HOUSING

Co-operation during a housing crisis

VICTOR DWYER December 21 1987
HOUSING

Co-operation during a housing crisis

VICTOR DWYER December 21 1987

Co-operation during a housing crisis

HOUSING

When Barbara Falk moved to Toronto from Victoria in August, 1984, the only apartment she could find was a small, two-bedroom flat in the city’s east end. There were holes in the walls, her radiators did not work and, she says, “there were cockroaches everywhere.” The rent, according to Falk, 25, was “an insulting $485 per month.” Desperate, she called the Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto (CHFT), which represents 87 of the city’s 95 coops. Sixteen months later Falk moved into a modern two-bedroom co-op unit in downtown Toronto’s fashionable Grange neighborhood, in a building with rooftop gardens, a laundry and a sauna.

The cost, which Falk shares with a friend:

$680 —about $300 less than comparable privately run apartments in the area. “Now I have a hand in making sure that my rent stays reasonable,” said Falk. “It is me—and not a landlord—who has control of where I live.”

Every year in Metropolitan Toronto the rental situation grows worse. Currently, there is only one vacancy for every 1,000 apartments, and rents average $863 for available one-bedroom units. But members of Toronto’s cooperative housing developments say that they have found an alternative. Because co-ops are not run for profit, and members perform much of the upkeep, costs are kept low. As a result, waiting lists are long, and membership is coveted. Still, some critics say that members like Falk—who earns $38,000 a year as an executive assistant with the Ontario government and whose rent has increased by only one per cent in the past two years—enjoy the rewards of cooperative living at the expense of those who most need affordable housing. But many members maintain that the strength of co-operative housing lies in the diversity of the people who work together to escape a volatile rental market.

Because co-ops are not the products of profit-seeking developers, their backers, including the CHFT, must rely on government help. Last September Metropolitan Toronto Housing Development Corp. announced the establishment of a $10-million fund to provide loan collateral for co-ops and other nonprofit housing. However, the majority of government aid comes from

the federally run Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC), which insures the mortgages that new co-ops obtain from private financers. Assistance also comes from the Ontario ministry of housing, which along with the CMHC provides subsidies to help co-ops cover their operating deficits. But according to David Amborski, a professor of urban planning at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, that government aid subsidizes the rent of such members as Falk. Said Amborski: “These people are getting subsidies when they don’t believe they are.”

For her part, Marianne Moershell, assistant managing director of the

CHFT, says that it is government regulations that have held back the rate of new co-op construction. Said Moershell: “Because governments put in money, they establish tight initial budgets to keep development and building costs low.” That, she added, makes it difficult for co-ops to compete with profit-seeking developers for land and to afford increasing construction costs.

As a result, only about 600 units are currently under construction— which will bring the total number of co-op units in Metro to about 9,500.

But although the pace of new development lags behind need, those within the co-op movement say that they have consciously encouraged applicants from a variety of income levels. Indeed, while provincial programs require that at least 40 per cent of each co-op’s units be occupied by low-income individuals, more than half the space in each co-op is allocated to people who do not need such help.

Still, even some residents of subsidized units say that co-op developments need a mixture of members, not just peo3 pie in dire economic 5 need. Declared Maria g Guerrero, 32, a divorced I mother of five who pays ^ $280 for a four-bedroom I co-op in the city’s west end: “I have visited government-run Ontario Housing complexes. Morale is low and, because people depend on the government, the places are falling down. Here, it is a completely different way of living.” Added Falk, a member of her co-op’s board of directors: “The issue of income tends to polarize people against those who don’t need financial help, but the idea of co-operative living is that you are sharing responsibility—and because of that, you can win the rental game.” And in the face of bleak alternatives, many co-op members say that they feel they have already won.

-VICTOR DWYER in Toronto