Q&A: Jordan Oram of Tzvi’s Place talks about the collective life

Though the idea of living collectively is hardly a new one, it’s gaining traction, especially in perennially unaffordable Vancouver.

But sometimes it’s a challenge gaining community support for such projects, as Cedar Cottage Cohousing, a company planning the first co-housing development within Vancouver city limits, recently found out.

Meanwhile, in the city’s lower-key community of  collective houses, even with deeper roots in their surrounding neighbourhoods, there’s another problem: zoning bylaws.

One such house is Tzvi’s Place in East Vancouver. The house, which owner Tzvi Tal bought from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind 15 years ago, has not only served as the Tals’ family home for some years, but also has played host to a rotating cast of “teachers, artists, and students.”

Over the years, too, the house’s landscaping grew more elaborate. The Zula – a deck, covered with grapevines, served as a venue for the house’s occasional concerts, which were not only a focus for the community in the house, but in the neighbourhood around it.

There was one problem: the land the house was on was not zoned for it. It was a long-standing issue with the city, but after much petitioning and discussion with the City of Vancouver earlier this year, it seems a settlement has been reached, at least for now.

Jordan Oram, who occasionally shares space with a friend who lives at Tzvi’s Place, talks about its experience as a collective house – and about his experience living there.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jordan Oram

Jordan Oram of Tzvi’s Place.

What distinguishes a collective house from a house that’s simply shared by roommates?

Jordan Oram: Hmm, like what other kinds of shared living?

Roommate type arrangements?

JO: I suppose one of the differences is the greater ethos or idea behind what brings people together. So, there are a lot of people who are choosing to be here, choosing to be part of a community, who want to be interactive in each other’s lives, who want to have both the independence and collaboration, of working together, of living together, of being more than just roommates but actually adding value to each other’s lives. It’s not just sharing space. There’s people from all over the world who live in this house and in many cases they’ve left behind their family, their connections are far away, and so here they find some more of that intentional community… I would say that it’s more purposeful.

How did Tzvi’s Place come to be?

JO: Tzvi’s Place came to be, as far as I understand it, through the nature of Tzvi. Tzvi is from Israel, originally, and he grew up on a kibbutz… When it came time for him to move to the city, I believe, he looked around and saw this place with the different rooms available and how it had been built – it’s an old house, I believe it’s over 100 years old – and he wanted to have a community, to live in a place that’s more than just a house, to share that experience with people… One of his passions, I’d say, is music and what happens when musicians and audiences interact, when it’s not just an audience and not musicians but [when] it’s people who share an experience together; that is something that unites the people around in this house and the greater community around [it]. So, I think, [this] house exists and is known as Tzvi’s Place because it is a manifestation of his intention, of wanting a place like this to be, of curating a place like this.

Who lives at Tzvi’s Place?

JO: There’s… a little bit of rotation through who lives here every now and then. Last year, there was a student there, who was originally from the Sunshine Coast, originally from the Sunshine Coast, just north of Vancouver, and he ended up being here for the school year and then moving out in the summer, so you get that little bit of rotation… there was a girl here from France, who was working with Via Rail for a while, so she was here through the summer and last year. Currently, there’s a Argentinian engineer, who lives downstairs, there is a Japanese PhD student, there’s a dance instructor, there’s a Spanish architect who likes movies, moved here because of cinema… and upstairs we have an ESL teacher who teaches English to refugees, has been doing that for many years, there is a student who’s studying for her LSAT, up another flight of stairs is the artist… Matt, who is a fantastic fellow, he’s from Invermere, so he’s a little bit of a British Columbian… content and flavour to the house, and then [there’s] Tzvi, the owner of the establishment here, and the curator, or whatever title – he can go by Tzvi. And me myself, I’m here because I’m friends with the ESL teacher fellow, who’s travelling right now, travelling a four-month sabbatical, going around East Asia.

What is life like at Tzvi’s Place?

JO: Life at Tzvi’s Place is pretty dang nifty. It’s informal, it’s communicative, it’s sharing, respectful of boundaries, inviting – inviting collaboration. Sometimes we’ll have music, random music nights, playing guitar or other instruments, we’ll have film nights, someone will just send an email around – we actually use email a lot to coordinate events, since everyone has different schedules, it’s easier to just to fire off an email that’s shared with everyone and pass that around… When we have the house concerts, those are larger events… a couple of days’ work goes into clearing the spaces, getting it ready, having it prepared… those can be tiring [and] draining. Most people know the house through these events, but those are once, twice a month [and] the big ones are one to two months, not that often, so in between that, it’s really casual and relaxed. There’s usually a little bit of food being shared in the main room, and whenever I’m here, I fire up the tea and sit down here and just let people know I’ll be working in the main room here, so if they’re working on their own projects or whatever, we can come and share the space together and have a sort of creative environment [where] we’re all working on our own projects, but drinking tea and being in the same place, which is lovely.

How has the city responded to places like this?

JO: Places like Tzvi’s Place are a challenge and an opportunity to the city, it’s all depending on how you look at it… There’s challenges in zoning, there’s challenges in how you organize. So, if people were a family, if they’re all of one family, if you’re one family in a large dwelling, then there’s allowances for that within the city’s understanding, because you’re all one family, but when you’re not family, when you’re people who do not share a genetic kinship or a legal marriage, then that’s a different challenge.

I understand the city has to accommodate and look to protect the welfare of the tenants and the landlords, and situations like this can be complicated. When it works very well like it does here, it’s something that enriches the city, it enriches the city, it enriches the citizens of it. On the other hand, places that can have multiple tenants sharing a space with no real overview, you can get a lot of dysfunction, you can get a lot of misuse of the property. Often, when people find out there’s a collective house, they’ll often throw around words like “commune” and whatever that means to people, and all these connotations of some squatters or a flophouse or a punk house. People, I think, often think of somewhere where they might have gone like back in college or university, full of university students, the sinks are full of dishes, there’s ashtrays around and it smells like pot and all of that stuff.

But all the events that happen here are drug and alcohol-free, it’s a safe environment for the community to come and it’s oriented around being respectful to each other, to the space, to the community. So it’s a very well-intentioned intentional community in this house. The problem is that cities can’t operate off the good intentions… of people, so there’s conflict, then, in zoning and sometimes they’ll want to enforce different bylaws and things like that, which happened with a structure that we had on the back porch.

But even with the city, the thing I love about the systems there’s a mechanism in the city of Vancouver and in their policy and bylaws of the Board of Variance, which means that even if something doesn’t fit with the laws as they currently are, citizens can go before the Board of Variance and ask for a variance… It’s a beautiful mechanism and I really love and respect what board members do there, because they sit like a wise council of Jedi [laughs] or, I don’t know, smart people, and I really felt they gave a fair listening and hearing to the size of the situation of the house here, and did end up settling in favour of the house, and [they] allowed the house to continue to exist as our community, which maybe is in a bit of a grey space, but is a beautiful thing. The minority which is trying to effect change in the world, the minority which is trying to reform systems or move them forward into what can be will always push against the system, and that’s how it goes.

What is the collective house community like in Vancouver?

JO: I’m not really familiar with a lot of the collective houses in Vancouver, but I’ve heard that exist like this have had some issues with zoning and things like that. I think there’s a… need or an opportunity for places like this in Vancouver, when you look at the rise of urban density and what the city wants to do… increasing the density of the region. And yet we see property prices going up, we see all of those things going up, and that causes people to find new solutions for how they live together, and I think that’s one of the draws to collective housing, [in] that you are looking at sharing rooms and space in ways that are greater than just as room-mates but actually wanting to become part of a community, investing in relationships… yeah.

What advice would you give to someone considering living collectively?

JO: I think if someone is considering living collectively, there’s going to be a lot of learning involved, it’s not a simple thing and it’s not for everybody. If they’re considering it, do some research first. Look online: I know there’s a intentional communities wiki, read that, look at that, it’ll talk about some of the conflicts that are that arise, how to frame your organization, your relationships better.

In this house here, Tzvi is a kind, wise fellow who has learned a lot in his life, and he uses that wisdom to help facilitate the community in the space here. There’s a huge potential for conflict in a living space, especially when you have different people coming from different background, different languages, different families. So, having a shared common vision, a shared desire to live together, [and] to work that out is so important, super important.

Ultimately, I suppose it comes down to the people you agree to be with… some relationships work, some don’t, and you learn that through trying it. Big advice, I would say, is learning about conflict resolution, learning to accept your own stuff. This isn’t something that’s easy, this isn’t something for beginners, if you will, in community – there will be challenges.

So, this community works, I would say, because of the calibre of individuals who are part of it, who want to be a part of it, who are mature and really care for each other and want to work through things.

Chris Yee

Kwantlen journalism student and man-about-town, scouring every nook and cranny for morsels of emerging local culture.

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