Lifestyles

Co-op housing goes beyond the commune

Matthew Teitelbaum September 22 1980
Lifestyles

Co-op housing goes beyond the commune

Matthew Teitelbaum September 22 1980

Co-op housing goes beyond the commune

Lifestyles

Matthew Teitelbaum

Two years ago, secretary Betty Sayman’s biggest concern as a single parent was to find a welcoming community for her teen-age son—a real home instead of their unsatisfactory space in a 14-storey Toronto apartment building. “It was cold and uninviting,” she recalls. “There was no sense of responsibility, no involvement, no caring. It was little more than a place to eat and sleep.” Like many Canadians on low or fixed incomes, she had given up on the dream of owning a house. But she was stumped. How could a sense of belonging and commitment be built into a few temporarily possessed rooms in yet another anonymous apartment complex? In desperation, Sayman reached out for an alternative she knew little about—and became one of 67 members of Toronto’s Dentonia Park housing project. Now she takes special pleasure in having found her own answer to the housing crisis—co-operatively.

Sayman is one of an increasing number of Canadians who, as partners in residential communities where homes are owned, managed and often even built by the co-op as a whole, are embracing in the more urgent ’80s what in the ’60s seemed a mere fad. Pushed by dwindling housing alternatives and pulled by new government aid programs, co-op housing is nosing into the

mainstream. In just under two years, the number of co-op housing units in Canada has almost doubled, not incidentally at a time when house prices continue to rise. By year’s end, about 14,000 units in close to 200 projects across the country will be home for roughly 60,000 Canadians.

Though the co-op movement is strongest in urban areas and therefore almost nonexistent in Atlantic Canada, its growth has been slow but steady since the first government-supported continuing co-op, Winnipeg’s Willow P, irk, was opened in 1965. “The co-oper-

ative community is like a small village,” says Chris Smith, president of Toronto’s Lantana Non-profit Homes. “You give up a certain amount of privacy but gain a wide support network.” While coop members come from a wide range of backgrounds, many are lower-middle income and most are former apartment dwellers embittered by tales of short-term eviction and mercilessly increasing rents. Most co-op dwellers take particular pride in denying land developers and landlords their predatory profits, a satisfaction highlighted in a recent Ontario survey: co-op housing payments, including utilities, increase by only 4.5 per cent each year.

But if the special rewards of co-op living are not paid for in money, members point out that costs are reduced through their commitment of off-hours work time to co-op upkeep. In Betty Sayman’s project, for example, members cleaned the construction site every weekend, saving the time of skilled tradesmen and thousands of dollars in the process. In the day-to-day operations of all co-ops, members concern themselves with everything from landscaping to setting budget priorities.

If there is a drawback in the system, it stems from its very strength: the

democratic process. Unlike homeowners, members can easily find themselves on the losing side of an issue and have little choice but to breathe deeply and forget it. As well, some people have trouble with the inevitable cliquishness and gossip within the community. But co-op converts explain that they find the chattiness a sign of neighborly concern. Says Sayman fondly, “We even got to know members before we moved in.” This comforting version of the extended family meets the special needs of groups particularly dissatisfied with conventional housing choices. Single

parents are pleased to find an environment that is genuinely supportive of their children. Says Linda Strong, a project co-ordinator with Vancouver’s Columbia Housing advisory service: “I have friends and companions who share my experience—I feel finally that I have real emotional support.” Five cooperatives for newly arrived immigrants have been established in the past two years, and a 30-unit co-operative for women is being organized in Toronto. In many projects, prospective members are involved in the planning of their co-op, which allows for special consideration. Joyce Hubley of Ottawa had a terrible time finding adequate living arrangements for herself and her three children when she was confined to a wheelchair five years ago. She moved with relief into Ottawa’s l’Auberge coop for the handicapped when it opened two years ago. “I got tired of sitting around watching the dust gather,” she says. “There were things I couldn’t do, shelves I couldn’t reach. Now I’m pretty well self-sufficient—almost everything is at arm’s length.”

In the past two years, housing ministries at the federal and provincial levels have come to realize that co-operative projects deserve solid government encouragement. Says Bob Garrod, a director at the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC): “Co-ops are a way to put affordable low-cost housing on the market.” In his view, it diffuses the government-as-landlord stigma associated with public housing projects. In May of 1978, CMHC unveiled its present stimulative co-op program, fully guaranteeing mortgages that coop associations negotiate with private moneylenders. Under the direction of government-sponsored co-operative housing resource groups, these co-op associations are formed to choose land, contract out various construction jobs and guide their project to completion. Monthly interest is then dropped from the market rate to just two per cent for three years, after which it is increased gradually until the mortgage is paid off. Although expenses run anywhere from five to 15 per cent below comparable housing on the open market, provincial subsidy programs are also available.

While enthusiasts expect that co-op growth will continue, many outsiders still consider co-operative communities a mystical holdover from the ’60s— great for the young and carefree but not a very serious way to live. Co-op converts recognize that their gargantuan challenge is to convince the skeptical that they really are no different—that they too want a home of their own. Says Betty Sayman: “This is my secure place for my old age and I almost missed out on it because I thought co-ops were communes.”