Vancouver is routinely named one of the best cities in which to live. Yet, optimism is quickly shattered by the cost of actually living in Vancouver. Where one headline reads, “Best city to live” another quips, “Most unaffordable city.” The reality is that the cost of housing in Vancouver continues to rise with no end in sight. Cost of housing is an economic issue. It’s a practical issue. And for Christians in the area, it’s a faith issue.
In Vancouver, unaffordable housing has created a culture of unease, a lack of personal and social peace. Vancouver churches and Christians are often left ministering to people navigating this burden.
Personal and social well-being is significantly impacted by Vancouver housing costs. In a recent Angus Reid poll, housing was rated as the main issue facing Vancouverites where there is a strong correlation between housing and happiness. Nearly half of Vancouver residents are either “uncomfortable” (18%) or “miserable” (27%) when it comes to housing in the region, with the majority of these respondents under the age of 54. Additionally, of those polled, including those who are content with their housing situation, over 40% are “seriously thinking of leaving Metro Vancouver because of the cost of owning a home here.” That’s nearly half the city! These statistics show that while housing can be a source of peace and well-being, it can also be a source of great stress and burden. In Vancouver, unaffordable housing has created a culture of unease, a lack of personal and social peace. Vancouver churches and Christians are often left ministering to people navigating this burden.
The dissatisfaction has led to significant demographic shifts. For many, particularly millennials and younger families, unaffordable housing has simply made Vancouver unlivable. As a result, Vancouver suburbs are seeing steady–at times explosive–housing growth due in part to the exodus of Vancouverites. Add to this a foreign real estate investment market that drives prices upwards, and the fleeting families are replaced by no one at all. As a participant at a recent forum on Vancouver housing queried, “Can we imagine a city without children?” A sobering thought. Additionally, before and after the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, gentrification has created substantial change in several areas of the city. Renovations, tear-downs, and new housing developments have all contributed to the shifting–and costly–landscape. Again, housing has disturbed the peace of the city. Unfortunately, the Christian community has struggled to unite in addressing these aspects of housing. Should Christians support development initiatives as stewards of wealth? Or should Christians be a voice for justice with the reality of ongoing poverty? These are lingering questions Vancouver Christians face.
From countless community gardens and farmers markets, to increased bikeability, to regular neighbourhood-specific community events, to establishing neighbhourhood regions, Vancouver has a burgeoning neighbourhood culture.
It’s interesting, then, that paralleling the housing crisis there has been a growing movement to value and revitalize the localness of Vancouver. From countless community gardens and farmers markets, to increased bikeability, to regular neighbourhood-specific community events, to establishing neighbhourhood regions, Vancouver has a burgeoning neighbourhood culture. Christians and churches have focused strategically on Vancouver and it’s neighbourhoods as an important place for mission to be carried out. For example, the impetus of several denominations to plant new urban churches has recognized and contributed to the grassroots thriving of Vancouver neighbourhoods. A “think local” mentality has taken root in a way that, ironically, has made Vancouver neighbourhoods home to many.
In this movement, contrary to the suburban exodus driven by “bigger is better,” many people have come to accept that less is better. Accepted is the reality of “downward mobility,” the intentional choice to live with less personal space for the sake of increased connection in the neighbourhood. Accumulation is measured socially not materially. There is the value of proximity with work and neighbours, even with the loss of personal space. This often involves the creative use of public areas, or “third spaces,” as places to build an experience of home outside of one’s literal home. The local park is your backyard and the coffee house or pub is your living room. It’s what Vancouver pastor and leader, Karen Reed, describes as “living connected to place.” It’s in engaging neighbourhoods that some level of happiness–of peace–is restored, even in the midst of the ever-looming housing issue.
Depending on how one approaches the issue, then, housing in Vancouver offers two very different perspectives. One is the dire reality of skyrocketing prices, shifting demographics and social ills of gentrification. The other is the beauty of neighbourhood connection and shifting values beyond economics. One is global. One is local.
On the one hand, housing is a large-scale issue related to the overall Vancouver economy and culture. And beyond local politics, housing in Vancouver reflects the complexity of shifting trends in Canada’s economy and beyond. Housing in Vancouver, in many ways, is a global issue. On the other hand, however, there is the neighbourhood renewal, in many cases with Christians at the forefront. Intergenerational and multicultural experiences of local connection point to a thriving community. And we are left to wonder, which best describes Vancouver? Is it unaffordable and exclusive–a complex global city? Or is it social and full of character–a beautiful local network?
I want to suggest that both perspectives are needed. Separating the global and the local doesn’t deal with the complexity of how both areas are important to the social vitality of life in Vancouver. David Ley, professor at UBC and expert in Vancouver housing trends, recently challenged Vancouverites to acknowledge the connectedness of both the global and local realities of housing in Vancouver. Ley emphasized how laws and policies have created an environment where big picture issues are directly impacting the day-to-day experiences of residents. And to be able to measure the effectiveness of housing policies, decision-makers have to pay attention to the local impact on existing and future residents. Any sort of restored peace in the area of housing in Vancouver needs such comprehensive attention.
In your global initiatives, think about being a neighbour, but then also literally be a neighbour. The peace of Vancouver depends on it.
The complexity of Vancouver housing can be overwhelming for anyone to respond to, let alone Christians, whose commitment to bear witness to the gospel of peace compels us to engage the social issues around us. Silence or ignorance is not an option. But before we choose to take a big picture response or hone in on a neighbourhood approach, Christians need to pause and consider addressing the whole issue of housing in Vancouver. To the Christians across Vancouver bringing a thriving local presence with energy and creativity: continue! But take the stories of vibrant life and invest some of that same creative energy into engaging bigger issues as well. To the politicians and planners, builders and protesters, to all those both imagining and challenging the monstrous questions related to Vancouver’s overall economy and culture: keep dreaming! But don’t forget your policies and plans impact real people and places. Walk the streets. In your global initiatives, think about being a neighbour, but then also literally be a neighbour. The peace of Vancouver depends on it.