When the federal government announced their 2017 budget, a key highlight of the document was a commitment to a National Housing Strategy and affordable housing. To see how the co-operative business model might play a role in the strategy, we caught up with Program Manager, Blair Hamilton, from the CHF Canada prairie office in Winnipeg. Here’s what he had to say:
Co-operatives First: Can you tell us a little bit about CHF and the work that you do?
Blair Hamilton: CHF Canada is the national organization for housing co-operatives in Canada. We provide extensive member education, specialized support services, and represent our sector to government. We operate as a co-operative, with our national Board of Directors elected by our members on a democratic basis.
CF: What are the advantages of a housing development based on the co-operative model over another for-profit or non-profit model – such as a condo or affordable housing development corporation?
BH: While all forms of housing tenure have their advantages, we feel the co-operative model is particularly strong in several areas. It provides Canadians who have modest incomes with security of tenure in quality, affordable housing. Being able to collectively make decisions that impact their housing is the main benefit for many members. Evaluations of co-op housing by CMHC have demonstrated that people living in co-operatives have a higher level of satisfaction with their housing, and are less likely to experience overcrowding. The evaluation also showed co-operative housing had superior “soft” outcomes related to sense of community and member skill-building.
CF: In our work, we are seeing a surge of interest in co-operative housing in rural areas. Are you seeing any trends among housing co-ops? Are there particular challenges or opportunities that people are encountering?
BH: In both Manitoba and Saskatchewan, we have seen an aging rural population in search of appropriate affordable housing where they can age in place, without having to move to the “big city”. Demand among the 55+ demographic is strong. In these cases, the size of the co-ops can be smaller, which produces a less-than-optimal scale. So there are some challenges associated with that. Interest in co-op housing remains high in urban areas as well, and includes family housing. We are seeing some trends in Manitoba towards more aggressive mixing of income levels in newer co-ops being developed, by including “market units” along with affordable units in each project. This helps with financing, but also has the potential to model a more integrated kind of community.
CF: The federal government recently announced plans to develop a national housing strategy. What would CHF like to see included in this strategy?
BH: Recent announcements at the federal level suggest that not only will the government continue to invest in affordable housing, but that the baseline funding committed to the expiring operating agreements will remain available. That’s good news, but CHF Canada wants to see more specific commitments to ensure that low-income members in existing co-operatives do not lose their rent supplements and risk homelessness. This will require the National Housing Strategy to ensure that provinces commit to such an objective. And of course we would like to see the co-operative sector get an equitable share of funding for new development and renovation activities. You can find more information HERE.
CF: We haven’t seen new housing co-operatives in some of the western provinces. Are there differences in regulations that make developments in certain provinces easier?
BH: The barriers are not regulatory. The exit of the federal government from social housing in the 1990s caused the development of new housing co-ops to grind to a halt. Some past governments continued to invest in affordable housing on a limited basis during this period, so we have seen some continued development of new co-operatives over the past 15 years. The new National Housing Strategy has the potential to provide strong incentives to the provinces to develop new housing co-operatives going forward. Federal-provincial cost-sharing of new programs can spur co-operative housing development very quickly.
CF: Should governments directly support co-operative housing? If so, why and in what ways?
BH: Absolutely. Investing in co-operative housing is a good investment on a number of levels. It addresses the shortage of affordable housing, it builds citizens, it strengthens communities, and it improves quality of life. If government maintains the funding of rent supplements for low-income Canadians, existing co-operatives can leverage credit union money to finance their bricks-and-mortar needs. However, if we want to add to the much needed supply of affordable housing, public investment is a critical ingredient (along with credit union financing and member investment) to build new housing co-ops.
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