- by Pat Kelly

Housing has long been out of reach for middle-income Canadians in cities like Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver. But now it’s hurting families in small cities from Owen Sound, Ontario to Moncton, New Brunswick, as the pandemic vaulted the red-hot housing market to the forefront during the federal election.

According to MLS, the average house price in Grey Bruce rose 40% from 2020 to 2021 alone.This has had a tidal-wave effect on rental affordability and availability as current landlords cash-out on the covid-fired housing market.. Many young families and potential buyers now find the possibility of home ownership completely out of reach. Equally unaffordable rental markets and historically low vacancy rates make housing security and stability a cohousingdepressingly unattainable goal.

Not only is the cost of housing out of reach for many, there still aren't enough houses to meet the demand from people looking to buy or rent them. Coupled with the problems of a scarcity of building materials, the need for skilled labour, lengthy costs, delays and complexity in approvals for rezoning and development, it’s clear building more housing is easier said than done.

Home seekers need more innovation to create the kinds of sustainable, attainable housing communities that Canadians are longing for – a place to call home that enables financial security and a sense of belonging and connection.

Cooperative housing offers an affordable housing solution, for home-seekers who are as concerned about connection, as they are about quality and budget.

Housing cooperatives are communities of people who share common interests – in housing as well as in community and quality of life.

cohousing3A housing co-op is a corporation that exists primarily to provide housing and related services to its members. Members often plan and secure financing for their developments, as happened in Nova Scotia with Treehouse Village Eco-housing.

Co-op governance structures reflect this democratic purpose. In a housing cooperative, the cooperative corporation owns the land and common areas and co-op members either rent or purchase their private units. Common areas often include large, shared office and meeting spaces, kitchens and dining areas, guest accommodations, community gardens, artists and maker studios, child and elder-care resources, recreation facilities and car/bike shares. Member-owners then purchase, lease or rent from the co-op, and participate in decision-making about the life of the co-op and its resources

Although housing co-ops have been around since the mid-19th century, few people really understand how the cooperative housing model works. Even fewer people appreciate how effectively cooperative housing can serve as a viable housing solution.

EcoVillage at Ithaca, New York, is both a co-op and a cohousing community which started in 1991, and now has 175 acres, 100 homes, 220 residents. Cohousing, having solidified as a modern housing in concept in Denmark, is an increasingly popular form of community-oriented housing which balances the privacy of individual homes with the strong neighborhood ties that develop from shared interests. In cohousing communities, cars are parked on the periphery of the neighborhood, and beautiful paths wind through the central gardens between homes. A Common House provides a cohousingkitchenplace to gather for optional shared dinners, parties, meetings, laundry, yoga classes, co-working spaces, kids’ playrooms,etc.

Cooperative housing offers tangible benefits for families and individuals, including access to attainable housing, safety, security, flexibility, financial and social return, and stability, as well as providing the potential for community-led initiatives including shared child-care, car-share or local bartering systems. Co-op housing also often has a ripple effect on a community and leverages broader community benefits such as an enhanced level of trust among neighbors and increased civic participation. All these benefits translate into the development of an economically stronger and more socially engaged community.

In addition to meeting a practical need for affordable housing, housing cooperatives can be designed to appeal to groups who share common interests or experiences. Senior housing cooperatives, like Harborside Cohousing for Seniors in Sooke, BC, was designed by future residents with concern for the environment, as well as appreciation for the natural beauty of the coastal community. A housing cooperative can be developed to serve a group of university alumni, as described in a recent whitepaper - University Based Retirement Communities…If You Build Them, Will They Come? - building community among people with a shared past. A seniors-student housing cooperative can bring together intergenerational residents, helping to reduce loneliness and isolation among younger and older persons.

Artists’ cooperatives like Lakeshore Village Artists Coop in Toronto can provide artists with an affordable place to live, as well as those that provide common studio space, and gallery space in which to display their work. Co-ops with young families can provide for shared childcare services.

Co-ops bring people together from diverse social, economic and cultural backgrounds and they are built on mutual respect and support. A young professional family that is saving up for a house can be neighbours with a young adult living with disabilities, or low-income senior who otherwise might be isolated. Supporting Indigenous-led efforts to create cooperative communities welcoming to all generations, can advance Canada’s commitment to cohousing2reconciliation and deepening our understanding and appreciation for Indigenous history and place-making.

The co-op housing model also provides low-income households with a way to accumulate personal and generational wealth, through equity accumulation. Money normally spent on higher-cost housing can instead be redirected to opening of a small business, a return to school, or future purchase of a single-family home.

The benefits of cooperative housing aren’t limited to the co-op residents themselves. Communities also reap many benefits from the cooperative model. These range from enhanced resident safety to entry-level home ownership opportunities. Communities can use the co-op structure to keep seniors in the community. Finally, co-ops are a unique way for communities to support economic development without displacing low-income residents.

In short, housing cooperatives provide a rich community life.

With the help of supportive government policies, including those offered through CMHC – Community Housing and Transformation Centre, as well as resources offered through community development experts at the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada, the Canadian Cohousing Network and New Commons Development co-ops can accelerate new development of opportunities with supportive government policies and non-profit resources and programs.

Co-ops that are emerging across Canada – including Glassworks Co-op in Owen Sound want Canadians to know there’s more than one way to become a homeowner or renter.

Check out the links to resources in this article, and then ask yourself - won’t you be my neighbour?

Op-ed author, Pat Kelly is a member of the board of Glassworks Co-op in Owen Sound



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