Tessa Suderman and Beth Freeman
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One of Abbotsford’s most notorious single-resident occupancy hotels has been transformed into a creative experiment in community living.
The Fraser Valley Inn is a long, red-brick building at the corner of Essendene and West Railway with a sign promising “cold beer to go at rock bottom prices.” A pub, a nightclub, an Indian restaurant and a liquor store occupy the ground floor. Until a few years ago, the upstairs was a single resident occupancy hotel (SRO), with cigarette burns on the walls and a reputation for drugs. In 2005, the city of Abbotsford ordered it closed and rezoned the building as commercial space.
But the lights are on again upstairs. There’s a coat rack in the entrance. The halls are lined with paintings. One room is full of bicycles and another is furnished with vintage couches.
Atangard Community Project is a not-for-profit society registered with the city of Abbotsford. Residents must be between the ages of 19 and 35, either employed or enrolled in school. Rent is $375 per month for a small room or $500 for a larger one. Dinners are communal and everyone is expected to cook two meals a month. The community operates a car share and grows beans, blackberries, strawberries, zucchini, corn and chard in a community garden nearby.
On the evening I visit, the kitchen is hopping. People are helping themselves to Mexican bean stew from a row of crock pots on the counter. Two musicians wearing skinny jeans and plaid shirts have just come home from a month-long tour. Everyone gets up from the table to give them a hug.
Sophia Suderman, 29, has curly red hair and lots of energy. She’s the visionary who started the project in 2007. She had just returned from a backpacking trip to Latin America where she was impressed by a culture that valued community and relationships. “When I got back I was feeling so disconnected from people. Here everyone’s so busy with school or work,” she said.
Suderman noticed that the second floor of the Fraser Valley Inn was vacant and she had an idea. She, her sister Tessa, and their father Dave, a masonry contractor, invested their own money in leasing and renovating the hotel. It took two years of red tape to register the organization and get the hotel rezoned as residential.
By the time the city approved the project, a group of about 20 young people had gathered around the idea. It took them five months of work to clean up, sanitize and renovate the old hotel. Volunteers filled three Dumpsters with soiled mattresses, stale carpeting, needles, porn magazines and even a blow-up doll. Dave Suderman headed up the renovations, installing new plywood flooring, solving plumbing problems, replacing ceiling tiles, painting and rewiring. In September 2009, about 20 people moved in.
Jordan Todd, a bearded 27-year-old sociology student with an elaborate cross tattooed on his forearm, says Atangard is ideal for young people who are ready to move out of their parents’ basements but who can’t afford to rent or buy their own homes.
Todd thrives on the social energy of Atangard. But it’s not for everyone, he says. Even though the rules are few, living closely with others involves giving up a certain amount of autonomy. When 26 people share a kitchen you can’t leave dirty dishes on the counter.
Another drawback is the noise. By 10:30 on a Friday night, the floor is literally trembling with the thump of dance music from the nightclub downstairs.
Although many of the residents are Christian, that’s mainly because Abbotsford has a large Christian population. There are no religious requirements for living at Atangard.
Todd gets odd reactions when he tells people where he lives. Walking his dog in the neighbourhood has given him a chance to get to know the names of a handful of homeless people who live downtown.
Occasionally someone will say, “You live up there? I was there 20 years ago. It’s a lot different now.”
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[Posted by Jordan Todd]