At Issue: The Young and The Houseless

The second Thursday in July had been a pleasantly sunny day, but that hardly mattered to the inmates of Vancouver city hall. They were slogging through yet another week of the run-until-all-hours meetings that have become typical of the city’s new four-party, no-majority, we-can’t-even-guess-what-they-might-do-next set of civic politicians.

It had been a grinding two-night public hearing, whose major drama unfolded when two federal candidates showed up to take opposing sides on the issue. They were joined by a raft of younger people begging for new rentals, and older homeowners begging to not have “too large” a building intrude into their neighbourhood. In the end, council voted 7-3 to allow a six-storey rental apartment on Fraser Street south of Kingsway.

It could have been just another standard “conservatives on one side, progressives on the other” kind of vote. But the three opposed appeared to have only one common denominator: they were all born before 1960, the only ones on council in that bracket. Otherwise, they were as far apart on the political spectrum as it’s possible to be. Jean Swanson, 76 and a lifelong campaigner for better housing and living conditions for the poor, represents the city’s most left-wing party, COPE. There’s Adriane Carr, 67 and a staunch environmentalist and standard-bearer for the Green Party. And Colleen Hardwick, 61, the councillor deemed the most conservative—especially when it comes to fighting off any efforts to introduce density, rapid transit or change in Vancouver’s west-side neighbourhoods—is among the five councillors from the centre-right Non-Partisan Association.

They appeared to epitomize what San Francisco housing activist Randy Shaw, author of the recently published Generation Priced Out, has called the problem of urban boomers—an analysis that has also emerged as a theme in a small surge of articles on the country’s housing problems. Shaw, who has visited Vancouver in the past, said in an interview from his home turf that boomers, many of whom got to buy housing in a much different economic climate, have been a powerful force blocking supply in cities across the U.S. and a key reason for skyrocketing housing prices. And it’s been the so-called “progressives,” homeowners or not, he says, who have been the worst, because they see themselves as fighting the good fight against bad developers in their efforts to preserve the neighbourhoods they bought into decades ago. “That generation of boomers doesn’t see the environmental impact of housing, and what it means when you make 120,000 people commute to the Bay Area because there’s no housing for them close by.”

But is it all really that simple? Shaw, 63, is himself a homeowner in Berkeley—a hotbed of NIMBYism—and has been a Swanson-like advocate for decades, fighting to protect poor renters from corporate greed. Yet he’s as militantly pro-housing supply as any millennial.

Talk to Vancouver councillors of all ages, and they scramble to point out the many ways in which politics is more nuanced, more complicated than along birth-year fault lines. Swanson, a non-homeowner who has lived at an east-side housing co-op for years, says differences in voting are far more about class than anything else, though she says she has noticed a group showing up at council of “white men 35 to 45, who say they want more density.” NPAer Melissa De Genova, 36, the second-youngest person on council and someone who votes for new housing projects more consistently than any of her party colleagues, emphasizes that there are many times when she and Hardwick vote together. (Hardwick almost never responds to interview requests and did not break tradition for this story.) Even on councils where the generational divide is more pronounced—like in the District of North Vancouver, where the two 30-something councillors are almost always on the losing end of 5-2 votes over housing—those councillors are reluctant to pin their philosophical differences on age.

But Carr, a West End apartment owner (assessed value: $418,000) since moving back to Vancouver from the Sunshine Coast in 2007, says she does sense a generational divide, with a different mindset among Gen-Xers and millennials. “I think there’s a greater openness to height and density,” she says. “And for the residents who are worried about preserving their neighbourhoods—that doesn’t resonate with younger people.” On the other hand, her younger Green Party colleague, Pete Fry, 50, has voted against more housing proposals than Carr has, by a wide margin.

Politics watchers also caution against a simple young-old explanation. After all, 60-something renters rarely appear at public hearings to oppose new housing, unless it’s the unit they’re actually living in that’s facing demolition. And not every 60-something homeowner harps on that, either. It’s a limited set that does so.

Simon Fraser University political scientist Stewart Prest, 40, recently put forward the idea that the split in Vancouver politics is no longer left-right. Nor is it young-old. Instead, he frames it as urbanist-conservationist. Carr, Hardwick and Swanson lean toward the conservationist side, in spite of the political distance between them. Swanson publicly opposed building rental apartments, the kind that are now a part of the city’s much-valued low-cost rental stock, around Commercial Drive in the 1970s, saying it would drive people out of their “affordable” homes. Carr wrote a master’s thesis in her youth about how apartments going up in Kitsilano were eroding a “family neighbourhood.” Hardwick, who owns a house with a suite valued at $4.5 million on Kits Point, a neighbourhood that has become infamous for its opposition to almost everything, is the daughter of a well-known member of the 1972 TEAM council—the one that shut down high-rise development in the West End, Kits and elsewhere once elected as part of their commitment to “listening to neighbourhoods.”

So what is happening with younger people? The likelier explanation for a different attitude is that they’re living a different economic reality.

“I definitely buy that there’s a difference between the securely housed and the not-securely housed, and that can often run along generational/age lines,” says Stuart Smith, 46, a renter in Fairview and a co-founder of Affordable Housing Vancouver, an offshoot of the YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) movement that has mushroomed in many high-cost North American cities.

In another era, these young engineers, data analysts and tech workers would have been able to claw their way into a somewhat affordable townhouse or dumpy bungalow. But, with those options closed and a lengthy future of hog-wrestling unpleasant, demovicting landlords on the horizon, they’ve become more militant.

“Young people do feel a lot more stress around this issue,” says Mathew Bond, a 35-year-old councillor in the District of North Vancouver. Although Bond, also an engineer, has managed to buy one of the lowest-cost townhouses in the district, that hasn’t happened for many in his friend group. “It feels like it’s a lot crazier,” he says.

And it may continue to feel that way for many of Bond’s peers, who could be looking at more long nights like that one in July, in which they’re forced to fight for new housing they can actually afford. Despite the fresh faces involved, the battle is driven not by youth, but by desperation.