Ami Muranetz signed a $70,000, one-year lease for a 6,500-square-foot house in Shaughnessy last February. Then she set off to find 10 like-minded people to transform the Tudor-style mansion into a collective house.
“I thought to myself, if the sky’s the limit, then I want to live in a big giant mansion,” said Muranetz, who does workplace sustainability consulting. Shaughnessy, the one-time enclave of Vancouver old money, a place with a lot of big mansions and a 10-per-cent vacancy rate, was prime territory.
Collective houses are not a new idea for creating affordable housing, especially in Vancouver, a city known for its high real-estate prices. But, by taking a 1970s-era idea to one of the city’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, Muranetz took collective housing to a whole new level.
Muranetz and fellow entrepreneur Shine Kelly sent out a Facebook message about positivity and community. More than 75 people applied when the mansion first opened its doors.
Intense interview process
Alicia Graham, a dance instructor, was one of those applicants.
“The interview process was intense,” she said. “It took more than an hour.” She says the interview questions were directed toward applicants’ ideals, lifestyles, past projects, and more.
In the document sent to each applicant, Muranetz and Kelly laid out their vision for the mansion.
“In a collective housing situation and certainly in our situation, we’re really looking out for each other. We’re concerned for each other’s welfare. We’re also on this planet to make a huge change,” said Muranetz.
In the end, Graham made the cut, along with a yoga instructor, a web designer, a musician and other local entrepreneurs.
They named their new home The Light House.
For $480 to $600 per month, the 11 members of The Light House have access to high ceilings, a sprawling backyard, a recording studio, two kitchens and a yoga studio with floor-to-ceiling mirrors. A typical 600 square foot studio in downtown Vancouver can cost more than $1,000 a month.
- There are 48 collective houses listed on the Vancouver Collective Housing Network Facebook page.
- Living collectively requires housemates to share more than just the rent. Each collective house has its own name and identity. Applicants must go through a rigorous interview in other to ensure they share the same values as those in the house.
- Rent in one of these collective houses ranges from $375 to $800 per month.
The housemates share everything from food to chores to musical instruments. They also collaborate to produce workshops for other collective houses and to support each other’s individual endeavours.
However, living in a mansion with 11 has its challenges. Most collective houses have five or six people, but The Light House must deal with more common spaces and even more people to share them with.
The Light House holds a house meeting every Tuesday where housemates talk about everything from personal conflicts to managing money.
One new challenge for them is their insurance.
“The property manager has told us that they will not renew our lease unless we can find home insurance to cover 11 people living under one roof,” said Muranetz.
It appears that property managers are not opposed to a large group of people living under one roof, as long as they have insurance.
“It shouldn’t be a problem — most insurance companies are anxious to insure whoever they can,” said Don Nickels, a property manager with Pacific Quorum. “I’ve had cases where there were four or five unrelated people in a house and they put the insurance under one person’s name.”
However, insurance brokers say the risks for them increase when the group grows to 11. Cathie Spencer from Arbutus Insurance Brokers said that it would be difficult for a group of unrelated individuals to find a broker willing to sell them tenant insurance.
Gary Petrie, a broker at Hub Insurance International, agrees.
“Generally, it would relate to the fact that with so many unrelated people, the opportunity for theft is higher. So the opportunity for claims is high for a relatively small number of people.” He added, “There very well could be an insurance company that does this kind of thing, but you’d really have to shop around.”
Housing experts say that change in this environment does not happen overnight. Institutions like the insurance industry and even city policy are slow to change. Currently, city byalws allow for a maximum of five unrelated people to live in one house.
“People who are more forward thinkers are starting to do creative things like set up collective houses, but the system around them hasn’t change yet,” explained Heather Tremain, co-founder of Urban Fabric, a group of social-building consultant companies. “It takes a while for others to catch up.”
Muranetz still hasn’t found a company to cover the group. She convinced their property manager to give them a two-month extension on their lease, hoping to find a solution.
Muranetz knows that breaking new barriers by running a collective house with so many people will not be easy.
“Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s also so rewarding.”
Living collectively works for Muranetz, but it’s not for everyone.
Six of the original 11 members left the house within the first few months. But with a wait list of more than 40 people, it wasn’t hard to find new housemates.
Independent filmmaker Jeet-Kei Leung is the most recent addition to The Light House.
“We’re all independent artists, social entrepreneurs and healers, but we’re able to live in this incredible house because we collaborate and share resources,” he said. Leung has lived in other collective houses before but sees something unique in his new home.
“There’s such an amazing constellation of people here. I think there’s something really special going on here.”