For all the attention on Vancouver as one of the most expensive places to live on the face of the Earth, it's actually possible to rent a bright, one-bedroom apartment in a modern downtown building for around $750 — as long as you're not a grumpy loner.
To most people, co-operative housing is a vague and often mistaken concept of communal bathrooms, residents with little to no income, and hippies with low hygiene standards.
In reality, co-ops are diverse and supportive communities with self-contained units, convenient amenities, and professional management staff. But despite being in existence since the '70s, co-op housing flies under the radar and isn’t well understood.
"I think people don't realize it exists," says Stephanie Williams, 27. "If you're just walking down the street, a co-op looks exactly like any other apartment building."
Williams and her boyfriend, Celestian Rince, 25, stumbled upon a Craigslist ad in 2010. "We got lucky," she told The Huffington Post B.C. "It was one of the few times the co-op did advertise."
The couple had never heard of co-op housing, but as they moved through the process of interviews, references, and background checks, they embraced the concept and the reality.
More than 2,000 non-profit housing co-ops — from buildings with four units to complexes with hundreds of apartments — exist in Canada. There are 263 in B.C. alone. Most were created with federal and provincial funding from the 1970s to the 1990s, according to the Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C.
A non-profit co-op is like a democratic country: residents have a vote in how it's run as long as they live there. And because it's not trying to make money, the co-op can charge lower rates than average private rents.
Rince and Williams pay $732 per month (utilities included) for their one-bedroom, seventh-floor, 600 sq.-ft. apartment with a balcony in Vancouver's popular Gastown. To rent a comparative unit in a privately owned building in the neighbourhood would cost $1,600 to $1,900 per month.
Their 200-unit co-op has rooftop gardens, amenity rooms, a children's play room, and a courtyard with a waterfall.
There's also peace of mind knowing that "renovictions" — where tenants are evicted for large-scale renovations, only to find massive rent hikes after — are not a possibility.
"You never have to worry about a place being sold,” says Williams. “When you're in a co-op, you're good as long as you don't do anything bad. Once you're in a co-op, you're good for life.”
Each co-op is incorporated as a legal association and governed under the Co-op Act. A board of directors oversees a co-op's policy and annual budget, which can include spending on maintenance and janitorial staff.
There are, of course, big differences between living in a co-op versus a private rental. There is no landlord, and residents are expected to look out for one another.
"If you're the kind of person who doesn't want to interact with other people in your building, that could be a negative. If you have an issue, you have to be able to deal with it directly rather than have someone else arbitrate for you," explains Williams, who sits on her co-op's board.
Members also contribute to the co-op by volunteering their time to serve on boards, interview potential residents, garden, or organize social events. For example, someone in Williams' co-op teaches a free yoga class once a week. And the Lakewood Terrace Housing Co-operative in East Vancouver has members volunteer an average of four hours per month on committees that include finance, landscaping, and safety and security.
While the atmosphere in co-ops is inclusive, screening candidates can be intense. They must pass credit and reference checks and interviews, and there are minimum and maximum income limits ($30,000-$80,000 in Williams' building, for example).
"Evicting is extremely wrong and difficult and an expensive process," she says. "We don't want people to destroy the place. Since we operate at cost, it's pretty bad if we have some large expenses due to having the wrong people."
All non-profit co-ops have a number of subsidized units open to people on low incomes or social assistance. They pay a monthly fee based on their income, and the difference is covered by the government.
This creates a diverse community that might not be found in a complex of people who can all afford high rents.
"I am against ghettoizing according to what your income is or your abilities are,"Haruko Okano, who has been living in a one-bedroom apartment in the China Creek Housing Co-op for 20 years, told The Vancouver Sun. "I think diversity is really important. We have a real diverse mix of incomes, age, culture, religious belief. We have it all."
Future of co-ops
But co-ops are undergoing a big shakeup because their operating agreements with the federal government have begun to expire. That means low and fixed-income residents — many seniors, single parents, people with disabilities, and new Canadians — will no longer be subsidized.
Without that assistance, about 52,000 co-op members risk losing their homes across the country, estimates the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada. That includes 1,500 households in B.C. by 2017.
"This will be a crisis for thousands of families in B.C. who will not be able to afford the full market rent of their co-op homes. It is also a crisis for the co-ops because these are members of their communities who will have to leave," said Fiona Jackson, communications director of the Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C. (CHF BC).
Because social housing was transferred from federal to provincial jurisdiction in 1993, the organization is lobbying the provinces to pick up the rent subsidies. In British Columbia, that would cost the provincial government $1.2 million per year, jumping to $4.5 million to $9 million annually by 2017, according to the CHF BC.
"This pales in comparison to the social and financial costs of homelessness," says the group.
In the meantime, the CHF BC is working to build new non-profit co-ops, largely thanks to partnerships.
The group developed land from the City of Vancouver in the former Olympic Villageand partnered with the Vancity credit union to open the 84-unit First Avenue Athletes Village Housing Co-op in 2012. One-quarter is for low-income members, with plans to raise that to 40 per cent over time "as project finances allow," said Jackson.
She points out that co-ops offer more than affordability: "The big draw for many to live in a housing co-op is the sense of community and security. They are great micro-neighbourhoods for people to raise their children, with the strength of a mixed income community."
Williams and Rince recently published an eBook that features tips on frugal living in one of the world's costliest cities. An entire chapter is devoted to housing.
"Housing co-ops really are a hidden treasure in Vancouver," Rince proclaims on their blog, Incoming Assets. "Happy hunting and please don’t pay $1,500 for a studio suite."
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