By: JACK M.
Home ownership for many people is fast becoming a dream that’ll probably never come true. With interest rates at all-time record lows, mortgage rates have also fallen to record lows. And low mortgage rates mean more upward pressure on home prices, coupled with bigger and bigger down payments on those same homes. It’s a vicious cycle. So where do people go when buying a home is not an option? They go hunting for a rental. And increased competition for rental accommodation, coupled with a persistent undersupply in many cities, leads to the inevitable increase in the size of those monthly rental cheques. And as a group, millennials, students and recent graduates are probably the hardest hit.
The cost of renting an apartment varies greatly, of course, from one city to another. If you live in the U.S., cities like Wichita and Tucson are definitely on the low end of the scale, and Winnipeg and Moncton would be their Canadian equivalents. On the other end of the scale, however, are cities like New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. But San Francisco is probably the most expensive city in the U.S. to rent a hose or apartment, and Vancouver is probably Canada’s most expensive. Here’s a recent survey of U.S. cities that’ll put things into some perspective. This recently-listed one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver, for example, is asking $2,300 a month, and this website will give some idea of how insane the situation is in San Francisco, where $3,000 a month will get you little more than a 400 sq. ft. studio apartment, and $5,000 a month is not uncommon for a one bedroom.
But there’s a group of millennials living in Abbotsford, British Columbia, who may have found a way of giving the greedy landlords the middle finger. Abbotsford is just outside Vancouver, where typical rent definitely falls within the category of “insanely expensive”, but a few years ago a group of 20-somethings came up with an idea which at the time seemed just as insanely ambitious. The now-32-year-old Sophia Suderman and a few friends were looking for a place to rent when they very accidentally came across an old boarded-up and long-abandoned red-brick hotel with a “for lease” sign stuck on one of the walls. More curious than anything else, they took a tour of the hotel, which occupies the upper floor of a two-storey building with a few retail outlets still occupying the ground floor. But that moment of curiosity has turned into a community home for about 30 people – all in their twenties or early thirties – some students and some working professionals.
Sophia came up with a business plan and made an offer to the owner to lease the premises. With the help of her sister, Tessa, and their father who’s in the construction business, she approached the city with the idea of having the space rezoned from commercial to residential. And as is usually the case when dealing with city officials and red tape, the process took a lot longer than anyone hoped – two years in fact. But Sophia’s plan was eventually approved, and by then she had attracted the attention of about 20 other like-minded people. The former hotel was now a residential property, and Sophia set it up as non-profit company, the intent being that the 19 rooms – each with its own bathroom – could be rented out, some as singles and the larger ones as doubles.
The old hotel had been closed since 2005, and between the cigarette butts, empty beer cans, spider webs, moldy mattresses and discarded furniture, there was a whole lot of clean-up and renovation needed to bring the place up to living standards. Wiring, flooring and plumbing all had to be overhauled. But Sophia and her crew got to work, and within five months the place was in move-in condition. And here’s some photos of what Sophia calls the Atangard Community Project.
Views from outside and inside the Atangard Community Project
The key word here is “community,” a word that harkens back to the hippies’ concept of community in the 1960s and 1970s, except this new-age commune is a lot better organized. At any given time, there are about 30 people living in the reclaimed old hotel, and each is responsible in some way for the upkeep and cost. All residents of the Atangard Community are between the ages of 19 and 35, and all must me either students or have full-time employment. They pay rent, which can range from $375 to $500, depending on room size, but compared to the cost of renting an apartment in the same area, it’s a bargain. The rent includes all utilities and Internet access, and there’s no long-term lease to sign; if it works out for a new resident, that’s great, but if it doesn’t, you just move on. There’s a community car and a community garden where vegetables are grown. The kitchen, dining room, laundry facilities and lounge are all shared. Everyone is required to take their turn at cooking and cleaning, and meals are typically held in the shared kitchen. The cost of food is included in the rent, but an additional $10 per resident goes into a kitty for unexpected expenses.
In a time when many young people are being marginalized by being shut out of one of the most basic of human needs – housing – it seems to me that Sophia Suderman and her innovative project may be the answer to beating the system. If you’d like to take a closer look at the history of how the project was conceived and brought to life, you can check it out here.