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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Geographies of indebtedness : the spatial nature and lived experiences of household debt in Metro Vancouver Hawes, Emily Jeanne


Since the 1990s, Canadian household debt levels have grown at an increasingly rapid rate, hitting records levels in late 2014. Mainstream representations paint the looming household debt crisis as a product of rampant overconsumption, underpinned by a societal lack of ‘financial literacy’. To what extent does the empirical evidence reflect such discourses? Few critical studies examine household debt in Canada, and still fewer consider the sub-national scale. According to existing scholarship, processes of financialization, securitization and neoliberalization influence household debt internationally and nationally. This thesis investigates the geography of high household debt levels at the local scale for Metro Vancouver. It examines the causes and consequences of heavy indebtedness in the everyday lived experiences of individual debtors, and the services and supports that they need to face these challenges. At the sub-CMA level, the spatial distribution of debt stress (debt-to-income and debt-to-wealth ratios) is assessed at the FSA level via a quantitative mapping analysis for Metro Vancouver – Canada’s most indebted city. Despite the generalized high debt stress across the CMA, a distinctly uneven spatial distribution of the costs, stresses (indebtedness) and benefits (gains in wealth) of rising mortgage and consumer debt levels emerges, with disproportionate stress in Vancouver’s outer suburbs. Through in-depth qualitative interviews with highly indebted Vancouverites, this thesis unpacks the everyday effects that increasing debt-loads have on residents of high-debt neighbourhoods. It draws on media discourse and debtor testimonies to consider the societal and survival pressures to engage in ever higher levels of borrowing experienced by financialized citizen subjects – funding consumption in a time of high income and wealth inequalities. Common causes of debt stress include unexpected life events such as divorce and job loss, easy accessibility of and marketing pressures to consume credit, and insufficient household resources as inflation surpasses wage growth. Financial literacy initiatives are called into question while, alongside issues of housing affordability, the study finds a critical need for lending regulations, non-predatory alternatives to small and short-term Payday loans, and reduced barriers to accessible and affordable mental health counseling for debtors.

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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada