Online Storytelling Part II – RentersSpeakUp
The region of Metro Vancouver, Canada (pop. 2 million) is experiencing a housing crisis, with a shortage of affordable rental housing.
From the perspective of regional housing planners, providers and advocates such as the Greater Vancouver Home Builders’ Association and the Co-op Housing Federation of BC, the situation urgently requires both direct federal funding and ongoing support in the form of a national housing strategy.
Approximately 80,000 rental households in Metro Vancouver lack affordable housing, spending more than 30% of their incomes on rent. 30,000 households spend more than half of their incomes on rent. These statistics are troubling, but so far have failed to inspire change at the federal level.
Earlier this year, the newly formed Rental Housing Supply Coalition created the online storytelling site RentersSpeakUp.org. By inviting Metro Vancouver renters to share their own situations, it puts human faces to the troubling statistics. The site’s founders hope that this repository of individual stories will help to convince federal representatives of the pressing need for action.
Speaking to an audience of Vancouver-area planners, Metro Vancouver planner Janet Kreda described RentersSpeakUp as a vast learning experience for all partners in its creation. Its development was rapid, and most of its initial publicity came from an article in the region’s major newspaper. No-one was sure what kind of response to expect from the region’s renters.
So far, the site appears to be well used. While no change in federal housing funding or policy is yet apparent, RentersSpeakUp has received a positive response from diverse contributors, who feel that their stories have been heard.
RentersSpeakUp has reached stakeholders who would not have time to participate in other forms of consultation like public meetings. These include renters who work two jobs and have children at home. One of the needs made apparent by their stories is for purpose-built rental housing for families with children.
In both Metro Vancouver and Edmonton (whose EdmontonStories site is described in this post) engagement through online storytelling has meant entering uncharted territory for planners. Once a project has been launched, maintaining its momentum is an ongoing challenge. Even with detailed web analytics, it is difficult for planners to judge the relative success of storytelling websites.
In addition to these logistical challenges, there are dangers related to authenticity: personal stories told in individual contributors’ own words are unpredictable and uncontrollable. Some degree of moderation is necessary, especially for comments. In certain cases, the moderators of Edmonton Stories have asked contributors to rewrite parts of their stories to change particularly graphic language. (They assure that no substantive content has been removed.)
Despite these challenges, online storytelling projects are valuable because they allow participants to not only share their own stories, but to find other stories relevant to their situation. Immigrants to Edmonton may find guidance from the stories of others who arrived under similar circumstances. In Metro Vancouver, underhoused and financially overburdened renters at least know that they are not alone.