‘The definition of family is evolving’: collective housing creates community

VANCOUVER — In a city known for soaring real estate prices and low vacancies, some people in Vancouver are finding innovative ways of blending their housing and social needs.

One option is called collective housing, where several people live together not only to share a space, but to create a community where resources and work are shared as well.

Jen Muranetz moved into her first collective home about four years ago, drawn by the idea of housemates who have a greater purpose than splitting the cost of living. Now she and four other adults share a cozy home in east Vancouver, and she says their situation mirrors that of a family.

“I’ve lived with roommates and it’s been nice, but you only connect with each other to a certain extent,” she said. “You’re on your own paths, doing your own thing. But here we’ve come together because we believe in a shared vision, essentially.”

Muranetz is part of the Collective Housing Society, a resource and advocacy group for collective homes around Vancouver. The network includes about 20 homes in various neighbourhoods, and includes everyone from students to working professionals, families to seniors.

Being part of a collective requires more commitment and communication than living with roommates, said Anika Vervecken, who lives with her four-year-old son and three other adults in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood.

One member of the collective is a deaf man with a developmental disability. Another is a woman who’s staying in Vancouver for just a few months as she travels around the world.

Together, they make and eat meals, socialize and tackle household chores. If one person is having a busy week, someone else will pick up the slack, getting groceries or helping out a bit more with cooking and cleaning.

Vervecken said when her energetic son asks her the same question for the hundredth time, there’s always a housemate who’s happy to make paper airplanes with him and give her a short break.

“There’s no expectation to give up anything in your life to be part of this collective. It’s more about us working together to make it fit,” she said, noting that living together exposes each person to a variety of experiences that they may not have otherwise.

Everyone has their own reasons for joining, said Erik Case, one of Vervecken’s housemates.

“Some are doing it because it’s Vancouver and it’s expensive here. Some are doing it because they’re shameless hippies,” he said.

Vancouver isn’t alone in having a housing collective community, said Muranetz, adding that Victoria, Montreal and San Francisco all have established networks.

A zoning bylaw in Vancouver that prohibits more than five unrelated adults from living together in a single dwelling creates issues for larger collectives, Muranetz said.

As a result, some collective homes, particularly old mansions in the city’s upscale Shaughnessy neighbourhood, are living outside of the law.

“If you have a house with, say, eight bedrooms, and the rent for that house is $5,000, $6,000, of course they’re going to rent out eight bedrooms, not just five,” Muranetz said.

“The reality is that the definition of family is evolving, especially in a housing crisis in Vancouver.”

The Collective Housing Society is working with city staff to find a way to change the rules so they protect safety and simultaneously allow for more flexible living, she added.

A city spokesman said staff are reviewing the bylaw and will report to council when they have more information.

Collective living isn’t about trying to pack as many people into a house as possible, Muranetz said, but using space effectively to create a community.

“We’re not trying to encourage people to start up rooming houses. We’re just trying to be like, well, if these houses already have a lot of bedrooms and there’s people who need them, let’s use them.”

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

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