Torontonians, especially the young, elderly, and marginalized, don’t need to be reminded that the housing market in major Canadian cities has sent property prices soaring to almost unattainable degrees, but documentarian Charles Wilkinson’s Vancouver: No Fixed Address delivers a compact primer on many of the issues surrounding the current bubble. While the focus here is primarily on controversial advancements that have made Vancouver both one of the most “livable” cities in the world for some and a hotbed of poverty for others, many of these issues reach well beyond B.C.
In Vancouver: No Fixed Address, Wilkinson (Oil Sands Karaoke, Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World) talks to past and present area residents, home owners, activists, realtors, and developers to paint a full picture of Vancouver’s hot property market and developing housing crisis. It starts off with an examination of humanity’s fascination and dependence on debt since the end of World War II, and how periods of intense consumerism have given way to a free market economy that thrives largely on speculation. In a city like Vancouver, which can no longer count on the fishing, mining, and forestry industries that they did in past generations, it needs to appear attractive to outside influencers who will then speculate on the city’s overall worth.
Enter events like the 2010 Winter Olympics and the 1986 World Expo to make Vancouver look trendy and hip. Enter foreign interest in property, particularly from China. Enter the desire to build upward to the skies and the construction of massive condo complexes made up largely of one bedroom or bachelor units. Exit the impoverished that are no longer welcome in their once thriving neighbourhoods. Exit long time residents who can’t refuse multi-million dollar offers on homes they paid a relative pittance for in the first place. Exit young people, old people, families, and anyone else who can’t compete with the super wealthy.
Vancouver: No Fixed Address is the kind of documentary that almost defies review on an objective filmmaking level. Wilkinson and his interview subjects speak on the topics at hand in a no bullshit manner; even a condo developer who gloats about recently selling out of 800 town houses that have just been built on First Nations land and brags that his ways are the best solution. Regardless of what one thinks about the housing bubble and who’s most impacted by its continued expansion or potential bust, Vancouver: No Fixed Address articulates a great number of concerns with great empathy and skepticism.
It’s not a film that’s filled with a lot of overt rage, but Wilkinson and many of his subjects want to hold property owners accountable for part of the current bubble. They want these owners to know that sellers have all the power in the world, and to consider who they are selling to or why they would hold onto a vacant property longer than necessary in the interest of landing a bigger windfall. If there’s one key parallel between Vancouver and Toronto that Ontarians should pay the most attention to, it’s this thread. Toronto has already become unaffordable for so many, but loads of properties that could potentially be used to alleviate some housing needs remain vacant because the owners are waiting for the largest pay out possible.
Vancouver: No Fixed Address does stumble a bit when it comes to one of the biggest lightning rods in the middle of the housing field: racially charged feelings towards wealthy Chinese buyers. Most of the people Wilkinson interviews tend to point out that the Chinese are a major problem, and that a foreign buyer’s tax is a necessity at this point (although it never acts as much of a deterent). Only three brief times is it ever mentioned that Vancouver already sits upon lands taken from First Nations people, a race that knows all too well about how colonizers impose their will by building their new world atop an older one. That could be better handled, but mostly because the problems are so much bigger than the scary Chinese influence. As one person points out, quite bluntly, any country that’s open to immigration has to be prepared for something like this. This wobbly focus on the part of the interview subjects, not necessarily of the filmmakers, makes some of the earlier moments of Vancouver: No Fixed Address a bit repetitive, but Wilkinson quickly rights the film by moving onto other causes with the same amount of detail.
The biggest questions that Vancouver: No Fixed Address poses to viewers and policy makers revolve around considering if potential or proposed solutions are either the best use of public space or best for the public health. That’s a tough question to answer, but Wilkinson wants to start a dialogue about this before it’s too late for Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and any other number of Canadian cities.
Vancouver: No Fixed Address opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto and Vancity Theatre in Vancouver on Friday, May 19, 2017. It premieres in Ottawa on Thursday, May 25, and opens at Cinecenta in Victoria, B.C. on Tuesday, June 13.
Check out the trailer for Vancouver: No Fixed Address: