Vancouver councillor pitches ‘rent bank’ for cultural spaces at risk of closing

Pete Fry’s motion aimed to address ongoing struggles of local arts spaces

Green Party Coun. Pete Fry wants to throw a much-needed life preserver into the troubled waters drowning Vancouver’s arts and culture communities.

It’s an idea that appears without precedent in Canada. And yes, the life preserver will be green.

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Fry introduced a motion last week asking staff to establish “a cultural spaces rent bank,” a type of stop-gap measure intended to help those in tough financial spots from losing the spaces in which they create.

The motion comes after a brutal start to the year for Vancouver artists, as venues such as the Toast Collective, CBDB and Little Mountain Gallery all grapple with closure.

“We’ve incrementally lost spaces over the years to the point that it’s so dire,” Fry told the Courier on Feb. 14. “Back in my day in warehouse spaces we would get one space shut down and we would find another space because there were other spaces available. I don’t think those options are as readily available now.” 

The cultural spaces rent bank idea is based on a funding model already in use for renters in Vancouver, Surrey, New Westminster and Toronto. It works by way of a personal loan issued to someone with a regular income stream facing eviction due to a short-term financial crisis: illness, job loss, unexpected expenses, relationship breakdown or eviction.

The loans are low-cost or no-cost and have generous repayment terms, usually up to 24 months.

Established in 2012, Vancouver’s rent bank has helped hundreds. The repayment rate is 67 per cent locally and closer to 80 per cent in Surrey, according to Fry. The seed money for the city’s rent bank comes from the Vancouver Foundation, Hollyburn Properties and Vancity, among others.

Fry’s preliminary talks with staff suggest the cultural rent bank is at least six to eight months out from being a reality. It’s still early days to speculate on the process, but Fry envisions applicants providing financial information, the context around their hardship and proof of an ability to repay as part of the vetting process.

Who the seed money will come from remains to be seen.

The city already has grant programs in place, but Fry’s motion has more immediacy to it and casts a larger net.

“Access to the grants can be a little bit challenging sometimes because typically they go to established cultural practitioners, they need to be in operation for 10 years and the timelines to get these grants can be a little bit challenging,” he said.

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