Co-op housing could help solve Canada’s affordability crisis, advocates say

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Ayanna Inniss believes the co-op movement could be part of the solution to the housing affordability crisis in this country.

The Edmonton-area woman still remembers the ‘soul-destroying’ experience of finding affordable housing 20 years ago, before moving into Brittany Lane Housing Co-op in the community Dormitory in Sherwood Park, Alberta.

Newly separated at the time and strapped for money, Inniss said she visited one rundown building after another looking for a place she and her two little boys could call home.

“I remember lots of concrete, no grass, no trees. I remember windows covered in garbage bags and feeling like “that’s not what I have to accept, just because that’s what I can afford.”

Inniss considers it a stroke of luck to have found Brittany Lane and secured a well-maintained three-bedroom unit in a complex that also offers residents access to community gardens, playgrounds, multi-sports fields and a community hall.

Today, she pays $1,230 a month compared to what she says is a current market rate of around $1,600 for a similar unit.

“The fact that you need affordable housing shouldn’t equate to poor quality housing,” Inniss said.

Nearly a quarter of a million people live in co-op housing in Canada, a term used to describe mixed-income, multi-unit housing developments that are jointly owned by residents and operated on a not-for-profit basis.

This means that there is no outside owner and the cooperative is controlled by members who vote for decisions.

Members own shares in the co-op, just as if you owned shares in a corporation. When they leave the cooperative, the shares are passed on to the next resident who moves into the unit.

The monthly “rent” members pay is used to pay for the building mortgage, maintenance costs and other operating costs.

Because residents own the development and do not seek to make a profit, housing is provided at cost. Co-ops tend to be much more affordable than units available in the traditional rental market, and this affordability gap has only widened over time as housing across the country has become more expensive.

Tim Ross, chief executive of the Co-operative Housing Association of Canada, said recent research by his organization shows the monthly rent for a two-bedroom co-op in Toronto in 2021 was almost 30% cheaper than a two-bedroom unit. in the private market. This compares to data from 2006, which shows that co-op units in this city were 16% cheaper than market rates. (Some low-income tenants receive government subsidies to live in co-ops, so their rents can be even lower).

Because co-op housing developments are never resold, co-ops provide security of tenure, eliminating the risk of a tenant being evicted by a landlord looking to sell the property or convert units to condos.

These factors, combined with the sense of community that comes with living in a co-op, mean that many co-op developments have very low vacancy and turnover rates, Ross said.

“Unfortunately, because the housing market is not meeting the needs of people in Canada, moving into a housing co-op is a bit like winning the lottery,” he said. “For this reason, we see very long waiting lists. Some waiting lists last up to 5 to 10 years.

Most of the housing co-ops that exist in Canada today were built in the 1970s and 1980s, with federal, provincial and, in some cases, municipal funding.

However, the public debt crisis of the 1990s and the rise of neoliberalism have reduced the political appetite for investing in housing in recent years, said Margaret Kohn, chair of the University of Toronto’s political science department.

“It’s not that it didn’t work, it’s that they (governments) decided they didn’t want to spend on it,” Kohn said.

But that could start to change. The most recent federal budget targeted $9.5 billion over five years to fund new housing initiatives to address Canada’s growing affordability crisis. Among these initiatives is a $1.5 billion investment plan to build new co-op housing in Canada, the largest federal investment in co-op housing in 30 years.

Kohn said the announcement is a good start, but governments must continue to invest to expand the co-operative housing model across the country and provide a comprehensive solution to the country’s housing affordability crisis.

He said that in the European Union, about 10% of the overall housing stock is owned and managed by housing co-operatives, proof that the model could play a much bigger role here in Canada.

“I think now is the time. The cost of market housing has risen so dramatically and so quickly, and it’s now putting a burden on many different kinds of people,” Kohn said. There’s really desperation right now, and it can really create a political movement, and hopefully it brings people together to think about alternatives.

For her part, Inniss said getting a place in a housing co-op 20 years ago changed her life and the lives of her children.

“With the money I saved, I was able to pay for softball lessons for my boys, as well as football and piano lessons,” Inniss said. “So (co-op housing) is something that has ripple effects on the next generation.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 12, 2022.

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