in the face of imminent demise
Last winter, I met Noelle Lee through a mentorship project that connected me with artists in so-called Vancouver. Noelle was organizing an eviction block party along with their housemates in response to getting pushed out of their neighbourhood. She told me about the project, and though she was nonchalant and humble, it sounded magical. Staying true to the collaborative ethos of the eviction block party, Noelle looped in her friends and co-organizers and this interview gradually came together in the most beautiful, multi-vocal, and collective way. Writing with other people is no easy task, especially across several time zones, but they did it with the ease of people who have (very clearly) shared a kitchen. Their deep commitment to being in community with each other and continuously building that community on their own terms is evidenced in every step of this process.
I hope this interview inspires reverberations of solidarity amongst artists and other working-class people across Turtle Island and beyond.
1. Could you please tell us who you are and how you met?
We, the folks contributing to this document, mostly met as students and recent arrivals to so-called Vancouver, British Columbia. A group of us had lived together in other demolition houses around the city before moving to 588 and 584 West 24th Avenue together in 2019 and 2021, respectively.
Over the three years that we lived on the block, the houses consisted of musicians, housing activists, artists, students, immigrants, undocumented people, seasonal workers, and people passing through the city. There were almost always more people than there were rooms, so folks lived in trailers in the back alley, vans on the street, crashed on the couch for months at a time, built out and slept in the shed, or shared rooms. Whether temporary or long term, we all had housing precarity in common. One of our roommates, a full-time construction worker and undocumented immigrant had moved 16 times within Vancouver in the last two years.
A tap dancer performs in front of musicians playing the double bass, keys, and saxophone in the full summer heat. Banner hanging behind the stage reads “Eviction Capital of Canada.”
Source: Kyra Fay.
2. Last summer, you folks organized a big community gathering after learning that you were being evicted from your homes. What was the eviction block party and how did it come about?
The eviction block party was a response to a series of seven houses being demolished to build residential duplex townhouses, resulting in tenant demovictions (evictions based on housing demolition). Built in the 1940s, the houses were located on the block of West 24th Avenue between Cambie and Ash Streets in Vancouver. We lived in two of these houses.
We organized the eviction block party on June 26th, 2022. It was a joint effort to raise awareness, build solidarity, and reflect on the events that had pushed all tenants out of the block. We also wanted to have some fun. We received $500 from a Neighbourhood Small Grants program and a little bit of funding from the Vancouver Tenants Union to plan this event.
There were around 30 musicians with different instruments. One of our roommates was a core part of the Vancouver jazz community, so it was a chance to both practice and perform. We had a skillshare of informal activities led by individuals living on the block, such as capoeira and interactive theatre. People brought out soccer balls and passing circles developed naturally. There were also people slacklining.
The event happened during one of the first heatwaves of the summer that year, so we had sprinklers going to cool people off, lots of water going around, and a cold infusion stand. We spent most of the grant money on food and had around a hundred hot dogs on the grill. A friend who worked at a local farm provided four five-gallon buckets full of salad greens, as well as lots of free, fresh produce for people to take home. One of our neighbours, an 81-year-old farmer, biker, and busker who loves to dumpster dive, also brought a lot of food to share.
Everyone was dancing at one point. The music literally came in with a bang when the marching band boomboomed around the corner all the way to the stage under a huge tree in front of the houses. There was a palpable amazement at the variety of instruments, silly walks, elegant stances, and incredible playing. There were also tap dancers, mimes, and acrobats.
We took four doors from inside the houses and stood them up in the street. Two were for public art. One was a “Lennon-wall” of post-it notes for participants to vent about their experiences with landlords. The last held a map of Vancouver that allowed people to chart, with pins and string, the places they lived in the city, how frequently they moved, their reasons for moving, and whether their landlords influenced their decision to move.
The Vancouver Tenants Union had a zine-making station to engage people and disseminate resources about tenant rights and self-organizing. They connected us to others experiencing analogous circumstances throughout the city. We met and spoke to strangers who seemed unaware of this side of so-called Vancouver—a side with vibrant community, celebration, arts and grassroots organizing.
The event also exposed many people to the realities of an ongoing housing crisis within Vancouver. Some landowners were shocked that so many people had experienced evictions and abuse from landlords. Landowners enjoy the privileges of participating in systems created for them through colonization and capitalism, and don't experience the things that renters experience.
The block party was definitely about reaching out to neighbours and friends about a common issue within the city before shit hits the fan. We were building the solidarity necessary for organizing long-term resistance.
Passersby crowd around an interactive public display at the eviction block party. They mark a map of Vancouver with red string and pins, documenting the duration and frequency of their personal housing relocations. Source: Kyra Fay.
3. You mentioned the entire block was being demovicted. Could you tell us more about the neighbourhood and local context where this took place?
The neighbourhood we were in was within Central Vancouver. This is the unceded territories of the səl̓ílwətaʔɬ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh), Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish), and xwməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam) peoples, who have lived on these lands since time immemorial. The Vancouver Tenants Union describes the position of renters in this city well:
As [tenants, as immigrants, as racialized peoples], we recognize that the patterns of displacement and gentrification that we struggle against are part of the larger colonial and capitalist systems that have occupied these lands since the city as we know it today was founded. (1)
We lived in a couple of demo houses along the recently designated Cambie Corridor. Demo houses are single-family homes repurposed as shared accommodations, slated for demolition amidst pending redevelopment. This neighbourhood has mostly single-family homes, several three-story rental apartments, and a wave of new townhouse developments.
The majority of the neighbourhood is comprised of properties priced in the millions of dollars. Our access to those houses was afforded only by the inevitability of future development: the previous owners had sold to property developers who, while awaiting permits from the city to demolish and redevelop, rented out the seven houses on the block. Eventually all renters of demo homes are evicted (read: permanently removed) to clear the way for development, ensuring a neighbourhood’s property values and rents continue to rise. (2) Renters move in and out of these homes, doing the “demo house shuffle.”
Aside from publicly subsidized, social, or cooperative housing, demo houses are the cheapest legal accommodation in the city. Tenants and residents could pay as low as $400/month for a room in a tightly packed demo house. Longer-term options that are affordable in relation to minimum wage have waitlists that are five or even ten years long. But, the availability or “supply” of housing has never been the issue. (3)
Demo homes are a symptom of the commodification of housing as a speculative asset. Different iterations of this process abound, but the result is the same; precarity is produced, enforced and continues to be swept out of sight. (4) This is the context to which we respond.
4. The eviction block party was a one-time event, but many of you were already engaged in other community efforts. Could you tell us about some of the other initiatives you undertook together?
Food, gardening, maintenance, and music were just a few of the things we shared within our houses. The gardens were especially communal spaces for the neighbourhood where a lot of new relationships formed. We had a sign on our front garden that read “Harvest as you please!” I remember being startled by a stranger in the front yard once and it turned out she was helping us with weeding. She later became a friend and a knowledgeable person to talk to about housing activism. We also maintained a free seed & seedling table throughout the summers.
We had a free store on the sidewalk in front of the house, a source of joy for a lot of people. The name is self-explanatory: you can take or drop-off whatever items you wish. We actually built and placed a few other free stores around the city because they were so well-used and loved. I remember thinking that the garden and free store were like bird feeders for humans, with people excitedly checking them on a daily basis.
However, it was also clear that not everyone appreciated these spaces. The maintenance of the free store often asked a lot of us; the space was trashed more than once. A free store we built for a friend was even burned down after a neighbour complained that it “attracted the homeless.” (5) Some neighbours might be glad we’re gone, but no matter their opinion of us, we must have been better neighbours than the construction zone that followed.
As autumn slowly creeps in, the bright pink free store stands in front of one of the houses preparing for demoviction. Source: Noelle Lee.
5. What was your experience with the formal eviction process and navigating the legal system?
In order to demolish the house, the developers needed a series of permits from the city. One condition of these permits was that current tenants had to be relocated to the satisfaction of the city planning offices, but developers could proceed with their project if they got us to leave through “mutual agreement.”
The seven houses on our block were owned by the same developer and rented at, or below market rates. They were effectively neglected as the development company focused their resources on procuring demolition permits. By the time the company began “negotiating” residents out of their homes, many other issues had already been festering in the demo houses. These ranged from personal issues from cramming so many people in one house, to maintenance-based issues such as dangerous, rotting flooring that people were falling through. Representatives from the development company would routinely knock on our door without notice, refuse or ignore maintenance requests, threaten to renege on previous agreements (allowing us to garden, for example), and berate us with emails asking if we had decided to leave. In the end, some neighbours chose to move elsewhere or to leave Vancouver altogether, and the opportunity to pocket an extra $1000 from the developers on the way out seemed like a “win.” This was a position we ourselves considered many times.
After refusing to negotiate ourselves out of housing for two years, the developer suddenly issued a one-month eviction notice for a breach of the rental agreement that occurred two years prior (and had been mutually resolved). Apart from coming to a mutual agreement, our only other option was to dispute the eviction at the Residential Tenancy Branch. This resulted in months of exhausting data and evidence collection to build our case. The Residential Tenancies Act places the burden of proof on tenants to refute the validity of an eviction notice, while the landlords need only make up a cause and serve the notice. Even though a lawyer had said that there was virtually no chance for us to lose, by the time our court date came up, the pressure and stress of building a case, while continuing to pay rent, work jobs, attend school, and generally live our lives during a global pandemic, really took its toll. Even if we won the case, our situation would remain unchanged. We would continue to pay rent to the developers and live under the pressure and inevitability of our eviction.
6. The projects you undertook seem to actualize the kinds of community networks that you yourselves needed to be able to live well. Can you talk about why this work was necessary for you?
None of us are strangers to demolition houses. We have all lived in precarious housing since we moved to Vancouver. We have learned to take advantage of these impermanent spaces. In them, we make art together, grow our own food, and interact with our house as a home. At the same time, we dealt with mold, mice, and a general lack of property maintenance. Shaping the house to meet our needs was not understood as property damage to the landlord, as it would perhaps be in a house not slated for demolition. To make a house a home should not be dependent on this impermanence.
This was a home, not only for ourselves but also for the worms that densely populated the soil, the neighbourhood cats, the generations of hummingbirds that nested over the garden, the 80 year old apple tree in the backyard. For us, building a radically supportive community in the face of imminent demise is an example of the iterative project of living in these times. The block party was a celebration of that life. We felt it was important for us to acknowledge how special this home was to us and many others, human and non-human, before we were scattered.
7. Nearly six months later, where did you all end up after being pushed out of that block?
After floating around on many different couches, I spent a few months living in and out of my car. I am currently staying with my parents for a few months before attempting to look for housing in Vancouver again.
I moved back to Indonesia, the country I grew up in. I most likely will not be moving back to “Vancouver” but am considering subletting for a month or two to see what is still viable.
After three and a half months of sleeping in my van, couches, and random houses, I moved back to Ecuador to my parents’ home to find my path and (re)centre. I have a ticket back to Vancouver, but it is definitely something that is a big unknown for me, something I have been questioning for a long time now.
I live in a newly built apartment building managed by 221AHS, an artist-run charity. The units are affordable, with rent fixed at 30% of the occupant’s gross income. This building is part of a Moderate Income Housing Pilot Program with stringent requirements for eligibility based on income, haphazardly codifying economic stratification. This is foreboding in its own right. (6)
I found housing in an apartment building that is stable (not going to be knocked down) for now in East Vancouver. From my window, I can see developments just like the one that forced us out of our old home slowly crawling their way across the lower mainland from the downtown core. I know it is only a matter of time before I get another notice to move–maybe five years, maybe fifteen. Surviving in this city means finding your people so that when you are inevitably forced to move, you have options other than a one-bedroom, one-bathroom basement for two grand a month.
8. If you were to dream up a different future for the neighbourhood, what would it look like?
One of my dreams is the abolition of rent. No hoarding housing. No empty homes. If you don’t use it, you lose it. If you need something, it will find its way to you. Works like a library. Operated by the people. Corruption sails off into the distance never to be seen again…
For me the dream neighbourhood is empty of divisions between houses. The streets are closed and filled with plants, bikeways, and paths for people to walk and roam. Within the neighbourhood there might be a coffee shop, a library, a little (or big) free store for people to take and leave what they want, a bakery and spaces for people to play, sit and be without the pressure of market forces. Most people know each other and are afforded the time to work together for the spaces that surround them as well as for each other's wellbeing.
When we first moved into the house on 24th and Ash, I learned from our neighbour (who had been there for thirty years, raised his kids there, retired there) that an underground stream used to run off Little Mountain right beneath our block. When they built the Canada Line skytrain for the 2010 Olympics, the subterranean construction gradually dammed the flow of that river. I wonder what the future of that neighbourhood would be if that river were able to flow again…
A young child plays soccer during the eviction block party. Source: Kyra Fay.
This document was collectively written and edited by: Noelle Lee, Kyra Fay, Ignacio Iturralde, Mazdak Gharibnavaz, Yardain Amron, Ben Lickerman, Bobby Malone, and Abedar Kamgari.
Check out video documentation of the eviction block party on Youtube.
In this article, Abedar Kamgari interviews a group of artists-cum-activists who organized a block party in the face of “demo-evictions” during the summer of 2022 in Vancouver, BC. In response to The Parkettes Project presented in 2021, Building community in the face of imminent demise continues our inquiry of art and public space with lessons from the not-too-distant past for the ongoing housing crisis.
(1) Vancouver Tenants Union, “Basis of Unity.” Nation Builder (May 2022): 6.
(2) Marc Lee, “Vacancy control: taking the next step on housing affordability,” Policy Note, February 11, 2021.
(3) John Rose, “The Housing Supply Myth, Working Paper, Version 1.” Kwantlen Polytechnic University (November 24, 2017).
(4) Penny Daflos and Alyse Kotyk, “Dehumanizing and disruptive: Calls to end 'street sweeps' in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside,” CTV News Vancouver, June 16, 2022.
(5) Emily Blatta, “What the Fire Left Behind,” The Tyee, July 28, 2022.