Looming co-op housing crisis could push 50,000 Canadians out of their homes

Photo by Ion Etxebarria

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The vast majority of Canadian co-operative households face expiring operating agreements within the next decade. This means that some 51,898 low-income Canadians who live in upwards of 20,000 federally funded co-ops will be left without affordable housing in the midst of what a UN report and other recent research has deemed a Canadian housing crisis.

Canadian co-op history

The co-op housing movement began primarily in the Maritimes and Quebec as self-help initiatives, and by the 1960s, "co-ops were recognized as a really successful model by governments," Scott Jackson, the Program Manager of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada (CHF), told rabble.ca in a phone interview.

In the mid-60s, governments began to set up pilot programs to support co-op housing and incentivize more co-op housing development. "By the late 60s and early 70s, major programs were started that led to the development of a lot of co-op housing. To the point that now we're looking at tens of thousands of units, housing close to a quarter of a million Canadians," says Jackson. 

Between 1973 and 1991, the Canadian government created three major co-op housing programs, all under the National Housing Act, the legislation that laid out the federal government's role in housing.

These programs included the Section 61 Program, the Section 95 Program, and the Indexed-Linked-Mortgage (ILM) or the Federal Co-operative Housing Program (FCHP). Under the FCHP, both federal and provincial governments in B.C., Quebec, P.E.I., and Ontario funded the development of not-for-profit housing, including co-ops.

Today, there are still around 7,700 co-op units under the Section 61 program and 39,000 units under Section 95. 

Jackson describes how the government began to recognize the positive benefits of the co-op model: "co-ops lead to a diverse community in terms of background, ethnicity, and income. And through that diversity, co-ops build very strong communities." This diversity "leads to healthier communities," and these effects "spillover into the larger neighbourhoods," says Jackson.

Only around one-third of the co-op residents receive rental assistance in the form of a rent geared to income (RGI) subsidy. Many co-op residents pay the market rate. Jackson says that the benefits of mixed-income housing are "well documented."

Moreover, co-ops are entirely controlled by residents. "They have a say in their housing, and this applies to people who typically would not be in a position to buy a home outright," Jackson told rabble.

Expiring operating agreements

Around one-third of co-op housing under Section 61, Section 95, and ILM programs will be threatened if the government fails to step in and protect RGI subsidies for low-income and vulnerable households, CHF Canada estimates.

In Quebec alone, approximately 16,974 operating agreements will expire between 2000 and 2035. The majority of the operating agreements are due to expire in the next four years.

The operating agreements, and their related mortgages, were underwritten by the Canadian Housing Mortgage Corporation (CHMC) and provided co-ops with between 20 and 40 years of annual subsidies to provide low-income or vulnerable tenants with RGI subsidies.

When the operating agreements and their related mortgages expire, co-ops and other not-for-profit and social housing providers will no longer receive annual subsidies, leaving their tenants without affordable housing to face high rents, waitlists for housing, and homelessness.

You Hold the Key

Over 280 co-ops, municipalities, and other stakeholders have signed on to CHF's You Hold the Key campaign, which calls on the federal government to use the money saved from expiring operating agreements to fund new rent supplement programs in conjunction with the provinces and territories.

Jackson is optimistic about the campaign's future, and describes the Budget 2016's "re-engagement on housing" as a "step in the right direction." The Budget includes a $2.3 billion investment in rental, non-profit, co-op, and other social housing providers. This includes $30 million as transitional funding, which will dry up in March 2018, while the federal government works to establish more permanent agreements with the provinces.

Transition funding insufficient

Sure, the Budget provides two years of breathing room for co-op housing providers. But transition funding will not suffice, says Louise Constantin of the Federation des cooperatives d'habitation intermunicipale du Montreal metropolitain (FECHIMM). "People with low-income in co-op housing are still under the threat of having their subsidies cut in the next two years," Constantin told rabble in a phone interview.

Constantin described the budget cuts to social housing at the provincial level in Quebec. "The Liberal government is applying cutbacks in most public and social services, including housing," Constantin said.

"Last year, the number of units financed by Quebec [through the AccèsLogis program] was cut in half, from 3,000 to 1,500. 1,500 units scheduled for the whole of Quebec means about 700 units for the region of Montreal including Laval. It's not enough." 

If the Liberals are serious about developing a national housing strategy, advocates say the changes must be structural at both the provincial and federal levels. In a recent blog post, FECHIMM's president, Luc Brisebois aptly describes the Liberal's solution to the expiring operating agreements and social housing crisis,

"They fit perfectly in a Keynesian economics approach, which implies that, in times of economic downturn, the state must provide the fuel to start the engine of the capitalist car. Fuel, a new driver, a different course, but mainly we do not change vehicles."

Sophia Reuss is a Montreal-based writer, editor, and is a recent graduate of McGill University. She's interested in how online media and journalism facilitate public accessibility and conversation. Sophia also writes and edits for the Alternatives International Journal. She is the rabble.ca news intern.

An earlier version of the headline to this article misstated the number of co-op residents affected by the subsidy expiration. rabble regrets the error.

Photo by Ion Etxebarria.


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