3 min

Ghost town

Evictions and rising rents greatest threat to gay village

The fourth floor is eerily quiet when we step into the empty hall.

Inside the suite, the scene reminds me of something out of ET, as plastic tunnels connect the pieces of what was once her home. I keep expecting someone in a space suit to step out of the living room.

But it’s only Aerlyn.

Aerlyn Weissman, lesbian documentary maker, chronicler of our community’s stories, West End resident. At least for now. The West End part might not last much longer.

Aerlyn is one of several tenants fighting eviction from their Hollyburn-owned apartments. The others on her floor gave in and moved away, many in tears.

What was once a vibrant building packed with gay history in the heart of the gay village now sits almost empty, like a ghost town foreshadowing the village’s own not-so-distant future.

“We had a community here,” says Aerlyn. “I knew my neighbours. We looked out for each other.”

Until Hollyburn bought the building. Then the rent increases went out, soon to be replaced by eviction notices.

Now it’s a ghost town.

Almost everyone’s gone, Aerlyn laments. One of her exes used to live downstairs. Gone. Gay couples like Tim and Stuart, and Mark and Mark, also gone.

It’s a community unravelling, a neighbourhood beginning to shift.

Of course, there are a few people still fighting to keep their homes. Aerlyn’s hanging in there on the fourth floor, Janine and Julie on the 10th, Sharon on the ninth, Sarah and Jeremy on the eighth, and a few others scattered throughout the rest of the building. They congregate at Sarah and Jeremy’s place, like a resistance movement plotting its next move. In this case, a thick binder full of testimony for the Residential Tenancy Office (RTO).

As if that helps. So far, the RTO’s rulings have been erratic, the first overturning Janine, Julie and Sharon’s evictions, the second upholding Sarah and Jeremy’s. Both rulings are being appealed.

“It seems to be very capricious how these things work at the RTO,” says Aerlyn. She was supposed to be out by Jan 31 but contested her eviction and is now awaiting part two of her hearing Feb 9. She may have to move out by the end of the month. Her suite is already being renovated, her improvised plastic curtains striving to keep the dust out of her stuff.

The Hollyburn evictions and similar ones throughout the West End are the biggest threat facing the gay village today, Aerlyn says.

I agree. As more and more of us get driven out of the gay village by rising rents and overpriced condos, the area’s gay character will begin to erode.

We could find ourselves walking in a “sea of strangers,” warns Aerlyn.

If the gay village loses the bulk of its gay residents, what will that do to its sense of self, of safety, of identity? Who will be left to sustain our spaces, our gathering places, our institutions?

It’s an “insidious threat” because we’re not talking about overt political oppression, says Aerlyn. It’s easier to mobilize people around obvious oppression. It’s harder to pull people together when the threat is more subtle, when it’s “under the radar,” she explains.

After all, Hollyburn is a private company doing, more or less, what private companies do: trying to make as much profit as possible. Why should it care who can afford to rent its “market value” suites and which communities it’s breaking up?

More importantly, how can we stop it? How can we fight to protect our gay village from a threat we can’t quite see?

I wish I knew.

We can start by supporting the remaining Bay Towers residents as they contest their evictions. We can write our MLAs demanding more changes to the Residential Tenancy Act, this time favouring protection for tenants. We can re-evaluate our ideas about housing and who deserves to have access to what.

But first we have to open our eyes and value our gay village, before the trickle of gay and lesbian residents forced to find home elsewhere becomes a stream and then a river and then a rushing current–and the neighbourhood we worked so hard to build sits as empty as Aerlyn’s fourth floor, until another community rushes in to fill the gap.