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Co-operative, eh?

Aug 26, 2010
Co-operative, eh?

by Jen Kenefick, VIA Architecture

I decided that I would write a little blog about co-operative housing mainly as a fact finding exercise because it is a type of housing and way of living that I know little about.

From what I can gather, co-ops are quite prevalent here in Canada and in Northern Europe and they do exist in Ireland (where I’m from), although they are not particularly common there. When I asked my housemates (also Irish) what they thought about co-ops, they didn’t know what I was talking about. Another Irish friend asked if it had something to do with social housing.

One of the main problems I had in understanding the concept of co-operatives is where they differ from social housing. Are all co-operatives government assisted to some degree? Are all the residents in receipt of government help of some kind? Why would someone choose to live in a co-op if one could afford to buy privately? Another big one was if you don’t actually own the property, when it comes to selling up, how do you make a return or profit on your investment? After all, owning your home yields potentially the biggest source of investment return you can get.

While my initial thought was that co-op was just another term for social housing, after some reading, I now know that not to be the case. There seems to be many different types of co-op housing, not-for-profit, market rate etc. Many require a small amount of investment from a member initially, which you get back should you move out and for which you pay a reduced rent (usually based on your income). Some require you to buy in at a % of the market value, after which if you decide to leave, you receive back the same % at the current market value, hence a return on your investment.

I wonder if it is fair to say that most co-ops receive government help financially, at least for the initial building stage? If not, who pays for the actual building costs, if members only pay a deposit for example? I understand that co-ops built here in the last 20-30 years were government funded and many came with a condition of mixed income residents. I do understand that you do not have to be in need of financial help to live in a co-op, but the attributes of some (small deposit, subsidised rent etc) might lead one to think otherwise.

I get that people live in co-ops out of choice, not out of necessity, which seems to be the major difference between co-ops and social housing. Living in a co-operative can bring a sense of community and belonging to the residents, as everyone has a say in how their community is managed.

If co-operative housing is partly about a way of living and about community (as well as affordable accommodation), a housing project that springs to mind that maybe takes that concept a step further in terms of a way of living is the BedZED (Beddington Zero Energy Development) in London. It is a sustainable live/work community where the residents enjoy a high quality of life, while working together to reduce their environmental impact. The community comprises 50% housing for sale, 25% key worker shared ownership and 25% social housing for rent. While the project was privately funded, its residents choose to live in that environment and work together to sustain that way of life.

After my ‘extensive’ research into the subject and the very informative series of articles in the Tyee, I feel I definitely have a much better understanding and appreciation for the co-op housing model. I won’t attempt to understand all the different types and rules that go with them and I still find it hard to grasp the idea that if you sell up, in some situations you will not make a profit on your investment. Perhaps this comes from growing up in Celtic Tiger Ireland!