The Cheat Sheet: Co-ops

It seems there has been some recent confusion about what exactly a housing co-operative is and how it works. This is understandable; co-ops are kind of an obscure subject. So here is my quick primer on what they are and how they work. I have greatly simplified things, and am working from my own experience living in and serving on the board of a small federal co-op.

What’s a Co-op?

All kinds of ventures can be co-operatives, not just non-profit ones. For example, there’s Mountain Equipment Co-op*, and the West End Food Co-op, and back in Forest I lived down the street from a hardware store co-op. However, for the purposes of this post, let’s stick to non-profit housing co-ops.

Co-ops vary in size, from dozens to hundreds of units. Some are just one building, and others consist of scattered properties. Some, like mine, used to be private housing; some were purpose-built; others, like Alexandra Park, were once social housing.

All co-ops have this in common: they are organizations owned and run by their members. Unlike buying stock in a company, when you join a housing co-op you don’t get a share of the profit (not least because it’s non-profit!). Instead, you get a vote. This means you are not just a tenant; you get a say in how the co-op is run. You can vote on the annual budget or on the co-op’s by-laws. You can also vote for who gets to be on the board of directors — or even run for a board position yourself.

The board is entirely made up of co-op members. They are in charge of staff who do day-to-day management — a property management company, an accountant, etc. Board members sign off on cheques, get monthly financial statements, draft new by-laws and policies, manage evictions, and more.

Members can also join committees that report to the board. There might be committees for putting together the budget, setting maintenance standards, or organizing social events.

You don’t have to be on the board or join a committee if you don’t want to, but part of living in a co-op is agreeing to some level of participation. At the very least, show up to the AGM! Seriously, please come to the AGM. There is pizza…and a raffle…

Market Rent vs. Subsidy

Co-ops are a mix of “market rent” and subsidized units. Market rent is supposed to be about what you would pay if you were renting an apartment normally, but in practice it works out to be much cheaper. Non-profit co-ops aren’t supposed to be money-making enterprises, so there is less incentive to jack up rents. Ideally, you break even at the end of the year.

Okay, so if market rent units aren’t huge money-makers for co-ops, where does the money for subsidies come from?

It comes from government — sometimes municipal, sometimes federal. Co-ops make an “operating agreement” with the government: in exchange for the co-op operating under certain basic rules, the government will provide the co-op with money for housing subsidies.** Rules might include a minimum number of units that must be subsidized, or a maximum income cap for new members, or having to hold a certain number of general meetings per year.

What are the Perks?

The rent is cheap. See above. Getting a subsidy is also pretty sweet. A pre-condition is that you also have to have an application on file with Housing Connections (to get into TCHC, basically), but realistically it means nothing because you will never make it to the top of the waitlist. Ha! Ha! Ha!

You get a say in how it is run. It’s not like renting from a landlord. If you think the rent is too damn high, or if you worry that the co-op should be putting more money into reserves to pay for capital repairs, or if you feel really strongly about composting,*** you can raise it at a meeting or (better yet) join the relevant committee and convince your neighbours. You might end up learning all kinds of useful things, like how to read a financial statement, chair a meeting, or send out an RFP.

You get to know your neighbours. If you join a co-op, you probably already have the mindset that “we’re all in this together”, and so do your neighbours. You might end up starting a garden together, picking out linoleum, cat-sitting, baby-sitting… If you lose your job, you might be able to get a subsidy that will let you stay in your apartment instead of having to move somewhere cheaper. And the building will never be sold off and turned into condos, guaranteed! When you live in a co-op, you’re there for the long term.

You live with people from all walks of life. Mixed-income housing means that seniors, single moms, middle-class nuclear families, and perhaps even pinko rockstar NDP city councillors end up living side by side. Even here in Toronto, it’s possible to live in a same-y bubble where everyone around you is poor or everyone around you is rich, and frankly, neither is healthy — from an economic or social point of view. Co-op members who pay market rent should never be perceived as “cheating”, nor should members with subsidies be seen as “burdens”. The entire point of co-op living is not shutting ourselves off from each other with the wall that divides the deserving from the undeserving, but living and sharing with each other like fucking human beings in whose diverse gifts (all things counter, original, spare, strange) there is the genesis of a more humane way to live, Jesus fucking Christ.

Co-opocalypse

You might not know this, but this is a crisis time for co-ops across Canada. During the 60’s and 70’s, the government invested heavily in creating and funding co-ops. But in the 90’s, the federal and provincial governments started cutting funding and ending their co-op programs. This means that for many co-ops, their standard 50-year operating agreements are ending and the money has run out for good. Without the funding that comes with an operating agreement, they can’t maintain their current proportion of subsidized units.

This is extremely stressful because many of the people who depend on co-ops for affordable housing may face increasingly un-affordable rents. We will have to start denying subsidies to our fellow co-op members, even if they really can’t afford it. And it’s really fucking hard to evict your neighbours!

The government started co-ops in the first place because it was in their best interest: they could create affordable housing that works without actually having to run it. We are hoping that, as operating agreements end, the government realizes that its other options for creating affordable housing are way more of a hassle and chooses at the last minute to re-invest in co-ops. Of course it’s totally possible that they’ll be like “We’re not promising affordable housing for anyone anymore” and we’ll all be fucked. Ha ha ha ha ha!

If you would like to learn more about co-ops:

Lastly, if I have made some egregious mistake, please comment and let me know so I can correct this post! I am well-informed, but not an expert.


* Does this mean you can help run Mountain Equipment Co-op? Yes, it does.

** There are two ways a co-op can give subsidies:

1) Have a set amount of subsidies available.
2) Have a subsidy pool, and allocate the money according to how many people need it.

My co-op uses the first method. It lets us do things like charge a very low flat rate to members who are on social assistance. For people who aren’t on social assistance but still need help, there is a formula to calculate how much they should pay based on their income. However, that means if we’ve given out the maximum number of subsidies available, some people will get no help at all. With the second method, everyone who needs it gets a little bit of help, although it might not be enough to cover rent. It’s a very difficult choice to make, and when you’re on the board, it might be your responsibility to decide things like that.

*** People in my co-op feel very strongly about composting.

19 thoughts on “The Cheat Sheet: Co-ops”

    1. While I agree that the sector has a lot of challenges and that low engagement cheapens the democratic process, I don’t know that I’d say it has inherent problems. However, if non-profit co-ops are to survive without government funding, the model will have to change.

      1. In my view, the co-op model and the rule of law are often ignored and not followed…CHF Canada and their business partners or associates directly engaged with member co-ops pander to the board of directors and management.

        CHF Canada lobby all levels of government and through risk management to make its member co-ops, board of directors and management less accountable.

        Information noted above help explain why non-profit co-op housing has inherent problems….and all those facts should not be ignored or dismissed with prejudice by anyone who understands the issues related to the many challenges faced by co-ops!

  1. I’m a senior, lived in one co-op since 1987. Our CMHC mortgage will be paid in full 1016. 15% of units are supposed to subsidized. This will change after 1916. I had the hindsight and am prepared to move. Others on subsidy will be out on the street. Way to go Canada.

  2. Correction to my previous post. The years shld. be 2016. The print on your page is very small, I have poor eyesight. sorry.

    1. Ms. Wyman, good afternoon:

      Your corrections have been noted. I share information about co-ops and request that you review the information in my Blog about issues in respect to the end of operating agreements that relate to rent geared-to-income co-op members… in the following links: http://tinyurl.com/kk6guby and http://tinyurl.com/d68zyto

      Please reconsider where the blame should be directed in regards to the RGI issue, and let me know if you had changed your perspective on that issue.

      I hope things work out ok for your fellow co-op members’ and yourself

    2. Ms. Wyman, good morning:

      Your correction is noted.

      In my view, when co-op mortgages are paid in full and operating agreements expire between CMHC and co-ops, CHF Canada and CHF BC are not advocating the re-allocation of money once needed to pay a co-op housing mortgage towards funding rent geared-to-income (RGI) rent subsidies for low-income resident members living in their member co-ops. I find that harmful for these co-op resident members.

      I find that even shamful and view CHF Canada and CHF BC as disingenuous with all their rhetoric about lost federal dollars needed to fund RGI rent subsidies in their ‘You Hold the Key’ and ‘Co-op Housing Crunch’ campaign.

      1. while many people require help many in my co op exploit the system by not working. even though they are healthy people. why should i support this

        1. I’m a senior, working part time. I have had a chronic lung disease all of my life (CF), I am legally blind. Now heart d. to top if all off.
          I look healthy because I have taken care of my body for all those years. Ppl ask me for help thinking I am well. Don’t judge anyone by their appearance.

        2. both TCHC and co-ops are exploited by SOME lazy people.

          “What are the Perks?
          The rent is cheap. See above. Getting a subsidy is also pretty sweet. ”

          Sounds like a sweet deal to me Mr. Allen. nudge , nudge

  3. I am beyond a total noob…
    Sadly, we cannot trust the misinformation that has proliferated the common media. Building communities means centering our efforts on people, not edifices. I would love to buy you that coffee…

    -M

    1. Mike, good afternoon:

      In my view, CHF Canada care more about the co-op buildings than the co-op members’ that reside in them. The following link may provide you with a better perspective on the issues concerning rent geared-to-income co-op members and the end of co-op operating agreements with CMHC.: http://tinyurl.com/kk6guby

  4. i have been on the waiting list for two years I would like to know what I can do to speed up the process without making fake police reports or staying in a shelter? do you have any tips ?

    1. I’m sorry, I don’t know what you can do to move up the waiting list, aside for putting yourself on the list for more buildings (you can do this on the Housing Connections website). If you have a social worker, they will know if there’s anything you can take advantage of (there are some benefits for people who are at immediate risk of losing their place to live).

  5. wow any tom dick and harry can write a blog…and it show as some of the information on here is wrong. Please stop writing

    “The rent is cheap. See above. Getting a subsidy is also pretty sweet. A pre-condition is that you also have to have an application on file with Housing Connections (to get into TCHC, basically), but realistically it means nothing because you will never make it to the top of the waitlist. Ha! Ha! Ha!”

    What do independent co-op apartment buildings have to do with TCHc

    TCHC runs the housing connections program as a separate entity and keeps the list. To get a subsidy for a co-op you have to go through Housing connections

    but anyone can apply with the buildings themselves for the market rent

    1. Sorry for the confusion.

      Under certain circumstances, one may be required to have an active Housing Connections application (which, yes, is a totally separate system) in order to be eligible for a co-op housing subsidy. The co-op is like, “Normally you wouldn’t qualify for a subsidy for reasons X/Y/Z, but this is just a temporary arrangement until you get into TCHC.” My point was that getting into TCHC takes so long that this situation isn’t really “temporary”.

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