What could you achieve if you didn’t have to pay rent?
By Jacey Gibb, Distribution Manger
Two weeks ago, I wrote a feature giving advice on how to lead a transient lifestyle in Metro Vancouver. Though an experienced mover of places myself, I still sought out tips from friends who’d also moved a ridiculous amount. While most of my interviews yielded useful tips and guidance on being an urban vagabond, my interview with Vancouver musician Emily Bach introduced me to a whole new concept: home-free living.
If you’re a frequenter of local music shows, you may have seen Bach perform in bands like Dirty Spells, Eric Campbell & the Dirt, or Big John Bates. And while it may not immediately seem like it, Bach’s musical endeavours around town actually play a integral role in the piece you’re reading: Between 2015 and 2016, Bach was “home-free” for a total of 15 months.
After her soul/room-mate moved in with her partner, Bach used the opportunity to “get out of [her] rut” and shake things up in her life—more specifically, take back the hours in her day that were going towards paying for rent.
“I took a house-sitting gig for a month, and thought I’d sort myself out after that, and then I really, really quite quickly took to not paying rent,” explained Bach. “It was so liberating that I made a poster and said I was a house-sitter and started my own business, so I could not look for a place to live—I’d look for a contract. It just happened to be that December was the month I either needed to get an apartment or find some other alternate solution, so lots of people were leaving town and needed someone to stay with their dog.”
“I got the courage, and just left my stuff in storage, and started pet-sitting.” With that, Bach’s pet-sitting business, Sit and Stay, was born.
And while the life of professional pet-sitter may sound like a glamorous endeavour, Bach doesn’t shy away from the grittier times of her rent-free days. Considering the average person spends about 33 per cent of their life sleeping, she had some interesting stories related to where she slept during those 15 long months.
“I slept in the craziest places. Pet-sitting is nice, but there’s never a new gig as soon as the old gig ends. There’s always a lot of days to fill in.”
“There were long stints where I didn’t have a place to stay. Because I’m a musician, I had a jam space to sleep in—which I did, so many times. It was really disgusting. I sneakily hid a Therm-a-Rest, sleeping bag, and pillow behind some gear, so on nights where there was no other option, I had to stay in my jam space. I’d just sleep on the floor huddled around a space heater, and hope that no one came in to grab their gear.”
Bands seldom have jam spaces entirely to themselves, usually pooling their money with other bands to rent a shared space. Their jam space was shared with five other bands, with roughly four people in each group, meaning that about 20 people had the key for where she would often spent the night. One time, when Bach was sick with the flu and crashing on the Therm-a-Rest, someone tried to access the jam space, and she describes how disorientating it was to wake up on a beer-soaked floor, feverish and ill, with someone banging on the door outside. The person eventually gave up, and Bach went undiscovered.
Despite the obvious sacrifices that come with lacking a fixed address, one challenge Bach went into detail about was how difficult not having any personal time was. If she was lucky enough to have a friend or bandmate invite her to crash for the night, the evening would inevitably turn into a social call, denying Bach of any real downtime.
“I’m someone who needs a lot of alone time, and I had to completely give that up, and it made me a bit crazy,” she said. “But it also made me relax, because you can’t control everything. So that was an unintended perk of being wildly out of control at all times. Because you have to. You have to chill out, and be like, ‘Well, this is another weird fucking day.’
“You know in the evenings, when you sort of just want to turn off and watch Netflix? I’d go to the movie theatre and just theatre hop and stay in the theatre until it closed. Go from one show to another to another, and just eat some popcorn and be in the dark by myself. That was a really good coping strategy that I discovered. Just go to the earliest movie, and stay in the theatre for as long as I could, and when they kicked me out, I would just go to my jam space and sleep.”
Another reality to the home-free lifestyle is the vulnerability aspect. When you’re relying on pet-sitting gigs and friends for a place to spend the night, sometimes you’re forced to accept offers that take a turn for the worse. Throughout our interview, Bach emphasizes the importance of staying safe during her home-free days, including a warning to never sleep in your car. But, somewhat surprisingly, her main caution involved people she knew and trusted.
“I can’t tell you how many times guys that I thought were friends would have me over to stay at their place, and they were trying to help and I’d known them for years, and it would turn into a sexual thing, and I didn’t have anywhere to go, and then I was unsafe. It was scary. People, on many occasions, would take advantage of my need. I was a 35-year-old woman, able to stand up for myself, but if I were a younger woman, I might not have been so confident.”
“I found myself in that situation lots, and I thought I had good judgement, but I just had to be like, ‘Fuck off, man. I don’t have another place to go, and you’re seriously taking advantage of that right now?’ It’s hard to put that in a light-hearted article, but that’s what happened a lot. Safety issues, when you don’t have a lock and a home, and a place where you have respect that you can expect. You’re sometimes living by other people’s rules, and those rules aren’t always fair.”
The pitfalls of being home-free came later in our interview, and when I ask Bach early on what some of the consequences are of living such an itinerant lifestyle in Vancouver, she could initially “only think of perks.” Ultimately, home-free living taught Bach to have less attachment to personal belongings, and the experience was indispensable in advancing her trajectory as a musician.
“My main takeaway was, ‘Holy god, do we not need to make all of this money, we don’t need to work so hard.’ The number of hours that I didn’t need to work in order to make rent , I was so productive, and it absolutely 1,000 per cent changed my music career. I’m going on a tour of Japan in March, and I never would have had the hours in a day to work on being a musician if I were trying to make rent,” she said. “It’s absolutely mind-boggling how much time I was able to give myself when I didn’t have to work a job to pay Vancouver rents.”
And while Bach’s success story might have you itching to go home-free, she also cautions against doing it simply to save a few bucks.
“Don’t do it for no reason, don’t just do it for the money. There has to be a larger goal. For me, it was to have more hours in the day to be a musician. That was my goal, and that’s what I accomplished. If you just want to save money, that’s short-sighted.”
It’s difficult to imagine a time when living in the Lower Mainland was anything other than a struggle, and those conditions are unlikely to change moving forward. Back in 2015, information collected by Statistics Canada found that nearly a quarter of Vancouver, Burnaby, Richmond, and Coquitlam renters were spending more than 50 per cent of their earnings on rent.
Bach’s solution to start a pet-sitting business and go home-free for 15 months is just one of many approaches to alternate Vancouver living. In recent years, friends of mine have purchased RVs or vans to live in, literally putting the van back in Vancouver. I’ve also met people who’ve given up the whole “living on land” thing completely, and taken to living on a boat—but even then, restrictions on how long you can stay docked in one place and finite marina spaces available are causing boat owners headaches of their own.
Fast-forward to the spring of 2017: Bach’s settled back into apartment living—in the same building she lived in pre-home-free living, sans roommate—but she looks back on the home-free days fondly.
“It’s good now,” Bach says near the end of our interview, “but that’s because I’m not so achy and cold from sleeping on the floor in a freezing, disgusting, beer-soaked, garbage-ridden jam space.”