Nick Ubel from the Cascade wrote an article on affordable housing. Click here to view the whole thing.
In Abbotsford, an inspired group of young people are banding together to make the most of the housing crisis.
Atangard residents enjoy a barbeque outside the Fraser Valley Inn
At 10:08 on a brisk, autumn morning, I ring the buzzer at the street-level entrance to the Fraser Valley Inn. The aged redbrick building sits on the main drag of old downtown Abbotsford, a remnant of a bygone era, seemingly immune to the rigors of gentrification. On its north face, the gaudy red and white marquee of the Air Fare Lounge towers over the corner of Essendene and West Railway, while on the east side, there is an ancient and crowded liquor store. Among the building’s other lease-holders are New Passage to India – a cozy little restaurant specializing in traditional Indian cuisine – and upstairs: the Atangard Community Project.
A few moments later, I am ushered inside by one of the project’s directors, Sophie Suderman, who leads me past a rickety stand-up piano and up the stairs. The 18-room single and double occupancy housing project takes up much of the Fraser Valley Inn’s second floor. Each apartment in the Atangard is between 150 and 300 square feet, not including individual bathrooms, one of the conveniences of renovating an old hotel. Indie rock and the dizzying pitch of at least five voices laughing and talking excitedly over each other issues from the kitchen. Sophie takes me on a tour through the two guest rooms, four common rooms, and a bike storage locker that is so full it overflows into the laundry room. A fresh coat of paint covers the uneven surface of the walls and a mishmash of art and photography lines the halls. In another life, the Fraser Valley Inn was a run-down one-star SRO until it was shut down by the city in 2005 because of the social problems it created. The Atangard group has since renovated, pulling up the old carpet to reveal a beautifully-aged plywood floor and stocking the common rooms with thrift store furniture, old pub chairs, bright paint and new kitchen appliances. It still feels a bit musty, but clean and lived-in. “It’s really what you make of it,” Sophie tells me. For the 25 young people who live there, it’s a home.
Since 2009, the Atangard has provided affordable housing in a community setting for students and working people between the ages of 19 and 35. Sophie tells me that she first started working on the project over four years ago in response to what she saw as a great need for reasonably priced, community-based living for this neglected demographic.
“Our society is so driven to achieve and relationships fall to the side,” she says. “A situation like this meets both the relational needs as well as the need for affordability.”
She explains that it can be difficult for young people to split the rent in other community living arrangements because of the instability of this age group. If one roommate decides to move out, everyone else is caught in the lurch. The Atangard Community Project Society manages tenant-lease agreements and could absorb the cost of an empty room for a month if need be. So far, this has not been a problem thanks to a steady waitlist of interested tenants. Sophie told me that this demand has prompted discussions about how to create a similar arrangement elsewhere.
Passing by the communal dining area, I am invited by a few tenants to join them for pancakes and coffee. Everyone is in good spirits, decked out in sweatpants and t-shirts. A few laptops are open and everyone seems to linger around the table long after they finish their breakfast. Mark, who is sitting across from me, is tending to a Shirley Temple that he drinks out of a jam jar. “Every time I see him, he has one,” Emily tells me. The scene speaks volumes about the character of this community. It’s like a patchwork quilt: warm, tightly stitched together and possessed of a certain ramshackle charm. I ask my tablemates what it’s like to live at Atangard.
“Practically speaking, it’s very easy to live cheaply, simply here in this space because we have a lot of other things that are not included in a normal person’s rent,” Chad says. For instance, each tenant is expected to cook dinner once or twice a month for the entire group. That way, they can save money by buying ingredients in larger quantities and spend less time worrying about making a healthy meal. Some of Atangard’s other projects include an auto pool and a community garden.
Atangard residents in the kitchen
Although there are many benefits provided by community living, things are far from perfect.
“It’s important to realize it’s not a utopia,” Chad says. “We’re talking in very idealist ways, when in reality this is something we’re striving to achieve.”
Yet Atangard does help fill a significant gap in today’s housing market. It acts as a reprieve for young people struggling to find a decent place to hang their hat. And when I ask Adam where he would be if not Atangard, he tells me bluntly: “probably a shitty basement suite for a couple hundred dollars more.”