July 03, 2019

A City Without Youth? Reflections on a Public Dialogue

Doug Hamilton-Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator, SFU Public Square

The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University or SFU Public Square, or any other affiliated institutions in any way.

The hall of the Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre crackled with ideas, questions, recommendations and potential. It was my second day on the job at SFU Public Square and I was about to get a crash course in dialogue and public engagement.

People from across communities had gathered on unceded Coast Salish territories at SFU Woodward’s to confront the problem that Vancouver’s housing crisis is driving youth out of our city.

The gathering was hosted by undergraduate students from the SFU Semester in Dialogue: Housing Futures as the culmination of seven weeks of intensive study of the complexities of the housing crisis under the instruction of Jackie Wong and Am Johal.

In small groups, the audience-participants rotated around the room to engage in brief, but intense conversations about housing inspired by policy recommendations for Vancouver based on the Semester for Dialogue students’ research on how the cities of Montreal, Vienna, Berlin and Hong Kong address their housing challenges.

In Hong Kong, the city with the least affordable housing in the world (Vancouver being second), we discussed ideas of multigenerational co-housing and communal living, the possibilities of micro-living and how densification can be sustainable under the right conditions.

In Montreal, a city with a median wage similar to Vancouver but vastly less expensive rental costs, we discussed the need for organized youth civic engagement and more government consultation.

In Berlin, where 85% of people are renters (versus 50% in Vancouver), we discussed the need for non-market housing in the face of the commodification of housing.

And in Vienna, where 60% of people live in social housing, we discussed how to break down the stigma against non-market housing and the idea of housing as a human right.

But to be honest, I initially wanted to hear more concrete answers from the students. You’re the ones who’ve done the research. Why are you asking us what we think?

But I realize that wasn’t the point. And that I should consider why I want my answers so neatly packaged and delivered. This was about dialogue, a key part of which is listening to others’ concerns, issues and ideas and learning from their perspectives.

Because the housing crisis is a complex, intersectional problem. To begin to solve it, we must engage all communities affected (read: everyone), particularly those who often go unheard.

This point was better made by Sekani Dakleth from Megaphone’s Speakers Bureau, who was invited to reflect on this event as a witness, alongside Leo Yu from the Hua Foundation.

Sekani admitted that she initially felt out of place in the conversation as someone who carries intergenerational trauma from the residential school system, as a person who uses drugs and as a person who has engaged in sex work. But she quickly realized that “I’m right here where I need to be.” That her knowledge and experience is a vital contribution to this dialogue that everyone must be involved in.

In his reflection, Leo argued that the housing crisis is not an economic problem, but a cultural and political one. And that solving the housing crisis will require three things:

  1. Protest and organization in ways that are culturally sensitive.

  2. Race equity – if we don’t address the privileges that some carry in our response to housing, some will benefit while others do not.

  3. Reconciliation - recognizing that we are on unceded lands, Leo urged the group to read the recommendations from the reports of the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Most importantly, Leo reminded us that the solutions to this crisis could be found in this room. That we must amplify the voices of youth and make way for them to live and grow in this city.

Or else, we must ask: who is the city for?

Read more directly from the students of the Semester in Dialogue: Housing Futures students in The Tyee:

Read related stories from other Voices in the Square