Co-ops can help our housing crisis

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      Co-operative housing is often touted as a unique solution to our housing affordability challenges. So why aren’t they more common?

      I’ll begin by specifying that co-operative housing is different from co-housing, despite both placing emphasis on community and collaboration. Co-housing focuses on communal and shared living by creating private dwellings alongside intentionally-designed communal spaces for residents to socialize and gather in. By contrast, co-operative housing is an ownership and management model, and can vary in design and form.

      While regular housing rentals are bound by the BC Residential Tenancy Act, co-ops adhere to the Cooperative Association Act. This act governs the requirements for a co-op, including its structure, reporting requirements, and shared ownership model.

      Nearly all housing co-ops in BC (and Canada) are non-profit. Non-profit co-op housing qualifies for government funding and financing, which is critical when high costs of development include purchasing land and paying for construction materials and labour.

      Government funding has been available to assist with the development and operations of non-profit co-ops in the past, but legislative austerity since the early 1990s has resulted in limited financing opportunities in the recent decades. As a result, fewer and fewer co-ops have been built; meanwhile, demand for co-op housing has risen, with waitlists ranging anywhere from a few months to years.

      Co-ops provide members with housing through shares that can be purchased. In return, units are not owned individually by a household; instead, the whole development is owned collectively by residents through their membership in the co-op. This collective interest often means a more community-centric operating model, where members work together to ensure the wellbeing, affordability, and health of all of the homes and members.

      Co-ops usually have boards (directors are elected by vote), which are responsible for making larger strategic decisions about membership, maintenance, repairs, and finances. Of course, group decisions can face challenges. When communities rely on active participation and cooperation, finding consensus or resolutions that appease everyone can be difficult. Board directors do have a legal obligation to act in the best interest of the co-op, but these housing frameworks do face criticism, including the inquietable selection of new members and unfair unit allocation.

      Co-ops make decisions that impact not only the shared spaces, but also all of the individual units and homes—which means that when issues cannot be resolved easily through existing governance, it can greatly impact residents’ liveability. (By comparison, strata ownership models require that stratas manage a building’s shared spaces and services, while individual home owners control the interiors of their unit.) If a dispute can’t be resolved by the co-op membership and board, the remaining option often is to take legal action, which can be daunting and risky—especially for residents who fear eviction.

      These challenges are reflective of how housing scarcity enables more power for some, while the majority of people worry about insecurity and unaffordability.

      For new co-ops that are facing insurmountable development and construction costs, ample government funding is critical. BC’s Community Land Trust has been partnering with local groups to foster and encourage more co-operative and community-led housing spaces; deep expansion of their important work can only be done with a substantial increase of public investment into housing, especially at the provincial and federal levels.

      What does all this tell us? First, that co-op housing isn’t for everyone, but second, that the model is an important option for people who value a community-centric approach or are looking for something more affordable. Co-ops are an important component of the housing continuum, and we need to build a lot more of them.