Athletes Village Housing Co-operative, Vancouver, British Columbia
Housing co-operatives in Canada date back to the 1930s when, among other co-operative initiatives, the Nova Scotia Antigonish Movement promoted co-operatives that built houses for their members. When construction was complete, the houses were sold to members and the housing co-operatives were dissolved. Similar building co-operatives were formed in Quebec between the wars.
The student movement introduced the housing co-operative model prevalent in modern Canada, continuing rental housing co-operatives. Almost all Canadian housing co-operatives are set up so that member-residents own the co-op collectively but don’t hold equity in the assets.
The first student housing co-operative was founded in 1913 in Guelph, Ontario and the first family housing co-op opened in 1966. Both are still operating. An organised political lobby began in the 1960s to win government support for co-operative housing. Social activists wanted the Canadian Government to finance the development of continuing non-profit housing co-operatives that could offer affordable rents to Canadians on low and moderate incomes. In 1968 a number of socially progressive groups formed the Co-operative Housing Foundation of Canada (CHF Canada) to organise lobbying. Their work paid off. From 1973 to 1992 the Government helped to finance the building of thousands of housing co-operative units through three successive programmes.
From the mid-1980s onwards, the three largest provinces in Canada – Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia – also set up their own development programmes to finance housing co-operatives. During these years, the co-operative housing movement surged forwards with the emergence of regional associations of housing co-ops and co-operative development groups. These organisations worked closely with CHF Canada to develop education, development and management services to a growing universe of Canadian housing co-ops.
In 1992 the Canadian Government cancelled the last of the federal co-op housing programmes. The province of Ontario cancelled its own programmes in 1995 and British Columbia’s modest programme, which began in the early 1990s, was terminated in 2001. Only Quebec has continued to sponsor housing co-op development, through unilateral programmes and by taking advantage of modest cost-sharing dollars for housing from the Canadian Government under a programme that began in 2002. However, parallel cost-sharing arrangements in the other provinces have not resulted in new housing co-ops. Apart from Quebec, the provinces – which now have constitutional jurisdiction over housing – have not chosen to apply these federal contributions to new housing co-op development.
In 2005 the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada entered into an innovative partnership with the federal government to assume – through the arms-length Agency for Co-operative Housing (www.agency.coop) – the administration of the federal government’s co-op programmes. Although there has been no development under these programmes for 15 years, the Government has long-term operating agreements in place with the co-operatives. The new agency has taken the management of these agreements under contract, using innovative programme management techniques to optimize performance.
Except for a small number of “equity housing co-operatives”, virtually all housing co-operatives in Canada have received financial assistance from the federal and/or the provincial governments to make their rents affordable. But it should be stressed that the various governments do not own the co-operatives. They are independent corporations working in partnership with government.
Co-operatives are spread throughout Canada, with the largest concentrations in the three most populated provinces and the three largest cities. However, it is important to point out that several thousand housing co-operative units can be found in rural areas.
Today most housing co-operatives in Canada continue to depend on government financial support, though the contractual agreements under which this assistance is provided have ended for some co-ops and are set to end for most others within the next 20 years.
Government support has come in the form of preferential government mortgages, operating subsidies and rent assistance to low-income households. At the conclusion of their government agreements, Canadian co-ops will have paid off their initial mortgages, though they may need to re-finance to repair and renovate aging buildings. At the same time, the co-ops will receive no further government assistance and will lose the government protection for those that fall into difficulty.
This transition to independence brings challenges for the co-op housing movement in Canada; notably the continued dedication of the stock to co-operative housing purposes, the viability of the co-ops without a government safety net and their capacity to assist low-income families without government subsidies. To assist the co-operatives in this transition, CHF Canada has implemented the 2020 Vision. This process defines and invites housing co-ops to adopt high standards of operations for good governance, sound management and environmental sustainability.
Currently there are no government programs that are targeted specifically at the development of new housing co-operatives. The federal and provincial governments contribute funding through a program for the development of affordable housing, which can include co-op housing. But program conditions have not favoured co-op development, so we have seen little new co-op housing in recent years. Quebec is the exception, as it has its own program, under which a number of new co-ops have been developed for close to 30 years.
Local 75 Hospitality Workers Housing Co-operative, Toronto, Ontario
Key characteristics of the Canadian housing co-operatives are:
Permanent rental: properties belong to the housing co-operatives with no individual equity and no access to member ownership of the homes they live in.
Non-profit: rents are set to cover immediate/long-term expenses and capital reserves. Members receive no dividends or return of surplus. Non-profit status is a requirement of the Government development programmes.
Mixed-income communities: around 30% to 50% of all co-op households receive direct assistance with their rents.
Diversified membership: housing co-operatives cater for families and seniors, while many have designated homes for people with special needs. Canada’s co-ops serve the housing needs of many new Canadians.
Security of tenure: residency is protected as long as members fulfill their obligations.
Double status of member and tenant: an applicant must be accepted as a member before being admitted as a tenant. However, some provincial laws protect the tenant status during occupancy in the event of membership exclusion.
Democratic participation: the one-member, one-vote principle applies universally. Members are expected to engage and involve themselves in the running of the co-op.
Modest size: the largest Canadian housing co-operative comprises 770 homes, the smallest five homes and the average around 60 homes.
Variable management models: some co-ops hire professional staff, others retain management companies. Some are managed on a voluntary basis solely by members though, in many cases, this led to poor management outcomes and is now discouraged.
Member deposits and shares: when provincial legislation allows, members pay either a security deposit – usually equivalent to one month’s rent – or make a refundable share purchase. According to internal rules, both are reimbursed when leaving the co-op.
A dozen student housing co-operatives also serve Canadian universities. These housing co-operatives offer different types of accommodation such as small and large group houses, dormitories, apartment complexes and townhouses for students with families. Some have been financed through different development programmes.
Financial assistance provided to housing co-operatives varies according to different government programmes. For example:
Low-interest loans for 50 years through direct lending from the federal government’s Crown Corporation for housing, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).
Grants to reduce construction costs.
Ongoing financial assistance to assist with operating costs, according to various formulas.
Housing allowances to low-income members, administered by the co-operatives.
Federal or provincial housing corporations insure co-op mortgages. In many cases the federal government is the mortgage lender. All housing co-operatives have signed operating agreements with the applicable level of government of varying terms up to 50 years, though most last for no more than 35 years.
Housing co-operatives financed by the third and last federal programme used an index-linked mortgage introduced by CHF Canada from Europe. These co-ops set up a stabilisation fund through an initial contribution of 3% of capital costs. This fund provided financial assistance to housing co-operatives facing difficulties that could compromise their long-term viability and protected the federal government against mortgage insurance claims. The fund, since dissolved, was set up to last 20 years. Now, the financial assistance function is back in the hands of CMHC.
CHF Canada has also set up a risk underwriting fund and a university student co-operative housing fund to provide loan guarantees that provide short-term bridge funding to assist with the development of co-op housing and help existing co-ops in their operations.
The legal instruments for the co-op housing sector in Canada are:
Co-operative acts: these provincial acts determine the co-operatives’ organisational rules and generally govern their conduct as co-op corporations.
Operating agreements: these agreements, signed with government, determine the obligations and responsibilities of the housing co-operative and the government housing corporation.
Tenant legislation acts: in some provinces tenancy law governs certain aspects of co‑operative tenancy, in others the co-op acts apply.
Federal tax law: The Income Tax Act determines the non-profit status of housing co‑operatives.
As enterprises, housing co-operatives must also comply with all laws relating to their activities in matters such as safety, employment, contracts, privacy, occupiers’ liability, the environment and human rights.
The Co-operative Housing Movement
The Canadian co-operative housing movement consists of housing co-operatives, the people who live and work in them and the organisations and individuals that support and serve them. Unlike other countries, non-profit housing associations and housing co-operatives have each set up their respective movements. Even though they sometimes join together for political lobby or research projects, both movements are independent and pursue their own development.
The Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada (CHF Canada, formerly the Co-operative Housing Foundation of Canada) is the nationwide umbrella organisation for co-op housing in the country. Founded in 1968, CHF Canada exists to unite, represent and serve the community of housing co-operatives and the organisations that support their operation and development. Membership in CHF Canada is voluntary. CHF Canada is a democratic, grassroots organisation with a 16-member board of directors elected from all regions of the country, several committees and a well-attended annual meeting at which directors are elected by co-op delegates and the broad direction of the federation is mapped out.
The structure of the Canadian housing co-operative movement has evolved over time, taking into account the needs and aspirations of a diverse membership in the world’s second largest country. For example, in more than 17 regions, housing co-operatives have joined together to form regional federations that are in turn members of CHF Canada. Except for the province of Quebec, co-ops in Canada can be – and usually are – members of their regional federation and of CHF Canada.
Housing co-ops in Quebec do not belong directly to CHF Canada. Instead, a special membership arrangement exists with the co-op housing organisations of Quebec that recognises the distinct heritage and culture of the province and the development of its co-op housing movement.
CHF Canada’s membership is constantly growing. By 2011, some 903 housing co‑operatives (representing 69,241 units) had become CHF Canada members. Excluding the housing co-ops from Quebec, which are affiliated with CHF Canada through their provincial federation membership, 83% of Canadian housing co-operatives are direct members of CHF Canada.
The regional federations, in collaboration with CHF Canada, may serve the co-operatives of a province, a special geographical area, or a single large city and its satellite communities. Services include advocacy, government relations, education and training, management support and group-buying services.
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