Creating societal value through rent-free living arrangements

Creating societal value through rent-free living arrangements

How might we leverage rent savings as an economic instrument to generate non-financial forms of value?

Madelyn Capozzi

In a world of maxed-out credit cards and life-long mortgage debt, can we imagine a scenario where money is decentered from the economy? With the experimental residence Value Collective, Madelyn Capozzi imagines an economic arrangement based on sweat equity and the creation of non-financial value – whether social, cultural, aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, or ecological. This speculative piece defamiliarizes us from the financial systems that harness our economies today and, in so doing, allows us to dream just a little.






Marie-Sophie Banville

Montreal, Qc

May 2020

[Fictional Article]

Value Collective celebrates second year in operation

Curious about Montreal’s infamous alternative living space? We take a peek inside to profile some of its varied residents. (See Image 1)

MONTREAL – In a sprawling, former industrial complex situated on the Lachine canal, just a 15-minute bike ride from downtown, tenants of the experimental living arrangement Value Collective reside rent-free in exchange for their work on projects that do not generate much financial capital, but that create significant personal and societal value instead.

Residencies are awarded for renewable periods of three, six, or twelve months at a time, with applications consisting of proposals for personal projects or collaborations with low-budget organizations. Prospective tenants may also apply in groups. The arrangement evolved out of the premise that rent savings could be leveraged as a means of fostering creativity and experimentation, and is designed to ease overhead costs for people who want to work free from the pressure to generate financial returns.

“For me, it has opened up opportunities that were just not possible before,” says Margo, 34, who has been residing at the complex for five months. “I’m an artist and an organizer, my interest is in staging interventions on the street. My troupe and I perform street theatre to educate passersby on local issues and stimulate civic engagement. Our partner is a small community organization with next to no budget, so the time we could dedicate to this project was significantly limited back when we were working day jobs in the service sector to pay the bills. Now, it’s our full-time job, even if we still aren’t technically getting paid.”

Another resident, Richard, is working on-site to restore the soil of the former industrial complex through bioremediation processes. Value Collective also intakes residents for a limited number of preconceived projects, such as the two-year program to clean up the surrounding land and prepare it for urban farming.

“My degree is in chemistry,” says Richard, 27. “I became interested in ecological restoration during university, and have wanted to get into it ever since. After graduation there weren’t a lot of jobs available for someone with my level of experience, so I took a job as a lab tech in the pharmaceutical industry. I wasn’t sure if I would ever have another chance until this opportunity came up. I guess I see it a bit like an internship, but with my cost of living so low it’s actually feasible.”

Residents Eliza and Camille began working together after discovering common ground between their projects. Impromptu collaborations are par for the course in the unusual residence, which includes multiple open-concept kitchen, dining, and social spaces where residents intermingle.

“Camille and I got to know each other because it was a running joke in Quartier bleu that the two of us survive solely off pasta,” explains Eliza, 23, referring to the area of the complex that she resides in, named for the dominant color on the walls. “We made a pact to start exploring new recipes, and went in together on one of those boxes of vegetables that gets delivered to your door. While cooking together, Camille told me about the project she’s here with, a research project on relocalizing production in Montreal. So you can imagine she was really excited about that box.”

Eliza’s residency was also granted for research purposes. “I’ve been working with a network of artisans and craftspeople to establish partnerships for a series of pop-up markets. We saw the overlap right away, and have taken to co-working and sharing resources. Some of our partners turned out to already be acquainted. It’s a bit too soon to tell what’ll come of it, but we’re excited.”

While a fair few residents do receive some compensation for their work, others – usually those undertaking personal projects – do not.

“I earn pocket money working the patio sometimes,” says Jean-Michel, 38, referencing the bustling outdoor patio of the site’s popular bar and café – one of the few sources of monetary income for the collective dedicated to non-financial value-creation. Two months earlier, Jean-Michel quit his office job to take up residency at Value Collective with his best friend Todd, a furniture designer. He’s using his three-month sojourn to learn new skills, taking on building projects as his friend’s apprentice.

“Todd was tired of renovating rich people’s kitchens, and was looking for something a bit more meaningful, so it’s been good for him too. We source a lot of materials from the reuse center onsite and try not to buy anything new, which isn’t too difficult when you live in a place like this. Even if something isn’t here, the residents are really resourceful; almost everyone ‘knows a guy.’” (See Image 2)

In addition to co-working spaces and communal studios, the complex also has a workshop. Fundraising for the tools was undertaken last year, with current and former residents volunteering skills and labor across Montreal to gather donations.

“We often take requests from people around the complex,” Jean-Michel continues. “I’m not picky about what we work on as long as I’m learning. I would’ve been happy just picking up basic carpentry, but the last thing we did was more artistic, it was kind of a sculptural mosaic and we were a whole group working on it. It’s on display at the café right now, they’ll be taking it off-site for a festival in the next few days, and then probably installing it as public art after that. Picture that: me, an artist!” Jean-Michel laughs.


1. Fictional solution, real problems

Value Collective does not exist. In reality, the sprawling former industrial complex on the Lachine Canal sits vacant, anxiously awaiting redevelopment. 1 None of the characters profiled are real, although they may have been reminiscent of someone you’ve encountered in real life – an artist torn between creative experimentation and making rent, an activist approaching burn-out from working during the day and organizing in the evening, a friend stuck in a meaningless job that does little to address their deeper needs or those of society at large.

These are economic problems, even if we might not recognize them as such. Though neither inevitable nor unsolvable, such circumstances persist in a dearth of political motivation to address them accordingly. Large institutions seem to have lost all will to explore economic questions where money is not the answer.

2. Economy ≠ Finance

What is often forgotten in everyday conversations about the economy is that it does not necessarily have anything to do with money. Investopedia defines an economy as “the large set of interrelated production and consumption activities that aid in determining how scarce resources are allocated.” Economies are shared systems of coordination, devised as a means of meeting our individual and collective desires. Another definition of economics is “the study of incentives.”

A dangerous product of overfinancialized economies is the disincentivization of projects that do not generate financial value, giving way to an impoverishment of value in all its other forms: social value, cultural value, aesthetic value, personal value, emotional value, spiritual value, ecological value, and so on. Projects focused on generating value in these domains struggle for survival or otherwise must place all other forms of value second to financial profit, making for a delicate balancing act vulnerable to corruption and exploitation. Sadly, when everything requires money to happen, nothing is likely to receive financing that doesn’t produce financial returns. One might point to grant funding as the exception, and while this might be true, grants depend largely on investment portfolios for sustainment, which frequently come under fire for their role in perpetuating ecologically-destructive yet financially profitable industries. 2 In other words, our overreliance on finance comes with other problematic caveats.

3. Stimulating creativity and resilience through alternative economics

When so much of our daily needs are wrapped up in the financial economy, lack of financial returns can impose strict limits on what we consider feasible. Not only does this place a wide range of solutions out of reach, it continuously drives demand for financial capital higher and higher, and that money has to come from somewhere. Can we really afford to accept such limitations – byproducts of a dominating ideology more than objective facts – on a planet fast becoming crippled by our economic overreliance on financial growth?

With the speculative residence Value Collective, I hope to demonstrate that the widespread adoption of “more money” as the default solution to meeting peoples’ needs and desires could productively come under question, with positive implications for all other forms of societal value. It is also a thought experiment in how we might introduce more variety, and consequently resilience, into our economy. What if instead of always needing more money, we experimented with needing less?

Artists, activists, and low-income people are well-used to this exercise in economic ingenuity. Rather than reaching straight for their wallets, they’re more likely to seek out alternative solutions, such as DIY, sharing, trading/bartering, or creative reuse. Lack of financial capital also forces us to work more relationally (ie. when we negotiate unique arrangements with people we know personally), diversifying the range of value exchanged and encouraging reciprocity. 

4. Conclusion

The unquestioned dominance of financial capital in the modern economy has displaced all other forms of value and value-creation, constituting a monoculture in what might otherwise be a diverse garden of meaning, desires, and systems for achieving them. The result is the systematic stifling and eradication of initiatives that are unable to thrive in a finance-centric economy. In Value Collective, we are presented with a vision of how cutting overhead costs, rather than raising funds, could represent a compelling means for realizing projects that are not profit-focused, but which generate other forms of societal value instead. Decoupling finance from the economy also opens up possibilities for development in line with degrowth, 3 revealing a potential pathway for progress that does not place the future of the planet and all earthly species in peril. 

Finally, while the arrangement behind Value Collective might seem utopian, it can take on a very different flavour in the wild. As a result of the recent Covid-19 crisis, a large percentage of businesses have suspended operations. It is very possible that in the post-virus economy, significant numbers will not recover. When the high cost of rent remains a mandatory expense amidst lack of financial income and widespread debt, it can have disastrous effects on people’s mental and physical health, not to mention their spirits of creativity. Conversely, clearing away elements of the old economy can make way for the spontaneous development of new systems – ones that are respondent to the needs and available resources of the present. In the near-future, experimental economic arrangements like Value Collective may become essential to harnessing the creativity and wellsprings of value-creation latent in the soon-to-be displaced masses. 

This idea is not without precedent. In Spain, 4 Greece, 5 Portugal, 6 and Venezuela, 7 alternative economies have sprung up in the wake of extended financial crises, most visible in the proliferation of bartering, “time banks” (in which the unit of currency is an hour of someone’s time), and local currencies. What all this demonstrates is that where finance fails, other economic solutions have much to offer. Before plunging ourselves further into financial and ecological debt, we might consider exploring other tools while we’re still in the position to design them. 

The economy is not some mystical, unyielding force to which we must make sacrifices to satiate. It is a system we enact every day. Although those with vested interests in the financial system will contest it, reinventing it is simply a matter of will.

5. Endnotes

  1. C40 Reinventing Cities. “4000 rue Saint Patrick. Montréal, Canada.” C40 Reinventing Cities Competition, Accessed March 30 2020.
  2. Wikipedia. “Fossil fuel divestment.” Wikipedia,  Accessed March 30 2020.
  3. Elsevier. “Degrowth is the key to tackling climate change – but it won't be easy.”, December 4 2019, Accessed March 30 2020.
  4. Cha, Ariana Eunjung. “Spain's crisis spawns alternative economy that doesn't rely on the euro.” The Guardian, September 4 2012, Accessed March 30 2020.
  5. Brabant, Malcolm. “Greece's alternative economy with bartering.” BBC, September 19 2011, Accessed March 30 2020.
  6. Jones, Owen. “No alternative to austerity? That lie has now been nailed.” The Guardian, August 24 2017, Accessed March 30 2020.
  7. Zerpa, Fabiola. “In Venezuela, a Haircut Costs 5 Bananas and 2 Eggs.” Bloomberg, May 4 2018, Accessed March 30 2020.

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The Office of Rules and Norms (ORN) is an arts-based transdisciplinary collective that engages with regulations, the rule of law and cultural norms. These engagements reveal, comprehend, play with, subvert, and transcend current ways of understanding and acting in relation to regulatory forces in order to make room for more equitable alternatives. In its attempts to query legal and behavioral urban infrastructures, the ORN specifically deploys art and design practice, culture, and methods along three axes:
Art as Subversion | Intervening in grey areas of regulation
Art as Pedagogy | Making public various forces and forms of influence
Art as Decision-Making | Reorienting modes of knowing and deliberating