and continued financialization of the housing stock nationwide, are part of what brought tenants together this week.
The room was nearly silent when the workshop began, as each person scribbled notes and reviewed a copy of the “Keep Your Landlord in Check” pamphlet printed by the Vancouver Tenants Union. As the slides progressed, the group reviewed the legality of different fees, rent increases, maintenance and repairs, and harassment by building managers and landlords. Attendees readily flagged the issues that impacted them most. Inadequate heating, laundry services, infestations, suspicious additional rent increases, and harassment intended to encourage an end of tenancy were common themes. Some expressed anxiety at the frequency of upzoning and redevelopment along the Thurlow corridor. Multiple tenants in the room lived in buildings recently purchased by Real Estate Investment Trusts, or REITs – multinational financial corporations that purchase buildings for the purpose of turning them into investment assets. For those living in REIT-owned buildings, the arrival of the investment firms has coincided with less attentive building management and rising rents buoyed by apparently superficial upgrades.
Nearly every person who spoke relayed feelings of precarity. Regardless of how secure their current housing situation or positive their relationship with a landlord, skyrocketing rents throughout the neighborhood kept these West End residents from feeling as though they were fully in control of their housing situation. People were tired of repeated, exhausting confrontations with their landlord to minimal effect.
Conversation naturally turned to possible solutions and the role of collective action in achieving them. Some attendees pointed out the inexplicable absence of collective bargaining rights for tenants under the law similar to those held by unions – something that the Rent Strike Bargain campaign is working to change alongside a growing list of allies in organized labor. Others stressed the extent of their own vulnerability and that of their neighbors if they were to act alone in their buildings. A practical example of tenant power resulting in restored amenities to a building in the form of the Portland Tenants Union’s recent struggle for elevator service answered several questions and boosted morale. The meeting and workshop closed with shared anecdotes of when, how, and why individuals decided to take action in their buildings. A small notebook circulated to collect contact information from prospective members.
The West End became a “renters neighborhood” because development capital wanted it that way, relying on imbalanced legal frameworks to subordinate renters’ rights to those of owners and ensure that steady flows of capital would continue moving through the central business district. That said, collective action led by tenants themselves demonstrates the potential for this same concentration of renters to result in serious gains for what Ricardo Tranjan has termed the “Tenant Class.” While the prominence of renting households in the West End is a consequence of developer-driven policy, it has also given rise to a resurgence of organized tenant power.
Last week’s successful workshop will be followed by regular biweekly meetings of the West End Chapter of the Vancouver Tenants Union and a regular presence at the West End Farmers Market. West End tenants seeking security, dignity, and restitution for unacceptable living conditions may be joining a city-wide movement of others like them.
If you live in the West End or Coal Harbour and would like to receive updates about the chapter’s work or get involved, you can visit: https://www.vancouvertenantsunion.ca/west-end-join or email email@example.com.
- Gutstein, Donald. (1975). Vancouver ltd. Toronto : J. Lorimer
- Tranjan, R. (2023). The Tenant Class. Canada: Between the Lines.