Like many in Vancouver, owning a house or condo for Cameron Gray was simply out of the question. But he didn’t like the idea of standard alternatives either – renting an apartment or a laneway house or moving out to the suburbs.
So the 27-year-old musician-turned-entrepreneur, who describes himself as a hermit, was perfectly comfortable with his 55-square-foot solution: living in his 1981 Chevy camper van.
At least, until he came home from work one day to find his home gone, towed away for being parked too close to a driveway.
The experience prompted Mr. Gray to delve even further into offbeat options for housing, an effort, he says, to “hack” the housing market and stay true to his aversion to debt.
“People are throwing their lives away to pay for housing,” he said.
According to a RBC report for spring 2015, an average 900-square-foot condo in Vancouver cost $411,700. That mortgage would cost 39.6 per cent of median household income. Although that is much less expensive than buying a single- detached house, it is still above what experts say is the affordable housing threshold: 30 per cent.
For people like Mr. Gray, apartment living is still too big of a sacrifice. They are steering clear of the affordable housing debate and finding creative ways to make a home for themselves.
Nathanael Lauster, a sociologist at UBC, studies people’s housing choices and says housing ideals are contributing to the city’s reputation as unaffordable.
“The reason Vancouver keeps showing up as unaffordable is because we use the single-detached house as the yardstick of what constitutes decent living,” he said. “But if you’re looking at apartment costs, things look a little different.”
When Mr. Gray first considered a move to Vancouver from White Rock, he didn’t like the mainstream options he saw.
“You either pay a lot of rent each month to someone you don’t know or you pay a mortgage for 30 years and be constantly in debt and have that on your back all the time,” he said.
In 2013, Mr. Gray bought a camper van from a friend for $3,000 and fitted it with all the amenities a musician would need: Wi-Fi, recording equipment and a keyboard.
The space became his recording studio and home. Mr. Gray cooked his meals on a stovetop and, as long as he hooked up the van to a water supply, he had a functioning sink and shower. His only housing cost: $126 per month on insurance.
For almost two years, Mr. Gray drove his van to a different parking spot in Vancouver every few weeks in a lifestyle he calls urban camping. He and other mobile-home dwellers do this because Vancouver bylaws prohibit the use of vehicles or trailers as living spaces unless they are in a trailer park.
This can make living in a vehicle challenging. Movable dwellings like Mr. Gray’s camper van made up less than one per cent of metro Vancouver housing stock from 1991 to 2011, according to Statistics Canada.
But Mr. Gray knows all the best parking spots in the city – he was a delivery driver for seven years before he started pursuing a music career. One of his favourites spots is Columbia Street and 5th Avenue, an intersection in the industrial part of town.
Mr. Gray said he enjoyed the financial and physical freedom living in a van gave him. But having his home towed convinced him he needed to find a more stable housing situation.
He had recently landed a job as a bitcoin ATM attendant in the Waves Coffee House at Smithe and Howe streets and he saw a bright future in the currency. He wanted to create a shared space for the bitcoin community. But having to worry about whether he had a home to come back to at the end of every workday was starting to interfere with his business plans.
Mr. Gray found a collective house, called the Hen House, near the Commercial-Broadway SkyTrain station willing to take him and his van in.
People who live in collective housing take the roommate model one step further. With Vancouver’s real estate prices showing no signs of falling any time soon, many in collective housing intend to live with their housemates for the long term. As a result, the interview process for a new housemate can be rigorous. Housemate criteria vary from house to house, but can include lifestyle, hobbies, activism, demographics and diet.
The Hen House’s eight members liked Mr. Gray enough to let him park in the alleyway and hook up his home to the house’s water and power supply. In return, Mr. Gray cared for his housemate’s chickens and the vegetable garden. He spent his nights in his van, but says the house provided him with a sense of community during the day – something he did not have when he was urban camping.
“Coming here really solved the isolation problem,” he said. “There are actually humans for me to come back to now.”
But Mr. Gray’s resourcefulness on housing doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like to live in something other than his van. His dream is to have just a little more.
Owning a 100-square-foot so-called tiny house would be ideal, he said.
“A tiny house would feel like a mansion compared to my van.”
Back in 2013, when he bought his van, Mr. Gray also purchased a chassis with the intention of building a tiny house on it. That project is on hold for now – Mr. Gray said he’s not ready for it just yet. But neither is the city.
Tiny houses look like shrunken versions of the iconic single-family home. Some even have wraparound porches. However, Vancouver bylaws forbid people from living in one if it’s parked on a city street since it qualifies as a trailer. Many of the challenges Mr. Gray faces with his van would remain the same with a tiny house. But that has not stopped people’s fascination with the tiny house trend. John McFarlane started a business building tiny houses three years ago, before the phenomenon hit Canadian mainstream media. The architect knew it was a risk.
“It was unproven. It was a maybe,” he said. “And the answer is, people are totally happy living in small spaces.”
Mr. McFarlane built five tiny houses last year. This year, he is on track to build 15. His company, Camera Buildings, sells tiny houses for anywhere from $40,000 to $70,000. Most of its customers live in the Lower Mainland. McFarlane is confident his company will do just fine after the novelty aspect of tiny houses fades. He says people will still want reasonably priced housing.
“If there were other opportunities for affordable housing, there’d still be a few people who would be into tiny houses, but they would consider other options,” he said.
But critics of living in tiny houses and vans say people should not be forced to resort to live in accommodations the size of garden sheds. City Councillor Geoff Meggs, who sits on the city’s housing affordability task force, said those are just temporary solutions.
“What kind of answer to the housing affordability problem is it to say you can live in a trailer?” he said. “I don’t think it’s a silver bullet.”Report Typo/Error
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