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Cooperative Housing

May 05, 2010

by Naomi Buell, Marketing Assistant for VIA Architecture

The cooperative housing movement in Canada began in the 1930’s. The intention was to create a safe, collaborative, affordable living model in which people not only relied on their neighbours for a cup of sugar but also to maintain the grounds and make the important governing decisions. Rather than a traditional model in which a building has tenants and a landlord or manager, co-ops wanted their members to be in control and because co-ops have traditionally been subsidized, it was only fair that people give back to their community. This is where committees and a self governing board became integral to a smoothly running co-op. In fact co-op members can be kicked out for not participating.

Today’s co-ops follow the same principles, although I have heard that some are more successful then others. Each member joins a committee which either deals with finance, the newsletter, the garden and grounds, membership or everything else in between or is voted onto the board. The board governs all of the important decisions which are then put to a vote and each member is given one vote. Members join the committees which best utilize their strengths and in return they get a safe, beautiful, friendly place to live. The idea follows the age old Marxist ideal of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” In addition to this, there is also the option to apply for subsidies in rent in case of a layoff, retirement, sickness or anything else affecting income levels.

Given that co-ops are a very ideal way of living, gaining membership can be a difficult and long process. In order to become a member you have to be interviewed to be placed on the waiting list. However many waiting lists are full as space is limited. Our coop has only 4 or 5 one bedroom units so the waiting list for them hasn’t opened in about 12 years. If you are lucky enough to make it to the waiting list the process from there can take anywhere from 6 months to 6 years (and possibly even longer). Once a unit becomes available people on the waitlist are invited to see the unit at which time another interview would be required. If all goes well and your membership is accepted you must then purchase a share of the co-op which can cost anywhere from $600 to $6000+ depending on the coop. From then on you are part of the community. You are responsible for your garden and taking care of your unit but things like appliances and necessary renovations and upgrades are taken care of by the co-op.

Co-ops have been criticized for getting “government hand outs” but this is not a something for nothing scenario. “Co-operatives boast a successful twenty-five year record of sound and cost-effective management, self-governance, sustained public-private partnerships, and participation in broader social issues. This success can be traced directly to the empowerment of ordinary Canadians to own and democratically manage their housing (link).” Contrary to a subsidized building which houses those with little to no income which don’t participate in return, co-ops expect their members to give back and in fact rely on it. They also house people from different income levels to embrace a community consisting of varying socio-economic statuses.

I have recently moved back to the co-op in which I have lived off and on since I was 8 years old as I am subletting from my mom while she is working in another city. Members are only allowed to sublet for a limited time period as the person subletting is not considered a member and does not have the same responsibilities or rights. Having such people living in the co-op for an infinite amount of time would transform it into any regular apartment or town house. Although I am only allowed to be there for a limited amount of time and applying for membership is extremely difficult for me even having grown up there, I love what I would still consider my community. People stop in the stairwell to catch up, there are pot lucks for summer and celebrations in the winter. People invite each other over to their roof top patios to watch the fireworks or for a holiday dinner. Most interestingly of all, when I started at VIA Architecture I learned that one of our founding principals lives across the courtyard from me and has since I first moved in. He was the 3rd member of our co-op which began in 1979 and therefore has a pretty top notch view.

Of course co-ops have had many challenges as well. We all dealt with the leaky condo situation as our building lay buried under scaffolding and green mesh for many months. This in turn led to decreased reserves to fund subsidies. I know that our coop is unable to accept any member that cannot pay full market rent. Of course as a non profit, full rent is about half to a third of what others would pay. The idea that members would pay according to their salaries is something of the past. However, once membership is granted members can apply for subsidies in case of layoff, illness or anything else effecting income levels. Other issues include members that won’t participate or don’t follow the cooperative ideals and some who lack common neighbourly consideration.

Just like any community we have our struggles but at least we are in it together. Recently funding for co-ops has been cut as our operating agreements with the government will begin to end, leaving co-ops to “fund” for ourselves. However we are not doing it as independent unheard tenants but rather as a group of decision makers, working together for a common goal. We will continue to work to make our living space beautiful, liveable, friendly, accommodating, safe and affordable. Not an easy feat but when everyone comes together and cooperates, well that is really what it is all about.