This piece is by Nadine Bachan and was originally published in THIS magazine.
It’s my house-cleaning and laundry day. I’m in flip-flops and a housedress with a fraying hole at the waist. I haven’t combed my hair. As I round the corner of the house, after depositing my garbage and recycling in the bins and bags in the back lane, I’m surprised by the sudden presence of four strangers congregating by the doorway of my apartment, their eyes shifting from scrutinizing the property to my dishevelled presence.
The most well-dressed of them, a middle-aged man with an easy smile, steps forward to identify himself and the three others to me. He’s the real-estate agent. The woman is his associate. The two other men are workers who will tend to the property, haul furniture and junk, keep things tidy, etc. The process has begun.
I live in the garden suite — an elegant synonym for “ground-level basement” — of a 1920s-era house that’s been owned by the same family for generations in the Kitsilano area of Vancouver, B.C. My ceiling hits six feet at its highest. The house tilts on a sinking foundation. It’s run down, but the rent is cheap. A three-bedroom residence sits over my head. For the first time since this house was built back in 1929, the main floor is vacant. My neighbour — a lovely woman who has just celebrated her 75th birthday — recently moved out after over 25 years of calling this place her home.
The beginning of the end
I had been told that the realtor would be coming by the house to eyeball the property value, but I figured someone would tell me in advance about this visit, and I would have made plans to be out and about. At the very least, I would have opted to put on a frock free of frays.
I smile with my eyes focused on my door, wanting this conversation of introductions to end so I can hightail it back inside. I fold my arms protectively across my body. I shake each of their hands once more, already forgetting half their names before making a quick retreat to my apartment. I draw closed the curtains and sit on my couch, half-watching the television while I listen to the muffled voices just outside my window. I hear the buzz of the dryer, but I wait until I know for sure that they’ve left. By that time, my clean clothes are wrinkled and cold. I already don’t like this. That night I start my search for a new place.
Window view of Nadine's garden suite.
It shouldn’t have been a problem. I am the ideal tenant: university-educated, a non-smoker, single-occupancy, no pets, glowing references from colleagues and previous landlords, and supported by a network of family and friends.
But in 2016, Vancouver’s average rent went up 6.4 percent, while the vacancy rate dwindled to 0.7 percent. Although the general rule for living expenses dictates that housing costs shouldn’t exceed 30 percent of our income, it’s a difficult standard to meet when the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver is $1,900 — the highest in Canada. Meanwhile, B.C.’s minimum wage is currently $10.85 per hour; the province will be raising it to just $11.35 in September. This is dire straits for those unable to find gainful employment, many of whom are shouldering student debt that incurs daily interest at a rate as high as seven percent.
It’s not so different elsewhere in Canada. The average rent for a one-bedroom in the Greater Toronto Area is more than $1,400. Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton, and Victoria aren’t far behind, with prices hovering over $1,000 per month.
It’s the perfect storm for a living crisis. Whether it’s living alongside roommates in cramped quarters, living with parents, or leaving cities altogether — overqualified and underemployed millennials scrape by for the present, unable to save or plan for the future.
The search from hell
My search for an apartment isn’t easy. For the first month, I scour Vancouver for a new place, inquiring about dozens of listings, and landing appointments to view only a few apartments. None meet my expectations, and I quickly learn I can’t be choosy.
The process is competitive. One owner tells me that within an hour of posting about an apartment she received messages from 500 interested applicants. At a place I check out on the mid-east side of the city in the trendy Commercial Drive area, I see four people sitting on the porch, agonizing over applications. Inside, there are at least six others doing the same. I fill out a form then leave, passing another small crowd of people making their way up to the see the rental space.
Affordable housing conditions are frequently subpar. Vacancies posted more than once are suspect. Searches of these addresses take me to forums with warnings about tyrant landlords, terrible neighbours, and sometimes, bedbug registries.
Out with the old
I arrive home one afternoon and hear the sound of footsteps above me. I’ve been expecting her. I go up the back porch and knock lightly on the open door. My landlord is a sweet woman in her late sixties with a high, lilting voice who stands no more than five feet tall. She looks up from a table laden with various trinkets and pieces of jewelry, beckons me in. I give her a quick hug. She’s here for two weeks to clean out the attic and conduct an inventory of the possessions she still has in this house.
She’s lived in New York for years now. I once looked up her current address. The aerial map zooms in on a high-rise apartment one block away from Central Park. As I stared at the visage of the building, I began to feel like a voyeur intruding on her privacy somehow. That didn’t stop me from street-viewing the surrounding blocks, wondering where she might go for a coffee, buy her groceries, jump on the transit. Wondering how expensive it must be to live there.
The back lane is quickly filled with piles of decades-old garbage. An antique dollhouse is temporarily stored next to the dryer. I peer in at the intricate details — three storeys, hardwood flooring, big windows — and think: shrink me down and I’d gladly live here.
The hunt continues
During my second month on the hunt, I visit an eight-unit heritage building near Granville Island. The owner repeats the word “charming ” as he shows me and another interested applicant the old gas stove, rusty fixtures, and a claw-foot bathtub. The other applicant asks if there’s any asbestos in the building, and I smirk at the ridiculous query. But the landlord replies earnestly: “Around the pipes in the laundry room.” I watch amazed as the woman continues to snap photos and fills out an application.
I sit at yet another café with a coffee and a book when the realtor hosts two showings of my garden suite and the rest of the house. I slowly sip the coffee until it’s cold, thinking about the random people walking around my living room and bedroom, looking past my things. I twinge when I think the bathroom could be cleaner. I can feel them, these people who can afford to buy a million-dollar property, judging me.
A glimmer of hope: a friend’s sister just gave birth and is moving her little family to a place out east. The rent she’s leaving is $1,400. I’m thinking that maybe I can manage that as my friend texts her sister to remind her to give her 30-day notice. Return text: Notice in. Rent will be raised to $1,700. Hope dashed. A week later, I receive an update. The details on the rent increase were incorrect: it’s actually been raised to $1,950.
Some landlords have even pitted potential renters against each other in bidding wars, stating a reasonable rent quote as a “starting point” and awarding the property to whomever is willing to dole out the most. This is supply-and-demand at its most ruthless. When we are reduced to dollars and nickels, we stop being people in the eyes of those that hold any kind of power over us. It’s unethical and downright heartless.
Lucky number eight
Weeks on the market, the house still has no interested buyers.
“It seems the house number is inauspicious,” the landlord says. “So, we’re changing it.”
Foreign investment, mainly from China where an unsteady national economy has pushed a grab of real estate in North America, has been a detrimental factor in this situation. Six percent of residencies in Vancouver sit empty and out of reach because of foreign buyers. While a new property tax has addressed this issue for first-time buyers, the plight of the renter goes unheeded. Condos, prime real estate for prospective rental units, have been snatched up by hands from afar.
These foreign investors, though, still have their standards. The number four is superstitiously unlucky — so much so that many buildings in China omit floors four and 14. There are two fours in this house’s address. That’s double death. More than 25 official departments of Metro Vancouver are involved in changing the house number. The process is quick; the change is approved within the week. Meanwhile, I have been apartment-seeking for two months with no end in sight. The protracted nature of my journey may be an anomaly; the process of selling this house placed time on my side to be more critical. For my colleagues who also recently went apartment-hunting on a time limit, it took about one frustrating, anxiety-ridden month to find a place.
The new address of the old house has a number eight, which is phonetically similar to the sound fa, signifying “fortune.” It’s one of the luckiest numbers in Chinese culture. I scroll through countless rent postings and wonder Where the hell I am going to live? as another f-word falls from my mouth.
Porch view of Nadine's garden suite.
No less than seven people are standing with me in the pouring rain, waiting for the current tenant to let us into his place to look around. From where we wait, we can look into the suite (ground-floor, corner, just off the main intersection). The term ‘ground floor’ is familiarly deceptive. The apartment is clearly half underground. I’m already not impressed, agitated and tired.
We enter the suite in small groups. He tells us he and his pregnant partner are moving to North Vancouver into a bigger place at a lower rent. Several people smelling of rain, including myself, stomp around the place, opening worn cupboards, peering into the moldy bathtub, leaving scattered wet footprints. We bounce off each other in the tiny living room, murmuring apology and making the place musty. I almost apologize for this, but instead I just leave quietly without giving the tenant my details.
Up against the odds
I have a revelation after conversing with yet another potential landlord. She asks with a raised eyebrow, “You really have to move out of your current place already?”
As I explain the circumstances, I hear how fishy my details actually sound. I’m looking for a new place after only nine months. It really doesn’t matter what I say because, at most, I only have 20 minutes to make an impression and my word is still the word of a stranger. The truth could be anything. I could be unreliable and flighty, jumping from place to place. I could be hiding an eviction or bad relationship with my current landlord. Against perhaps dozen other applicants to consider, I can’t expect any landlord to take the extra steps to look up the house listing to see that, in fact, the house is for sale. Nor can I expect that they would go through the trouble of contacting any of my references when I might be in competition with someone who has a longer history at their current place and a higher monthly income.
As it turns out, I’m not at all close to what an “ideal” tenant looks like.
Unlucky number nine
Another viewing, another ride on the bus filled with hopeful thoughts. When I arrive, only two other people are waiting outside this time, and they’re a couple. The live-in manager greets us at the front door, and lets us in to wait by the suite’s door in the hallway while he runs down to his office to get the spare keys. The couple and I exchange pleasantries and mutual agreements concerning the well-maintained corridor of the building. The woman of the two looks at the number on the apartment door.
“8. That’s lucky.”
I grind my teeth at this casual mention. When the manager comes back, he steps to the left and uses the key the open apartment #9 instead. “Oh,” the woman says quietly. As we enter the suite, I look at the big brass 9 on the door and chuckle to myself — oh so tired of it all — as I cross yet another threshold into yet another place that will not be mine.
On my uphill walk home, I splash through trickling streams even though it hasn’t rained in days. A small group of giddy children run around me and when I look past them, there’s a billowing plume of smoke. It’s immediately down my throat, making me cough. Mist sprays into the air where the connection between hose and hydrant is secured. A house, just one street over from my place, is aflame.
In a growing crowd, many people are holding up cell phones, documenting the firefighters’ efforts. Several empty oxygen tanks are discarded on a small patch of grass. I stand next to a neighbour who tells me, while casually munching on a sandwich, that they’ve been trying to put the fire out for over an hour. An electrical fire started this small inferno.
I say goodbye to my neighbour and turn away from the blackened shingles and orange angry flames licking out from a widening hole in the roof. Safe inside my apartment, I sit by my window. The street is hazy. Perhaps cosmic forces landed this sight in my path to make me take a mental step back from my own frustrations. Five houses away, a person’s life is being destroyed while strangers look on amused. There are far worse reasons to have to move.
Camelia tree at Nadine's garden suite as she began her apartment search.
In the cave-like dim of my tiny alcove office, I hear voices and footfalls around the property and up the front porch steps. Lookie-loos. I imagine their bodies contorted and straining to see through the closed curtains, their hands against the windowpane, eyes straining to get a sense of things through the thick fabric. I have to keep my curtains shut at all times. My last defense against this violation of my privacy.
At 2 a.m., eyes bleary from staring at my computer screen for three hours of just scrolling through for-rent ads, a rant entry pops up. The title: “Are we learning yet?” The writer complains, with an obvious desperation, that we must report landlords that charge exorbitant rental fees to Canada Revenue, and that we must start holding people accountable.
I finish reading the post and continue to scroll, then stare wistfully at the description of a beautiful one-bedroom apartment with east-facing windows near the beach. Rent without utilities: $2,000.
Home sweet home?
Halfway through my third month of searching, the owner of a one-bedroom suite near Jericho Beach tells me she’s in no rush to get a new tenant. We chat for an hour as she shows me the insides of the cupboards, under the sink. “I want whoever lives here to make sure they’ll be happy,” she says.
The apartment is in a wood-frame building and sound carries. The footfalls of the upstairs tenants sound like they’re wearing lead boots. My view is of the apartment’s dumpster. The rent is high, just barely within my budget. And yet, I feel like I’ve hit a jackpot. I sign a rental agreement and make plans: to hire the mover, to take measurements of the new space, to ask my parents for a loan transferred to my bank account that will cover moving costs and the security deposit.
I begin packing. After 10 weeks on the market, the house has finally sold for the asking price of $3.5 million — to a developer. This house will likely be torn down. Something tall and new will take its place and it will likely have a better view of the mountains that look down — solid and unchanged and uninhabitable — upon this kinetic city.
As I load the dryer for the last time, I look at the dollhouse, now wrapped in thick protective plastic. I can no longer see the interior. Its final destination is a museum where it will be encased under glass, forever vacant.
On moving day, the mover wishes me good luck after transporting me and my things to the new apartment. I smirk and say, “I’ll see you in six months.”
Joking aside, I am sincerely fearful. My new landlord could increase the rent next year. A developer could approach with a too-good-to-refuse offer to buy the lot. My lease might not be renewed. In the back of my mind is one nagging truth: anything can happen.
So, why did I struggle through this? Why didn’t I just pack it up and go back home where my family would have been more than willing to let me bunk with them and take my time to figure things out? I could have saved myself a lot of mental distress (and a lot of money) and there would have been no shame in that choice. It’s still a solid Plan B. I suppose though, at some point throughout all of this, I just didn’t want to concede defeat.
For now, I focus on the reality that greets each day I have spent, and will spend, in this place: I’m home.