In a dimly lit lobby, immediately through rustic brown French doors off Essendene in downtown Abbotsford, there’s an upright bar piano where Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 anticipates and sits anticipated. A hangboard (a pull-up board for rock climbing finger strength training) is bolted into a crossbeam above. A streetlamp stands across the room.
Hang right up the worn stairs, turn right on the scuffed landing. Someone’s sitting at a café table beside the railing, working on a laptop.
“Hey buddy, welcome back,” a smile says to a stranger. Dinner’s spice is the welcome mat: Moussaka, a Middle Eastern dish, tonight. It smells amazing and everyone’s a friend.
Atangard Community Project is the rooming division and top floor of the Fraser Valley Inn, a two-storey brick building down on the corner of Essendene and West Railway, across the street from the train tracks. It’s above New Passage to India and Gator’s Pub. It’s across from the eternally closed Essendene Vacuums & Janitorial Supplies.
Atangard is a not-for-profit society on paper, though it lives as a community. In it are 19 units: each with a private bathroom, some rooms built for two, most for one. They rent for $375 to $510 a month and tenants pay a $10 stipend to stock shared grocery staples. Laundry is also shared, as is Wi-Fi and Netflix. Residents must be between 19 and 25 years old, employed or in school to live here.
Seconds after the dinner bell rings, boots and bare feet thud down the swollen and dipping dark hardwood floor, halls lined with a collection of assorted paintings, portraits, and photographs. A dozen millennials sit and instantly engage in sharing their day’s experiences and revelations.
Though it’s not brought up at dinner, Atangard may undergo some changes.
“There’s the initial shock but then also, I think, as we move beyond that and accept it, we realized it’s a longer process,” David Fawcett said. “They haven’t put up rezoning signs yet.”
Fawcett is an Atangard resident and president of the society.
“Maybe people want a six-storey building, right? I don’t know, maybe that’s what they want here.”
The Fraser Valley Inn’s landlord recently submitted a rezoning application to the city. Atangard is slated for demolition potentially as early as August, but more likely within the next year. A six-storey, multipurpose development is the proposed replacement.
Fawcett moved into Atangard in February 2015. After seven months living at Atangard, he moved to Guelph to work on a master’s degree.
“I moved back the May before I went to do my field season. I was like, ‘I’m coming back to Abbotsford, I want to live at Atangard again.’”
Fawcett moved back to write his thesis remotely. Now he’s been a resident for seven months plus two years.
“I really love it here.”
Being a part of the community means having a part in it. At Atangard, dinners are communal, everyone is expected to cook two meals a month. They’ll pair up and sign up with another resident. Chores are shared. A garden out back is maintained by the residents, and the community also owns a car, which can be booked and used by any tenant.
Prospective tenants must apply for a room and undergo an interview. The living space has had a near double digit waitlist almost since its inception. If accepted, new tenants sign an agreement to participate in the household tasks.
“Living here, I’ve been pushed to live simpler and be more focused on relational community elements,” Fawcett said. “That becomes what you value, relationships with people.”
Right now, Atangard has no future home. If the property is rezoned and the community evicted, there’s nowhere for the Atangard vision to continue.
For the rezoning to pan out, the initial application will be reviewed. If it’s approved, a development proposal sign will be posted. The first and second reading of the rezoning bylaw will be given at a city council meeting. If it’s approved further, the zoning amendment bylaw will be subject to a public hearing held before city council. At this meeting, any member of the public may express concerns. This is the last opportunity for council to receive input from the applicant and the public. Council will either approve, deny, or return the application to staff for revisiting. If approved, council will give the third reading to the zoning bylaw. If all the requirements for adoption are met, the bylaw will be presented and the applicant will then proceed with the proposal.
Fawcett said they will definitely oppose the rezoning at the public hearing.
“I think there’s a lot of people downtown and others connected to us or in the community that don’t want that kind of building, or who at least want this, as an artifact of historical downtown, to be maintained,” Fawcett said.
Abigail Flom has called Atangard home for three years.
“When I first moved in I was very shy,” she said. “Moving in here, I was thrown into a group of people I didn’t really know — but they’re all so awesome in their own different ways. I felt like I could expand myself, and I was now in this environment where I could challenge myself and not worry about epically failing. I have people and a solid place I can fall back on if I need to.”
She explained how being a part of this intimate community has benefited and changed her.
“For me, there’s been a lot of learning how to be understanding and respectful of other people and where they come from,” she said. “We’re all similar to a degree, but we’ve all had different experiences and everyone has their own opinions and reasons why they have those opinions.”
“Some of the most fun times have been listening to people have conversations where I’m hearing all their opinions, and I’ll throw in mine, but I like witnessing people have discussions where you can challenge each other, but it’s safe because you know each other enough.”
As of November 2017, Abbotsford’s vacancy rate was 0.2 per cent, Mission’s was 0.6 per cent. These are among the tightest in Canada according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) annual report. The average apartment rent increased by 2.5 per cent between 2016 and 2017. In the primary rental market, bachelor studios on average cost $627, one bedrooms $765, and two bedrooms $934.
In March, Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun acknowledged that “We are not in a healthy market,” according to Abbotsford News. “We are in a bubble, and I’m surprised it hasn’t burst yet.”
According to the CMHC report, apartment units in Abbotsford and Mission that were vacant at the survey’s time asked for an average rent of $1,014, putting them in the top quintile of rents. That represents the marginal rate prospective tenants would face in the market.
In this market, a $400 room and communal sharing of household duties exists as the antithesis of radically unaffordable housing.
“I’ve gone through enough fluctuations with jobs that having the affordable living has been so important,” Flom said. “I know I couldn’t afford my own place right now. If I were to move outside of Atangard, I’d probably have to have one, maybe two more roommates, just so we could have a decent place and be able to afford it.”
The idea for Atangard began in 2007. A group of friends and family started meeting to develop communal and relationally-oriented living space. Planning took two years of meetings, preparations, paperwork, and intense renovations. Before they could move in, the group spent half a year cleaning up the old hotel, which had been shut down in 2005 by the city because of health hazards and a reputation for drugs and prostitution. The new Atangard opened to its first residents September 1, 2009.
The project was the brainchild of Sophia Suderman. After returning home from travelling in Latin America she was compelled by the generous and community-focused hostel culture.
“For me, starting it was an attempt to facilitate a lifestyle that was based on community and relationships, and really emphasize that, as opposed to just getting ahead in life,” Suderman said.
Suderman herself lived at Atangard for eight years.
“It’s a funny place compared to what a lot of other people call home, but it has its own community, it has its own set of norms, and there’s things that, outside of it you might think sound horrible, but inside there’s this comfort in the things that make it home.”
Affordable housing for young students, creatives, and professionals is a part of the ethos. But a huge component was to remove the emphasis on material gain, consumption, and accumulation. Instead, the community aims to create valued relationships, collaborate on projects, and put their energy into passions rather than just getting by. This means living socially- and environmentally-minded. That’s achieved through their emphasis on shared space and values.
Though the affordability is nice, most live here for the atmosphere.
“I know for a lot of people, mental health is a big reason,” Fawcett explained. “We don’t necessarily have an at risk population, but we mainly have a millennial population and there’s a lot of anxiety and mental health trends with that age group, especially from things like social media.”
“There’s a lot of people who feel that living in a community like this fills so many gaps in self care. It has a positive impact on life, especially when we have feelings meetings.”
Every month, the tenants do a house meeting, which alternates between business and feelings meetings. Feelings meetings are an open space to share as much or as little as one is comfortable with. It’s about talking about how you’re doing personally and what’s happening in your life.
“It’s like having a family,” Fawcett said.
This isn’t a commune of burnt out artists or lazy hippies. It’s probably not what you’d imagine and yet it’s the realization of an intentional community. These are the children of hard hardworking Boomers, and they’re hard working themselves. They’ve formed a collective to steady themselves against the past generation’s proclivity towards materialism and consumerism, and the current generation’s tendency to experience loneliness and isolation.
“It’s funny because when people ask what I do with my free time, I’ll say ‘Oh I just hang out at home with my housemates,’” Flom said. “Because I can walk out of my bedroom door and there’s five people in the dining room. I’ll just sit there and talk if I feel like hanging out with friends.”
This household may embrace some unconventional practices, but it embodies relational living. Here they think with their hearts and their minds.
“Being a part of a community makes you a better person,” Flom said. “You really become more aware of the people around you, and you become a family.”
Atangard’s influence resonates further than the restored building’s walls. Suderman, with Dave Vandergugten, an Atangard resident at the time, created Abbotsford’s Jam in Jubilee arts and music festival. Suderman was also the executive director of Abbotsford Arts Council until October last year before taking a job with Vancouver’s Pedal.
“I think Abbotsford loses something that’s very innovative, Fawcett said. “We have a lot of young people who’ve taken something that’s run down and have renewed it, and living together, they’ve started to reach into the community to help revitalize it.”
A lot of ideas have been tossed around to keep Atangard open. Flom noted that though it would be great to stay downtown, ideas like a tiny house community have come up. If the rezoning sends Atangard away, it’ll likely take a few investors who believe in the idea of community living to find a new location for the project.
“It’d be cool to have an entire floor of a new building, purpose-built for this,” Fawcett said. “That’s a huge dream and maybe too pie-in-the-sky. But something similar to this, just in a building that’s not as old, would be great.”
“We can adapt to our situation, whatever that looks like,” Fawcett added.
In fact, that was the mentality of Atangard’s genesis. Suderman explained that at the project’s beginning, they never thought the Fraser Valley Inn was ideal — it was affordable and available. She and the others focused on making the best of what they had.
“So I don’t know what will happen,” Fawcett said. “At this point it’s about being open to any possibility, and also recognizing that we’re still here for now.”