Vancouver’s Affordability Crisis Gets the Documentary Treatment

Filmmaker Charles Wilkinson turns the camera on his own town and examines the problem from all angles.

May 5, 2017

By Jessica Barrett

No matter how hard you try, you can’t escape Vancouver’s housing affordability crisis. To live in this city is to be constantly confronted with the bizarre reality of a real estate industry gone completely berserk. To reside here is to be inundated with headlines, reports and town halls detailing the scope and scale of the problem, not to mention your own highly personal connection to the issue, whether it’s dealing with a renoviction or watching your favourite café become yet another condo tower.

But just when you think you’ve heard, seen and lived it all, Vancouver: No Fixed Address assembles all the pieces of this perennial Vancouver problem into a gut-wrenching portrayal of a city on the brink of…well, we’re not sure what. The question of Vancouver’s future, and by extension that of many other cities all over the world, is the central discussion informing this documentary by local filmmaker Charles Wilkinson, premiering at DOXA this weekend.

More than an exploration of the challenge of owning, renting, or looking for a home in the Lower Mainland, the film goes beyond these familiar narratives to expose viewpoints and stakeholders we rarely hear from. Between interviews with newly arrived Chinese immigrants and long-time residents grappling with the emotional decision to sell off family homes, Wilkinson’s film also presents sharp analysis, and criticism, of the conditions that led to the city’s run-away real estate values. With the film set to provoke an emotional response from viewers, who rarely get a chance to see the issue presented as more than the sum of its parts, we caught up with Wilkinson ahead of its Vancouver debut.

Film still, Vancouver: No Fixed Address

When did you decide this housing crisis was subject matter for a documentary?

Actually we didn’t start working on the show until just a little over a year ago. When I say ‘we’ I mean my partner in crime Tina Schiessler, we do everything together. It’s interesting, I think everything that I’ve done for the past maybe 10 years is really all connected and interrelated. This story has a lot in common with my previous films like Haida Gwaii or Oil Sands Karaoke. All those threads come together in terms of our need for economic prosperity and over-exploitation of our resources and our expectations for material affluence and stuff like that.

What interests you about that story line?

Well, in particular, I’m a father. I have kids and I’m kind of hopeful that the world they inherit from me isn’t made worse by me. It’d be kinda neat if it was made better. I think anyone who has their eyes open sees there’s a lot to be concerned about with the way things are going.

Tina and I live on the North Shore, we raised our kids here, and there’s no way they can afford to live here. They will never afford to live here. All of our friends are gradually moving away because as house prices go up, rents go up and taxes go up. You can’t afford to live here anymore, so clearly we’re in the middle of a pretty serious problem.

When it became clear that we could do something, that we could tell a story about this, I just jumped at the chance. My affection for this place isn’t just that it’s a good place to raise kids or I’m comfortable living here, I mean I think most people who come to Vancouver develop a kind of irrational love for the place.

Film still, Vancouver: No Fixed Address

The thing I liked the most about the documentary is that it tells the story from so many different sides, but seeing it all together, it did make my stomach tighten. It seems like such an intractable issue right now, so what is your hope that people will come away with from the documentary?

Clearly there are varying degrees of culpability in any situation. But what we were trying to do is portray Vancouver in a way that people can understand that there are a number of factors at play here, but it’s not complicated.

We read about it in the paper or we hear about it on the news and somebody always stands up and says, ‘Oh well, it’s just because Vancouver’s so popular and everybody wants to live here,’ or ‘Oh well it’s because of Chinese money’s flooding in,’ or they say ‘oh well the government should be regulating stuff.’ Those all have an element of truth to them, but it’s really, really important to start from the beginning and try and understand how we came to be in this place.

A key factor in this story is that we’ve exploited our natural resources since the end of the Second World War…and we’ve created in ourselves an appetite for material wealth that demands that we generate a lot of cash and that we live a lifestyle that most people would argue is just not sustainable. So we in British Columbia have reached a point where we’ve run out of stuff to sell. And so what do we have left?

That’s depressing as hell, you’re absolutely right. This is not a happy story. But it’s really hopeful in the sense that it presents the situation in the end as being fairly straightforward. We have choices to make. We can let housing remain as an unregulated, free-market commodity—which we didn’t do in the past—and see this ever-widening gulf between people who own real estate here and the majority of people who don’t.

We can see our streets filling up with homeless people, or we can make some choices that will turn that around.
Film still, Vancouver: No Fixed Address

Do you think that there is still, in this market, still a personal connection to housing as a concept of home? Is there a place for that still?

That’s such a great question. I don’t know. I see in my own neighbourhood people, our neighbours, our friends will staunchly declare at a party, ‘I’m staying, I don’t care what happens.’ And then a month later you see a For Sale sign on their lawn and they say, ‘I was just offered too much money.’ So I don’t know. I want to stay here, and I know that so many of the people that we talk to love this city beyond all sort of reasonableness and they’re determined to stay. So within that you see small communities springing up, like these tiny house people and these houseboat guys [featured in the film], but the economics are against us right now and unless we do something to change that—I don’t know. I think the character of this city will change radically within a very short period of time.

WATCH: Vancouver: No Fixed Address

It debuts at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on May 6 at 7 p.m. There will also be multiple screenings at the Vancity Theatre from May 19 to June 8, find tickets and schedule here.

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.