Ontario may be headed for a new golden age of housing co-ops

Co-ops could be one solution to the province’s affordable-housing problem. Diane Peters explains why you may start seeing more of them
By Diane Peters - Published on February 25, 2019
an apartment building
No other full housing co-operatives have been built in Ontario since the 11-storey 60 Richmond Street Housing Co-operative went up in 2010. (teeplearch.com)

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In early 2010, Bird Construction put the final touches on the 85 units at the 60 Richmond Street Housing Co-operative, in downtown Toronto. Residents moved in and began paying modest housing charges — co-op lingo for rent — despite living in a brand-new building that earned several design awards and LEED certification.

No other full housing co-operatives have been built in Ontario since the 11-storey building went up. Some existing co-ops have constructed more units — for instance, one in the Chatham area added eight. In 2017, a developer in Toronto set aside 12 units in a new condo on York Street as co-ops.

“At one time, I was putting together deals for hundreds of units; 12 is pretty humble,” says Tom Clement, executive director of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto, who helped negotiate that project and is working on more co-ops in new condos.

But Clement says that he and others are starting to “think big” again. “I think things are on the upswing,” says Harvey Cooper, managing director of the Ontario region of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada. And that’s thanks in large part to a renewed push for affordable housing from various levels of government.

Federal and provincial support — and co-operation from municipalities — created what Cooper calls the “heyday” of new co-ops, which lasted from the 1970s to the ’90s, when about 45,000 units were built in Ontario.

At that time, if a group’s co-op proposal got built, the government reimbursed the costs, plus a 1 per cent fee. “We had a dozen groups in all parts of the province, and it was their job to build co-ops,” says Cooper.

But the federal government ended its funding in the early 1990s; the province had halted its by 1995. That led to a dramatic slow-down in new developments.

“We’d love to see more housing co-ops. We think they can play an important role in trying to ease the affordability housing problem out there,” says Cooper.

Currently, there are roughly 550 non-profit co-ops in the province, housing about 125,000 residents.

A smaller number of Ontarians live or have cottages in so-called equity co-ops, holding shares in the corporation that owns the property. They can sell their shares when they move — making money if the property goes up in value — and work with others to run the property. “Historically, there were churches and unions or other groups that would pull together in the 1950s to build these equity co-ops,” says Peter Cameron, acting executive director of the Ontario Co-operative Association, which works with all types of co-ops in the province, including retail co-ops that sell food, and banking co-ops (better known as credit unions).

In a traditional non-profit housing co-op, such as 60 Richmond, every resident has a vote, can contribute input on the annual budget, and can help decide who’s on the board, which is made up of residents. The board runs the building, pays the upkeep bills, and determines how much housing charges will go up each year.

Some co-ops use their budgets to pay others to shovel snow and weed the garden, while others have residents put in more sweat equity.

Co-ops often have units large enough for families, provide a stable place to live, and usually have below-market housing charges. (Some residents of Ontario co-ops pay even lower rents if they qualify for subsidized units.) After all, there’s no landlord trying to turn a profit.

Repairs aren’t generally neglected, and residents won’t be evicted because a landlord wants to renovate and jack up the rent. People meet their neighbours at meetings and at events such as annual spring clean-ups.

Cooper managed a co-op with modestly sized units in Toronto’s east end for many years. “In all the time I was there, I don’t think once did I have anybody move into nearby rental accommodation,” he says. Those who left, he says, did so because they had to relocate for work or for family reasons or bought homes.

“People get together to solve problems,” says Cameron. “Housing co-ops are self-help.”

And they’re popular. When the Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto helped with the launch of two co-ops in 1997, releasing 250 units, it got 2,300 applications.

Residents for the 12 new condo units on York Street were chosen via a lottery. According to Clement, there were close to 1,200 applications.

Housing co-ops run themselves, but they don’t build themselves. They require either donated land or land leased or purchased well below market rates — and that often comes from governments. Putting together a plan for a co-op and hiring a designer and builder takes time and considerable funds. “To just put a proposal together, it takes money,” says Cooper.

But governments now seem ready to invest in co-ops once again. Last November, the federal government announced its National Housing Strategy, which promises $40 billion over 10 years to increase affordable housing in the country and maintain housing subsidies for low-income Canadians. The former will help new co-ops get built, and the latter will help existing co-ops allow their subsidized residents to stay put.

The Ontario government has promised to match some of the federal housing dollars. And, in January, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing wrapped up a consultation on how to increase Ontario’s housing supply. A spokesperson told TVO.org via email that “We are working quickly to analyze what we heard, take the best ideas and develop an action plan to increase the supply of housing in Ontario” and said that the plan will be announced this spring. The provincial government is also reviewing the Co-operative Corporations Act, which came into law in 1974 and governs the province’s housing and other co-ops.

In Toronto, where affordability and availability are at a crisis point, the city has earmarked 11 sites for affordable housing. Clement says his organization is talking with the city about how some might become co-ops.

“What’s really needed is for every jurisdiction and every level of government to put a priority on housing,” says Cooper. He says governments have to do things like offer up land, waive development fees, and put moratoriums on property tax. (The City of Toronto, for instance, leased the land at 60 Richmond St. E for a “nominal rate,” exempted the project from some fees, and gave it a property-tax break.)

The co-op federations have now started early-stage work on new developments. “We’re trying to work with as many partners as possible right now to see what opportunities are out there,” says Cooper.

Clement says that he and his team are talking to some non-profit developers and to the city. “It’s so labour intensive,” he admits.

It would take many years to organize and build new co-ops in the province. But “there’s hope,” says Clement, who’s found that whenever there’s any positive news about co-ops, his office gets a flood of calls from people wanting to get on a wait-list. “I always have to explain to people how long this will take. But it’s going in the right direction.”

Diane Peters is a writer and editor. She teaches at Ryerson University.

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