This Family of Strangers is Beating Vancouver’s Affordability Crisis

Want to live in a west side mansion? You could pay $8 million—or you could share it (and your life) with one of Vancouver’s modern-day communes.

Imagine daily communal dinners with four or five roommates, weekly house meetings and frequent jam sessions in the shared music space. If it sounds to you like a throwback to your penny-pinching college days, you wouldn’t be alone.

But the collective living movement in Vancouver, led largely by twenty- and thirtysomethings searching for a deeper sense of community and a workaround for the city’s housing affordability crisis, is 1960s- and ’70s-era hippie idealism reimagined for the sharing economy set, and this new generation of cohabitators is hoping to take the stigma out of the traditionally bohemian lifestyle.

“Our society is very individualistic, so people often ask me if I’m part of a cult or commune,” says 26-year-old Jen Muranetz, a video journalist who works for Simon Fraser University and has been living in collective housing for almost three years. “For some people, it’s about affordability, but for me it’s just as much about lifestyle and community.”

On the surface, the difference between simply having roommates and living collectively appears ambiguous, but dig deeper and the differences become clear. Roommates, often united by convenience more than anything else, might share little more than a morning greeting on the doorstep on the way to school or work. Conversely, a collective household appeals to professionals, cultural creatives, students and those looking to live intentionally with others around commonly held values, shared meals and social occasions, as well as reaching out to the broader collective-living community through special workshops and events. In essence, it’s about redefining family, Muranetz explains.

When she moved into her first collective, the Hen House, three years ago, Muranetz quickly discovered the benefits of living with like-minded people in a large city home with a yard, but without the crushing monthly rent that would place such homes beyond the reach of most folks in her demographic. This first experience was cut short by a renoviction, but those few months made a serious impact: Muranetz secured a lease with two of her Hen House roomies in August 2014 to start a collective of their own. They recruited two others who were part of the Vancouver Collective Houses Network group on Facebook, and together they moved into a three-level 1920s character house with gabled windows on a leafy East Van corner lot. They dubbed their new collective the Lounge, joining what Muranetz estimates to be more than 50 collective houses in Vancouver.

“For some people, it’s about affordability, but for me it’s just as much about lifestyle and community.”

Like most collectives, the Lounge developed what Muranetz calls an ethos—something closer to a mission statement than house rules. It defines the spirit and intention of the house, setting collectives far apart from the college flophouses that stagger from one weekend party to another. Muranetz and her housemates call theirs “the Lounge manifesto” and articulate it clearly on their Facebook page so prospective new roomies know what’s expected and what to expect if they unpack their bags at the house. (It reads: “to create an equally involved, respectful and considerate collective, foster interpersonal growth and self-development, nourish each other through daily meals, support a culture of giving and sharing, and as we grow, our roots should spread to the larger community in Vancouver.”)

Step through the Lounge’s front door and you’ll see decor dominated by musical instruments, plants, books and artwork; one room, dedicated to music and movies, is kitted out with a drum set and projector. Dinner is an important time at the Lounge, an occasion for sharing healthy, home-cooked food and for connecting with housemates over conversation. Out back, the garden has already been planted with tomatoes, kale, garlic, carrots and other veggies, which Muranetz says they often share with neighbours. Occasionally, the Lounge will open its front door for a workshop; one housemate, a nutritionist, recently gave a class on fermenting. Given some of the misperceptions about collective living—that it’s a euphemism for some sort of flaky commune—Muranetz believes they were lucky to quickly find a “family-focused” landlord who trusted that this group of prospective tenants wasn’t searching for a party house.

“I think collective living appeals to millennials in particular because they tend to be more open to a sharing economy and lifestyle,” Muranetz says. “But it’s not exclusively a millennial movement.”

Each collective is unique; the housemates define its intention. After his marriage unravelled, Tito Ohep, a 44-year-old engineer and father of two, was struggling emotionally. He discovered collective living and helped create a house known as Cosmic Corner before landing at the Kusala Co-op, an all-vegan collective near Queen Elizabeth Park. He says it’s changed his perspective on Vancouver. “My kids love it. I’m paying $790 per month and I get a room in a large house, a big kitchen, a yard and a music room,” says Ohep. “Sure, there are a thousand little conflicts that come up, but they’re small.”

“I think collective living appeals to millennials in particular because they tend to be more open to a sharing economy and lifestyle, but it’s not exclusively a millennial movement.”

Erik Paulsson, an independent documentary filmmaker, is another Vancouverite who has had the collective lifestyle reshape his definition of family. He belongs to Inspiral Community Mansion, located in a sprawling 7,500-square-foot, six-bedroom Spanish-style mansion on a one-acre Southwest Marine Drive property valued at more than $7 million. Also 44, he’s on the older end of the collective living demographic spectrum. Like the Lounge, Inspiral is shaped around an idealistic ethos, which its members define as living from “a place of compassion and with a goal to make the world a better place.” In practice, that means nurturing a tight-knit community—so recluses need not apply. Paulsson says if you’re highly protective of your personal space and favour quiet dinners rather than lively conversation, then perhaps collective living is not for you. And the key to collective living harmony, according to Paulsson, is open dialogue and weekly meetings to prevent conflicts and problems before they occur, whether it’s the necessary minutia of housework or defining the acceptable volume of tunes in the music room.

But even as the popularity of collective housing grows in Vancouver, many of its adherents are living in jurisdictional limbo, thanks to a dusty City of Vancouver regulation known as bylaw 3575, which prohibits more than five non-blood relatives from living under one roof, even if a mansion, like the one Paulsson inhabits, could comfortably accommodate more. (The bylaw was allegedly designed to combat brothels.) That means some collective houses are either forced to lie to landlords or simply not realize the potential of a house.

“This is a really archaic bylaw and we’re hoping to have it changed,” Paulsson says. “Our house is 7,500 square feet and that’s huge for five people.”

What started organically, partly as a solution to high housing costs and partly as an antidote to urban alienation, is getting more organized. Last fall, Paulsson co-founded the Collective Housing Society, hoping to provide a unified voice for collective living devotees and lobby the city for regulatory change.

City hall is starting to pay attention. Vancouver councillor Melissa De Genova was elected for the NPA in 2014 with affordable housing as a central pillar of her campaign. But she admits she was unfamiliar with the relevant section of bylaw 3575 until it was brought to her attention by Muranetz at the Re:Address conference last October, which drew housing affordability experts from around the world to the city. De Genova is now urging city staff to re-examine the bylaw.

“I believe we need to think outside the box. This bylaw is too prescriptive,” De Genova says. “Collective living is not for everyone, but why are we limiting people and forcing them to go underground?”

However, her Vision Vancouver counterpart, councillor Geoff Meggs, says it might be a moot point, given that the city has not received any complaints about violations and is not actively enforcing the restriction. “A change would require a complex set of revisions to various fire and other bylaws, so staff have elected to tackle bigger, more urgent issues,” Meggs says.

But that’s not good enough for Muranetz and Paulsson. Like most bylaws, enforcement is complaint-driven, and that leaves many people in collective living scenarios feeling illegitimate and vulnerable. So as she advocates for regulatory change, Muranetz is also tackling the issue from a journalist’s perspective. In February, she premiered a 10-minute documentary about collective living called Better Together, enabled by a $10,000 grant through Telus’s Storyhive program. The short film takes viewers inside several collective houses, letting them eavesdrop on dinner-table conversation at the Inspiral Community Mansion and witness the final days of Sacred Heart House, a collective whose residents were also evicted for renovations.

“Collective living is so normal in my social circles, but outside them, a lot of people are unfamiliar with it,” Muranetz says. “I’m hoping the documentary will educate people on collective housing and help make this way of living more widely understood and accepted.” It likely won’t be that big a leap for Vancouverites, watching from shoebox-sized apartments, to change their perspective on the communal lifestyle—one peek into this magical, alternative world where social lives are vibrant and backyards are attainable without a $2-million mortgage, and collective living looks a lot like living the dream.

Check back for more from our How We Live Now package, where we dive into the who, the where and the how of Vancouver’s renting scene.