Vancouver Rent Assembly explores deeper questions around tenant rights, gentrification

Published in The Tyee | May 25, 2013 | Circulation: 1 million unique monthly readers


If you are among the more than half of Vancouverites who rent their homes, having to fork over a hefty chunk of your income to a landlord every month might elicit groans or even disdain as prices climb.

But a conference this weekend isn’t just bemoaning the high price of being a tenant in Canada’s most unaffordable city. The Rent Assembly happening today and tomorrow is also asking deeper questions about tenancy, and most importantly how communities can address leasing problems.

“We’ve all been struggling with these issues,” organizer Anahita Jamali Rad told The Tyee. “It keeps getting blown up more and more.

“Everyone involved has similar experience: we all pay rent, and spend a lot of our time working to pay rent. It becomes such a big part of your life.”

Co-sponsored by The Mainlander, the Vancouver Renters Union, and the Kootenay School of Writing, the weekend assembly is using art, poetry, panel discussions and activism workshops to explore the history of rent as a concept, tenants’ experiences, as well as concrete examples from communities which have successfully fought for tenant rights.

There will also be sessions discussing racism in housing, aboriginal struggles, and gentrification — an urban process which sees lower-income renters displaced from their neighbourhoods by rising costs. The extent to which that geographic phenomenon applies in Vancouver has been at the crux of an increasingly fierce debate recently, which has seen blogs like the Gastown Gazette decrying gentrication’s critics — be they established community organizations or alleged anarchist vandals making headlines.

The conference’s philosophical approach sets it apart from usual industry or activist gatherings.

“Paying rent is not natural,” Jamali Rad argued. “Things are the way they are not because it’s a natural thing, but because it’s part of the structure right now; it doesn’t mean it should be the way it is.

“We’re not really trying to give any broad statement; we just want to open up the conversation, and have people explore these ideas.”

With tensions flaring in recent months over the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside, as well as a string of arts and culture venue evictions or closures due to rent hikes, organizers hope to cast a critical reflection on why Vancouver has become so expensive.

“There’s a weird Vancouver standard we have for the price of rent. If someone pays $1,500 for a one-bedroom in an okay area, we now all think that’s normal. We don’t realize that there are all the sorts of background financial things that go on behind the scenes so that prices are ridiculously high. . . There’s a constant lowering of expectations.”

The rent assembly launches tonight with a panel on ‘Rent in Theory’ featuring Jamali Rad, as well as Mainlander contributor Nathan Crompton, Danielle LaFrance and Maria Wallstam.

Other events include a Swamp interactive theatre piece, and a direct action workshop from several organizers of the controversial Pidgin restaurant picket — which has led to one activist’s arrest and conflict with business owners.

“It’s definitely polarizing the city,” Jamali Rad added. “A lot of people not interested in these issues. . . are becoming more and more interested because it’s actually affecting their daily lives.

“With the explosion of evictions and renovictions of organizations in Vancouver, it seems like everyone either knows someone close to them who’s been renovicted, or who has been themselves. . . More than anything we want people to come together and talk.”

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