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Opinion: Cooperative Housing – What Is It and Why Did It Stop Being Built?

Michael Geller
May 28, 2015

Recently, much has been written about new attitudes towards the sharing economy. For example, car sharing, an idea that was inconceivable when I was growing up, are becoming increasingly popular. However, our attitudes towards shared or cooperative housing can be quite different.

Whenever I think about cooperative living, I think of Russia, where I have recently been working.

Communal apartments were first built in the Soviet Union to address the urban housing crisis following the Russian Revolution. Apartments were shared by a number of families with a couple of private rooms. The hallways, kitchen, bathroom and telephone were shared by all residents.

The communal apartment was revolutionary in that it mixed different social and economic groups in one building. However, since the families were placed together by the government with little commitment to communal life, while some managed to get along, most did not.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the housing sector was essentially privatized and the federal government substantially withdrew from project development.  Renters were often offered title to their units at no cost. Somewhat surprisingly, many older Russians decided to forego the necessary paperwork to acquire their units and continued to rent.

When I asked one of my Russian colleagues whether car-share programs had been introduced in Moscow he told me they had not, adding, “We’ve had to share too much in our past to now want to share a car.”

It is interesting to compare the Russian and Canadian experiences with communal or cooperative housing.

There are essentially two kinds of housing cooperatives in Canada; market or equity coops and government subsidized non-profit or continuing coops.

The cooperative housing movement in Canada first gained momentum in the Maritimes in the 1930s, inspired by developments in New York.

While most of us tend to think of cooperatives as providing affordable housing, this is not always the case. John Lennon lived in The Dakota, a very expensive New York co-op, and today most owned apartments in New York are co-ops, not condominiums. One of the perceived advantages of a co-op is the owners can restrict who can buy into the building. This of course is not possible in a condominium.

Until the introduction of condominium legislation in the early 1970s, cooperatives were the only way to “own” a suite in an apartment building. I say “own” since co-op members do not own their suite per se, as they would in a condominium. Rather, they own a share in the company that owns the entire building.

There remain a number of older equity co-ops in Vancouver, including Ocean Towers, the 20-storey apartment building on Morton Avenue overlooking English Bay and McRae Mews, a small townhouse development adjacent to Shaughnessy’s Hycroft Mansion. Some older coops in West Vancouver and Vancouver’s West Side have recently been sold as sites for new condominium developments.

Canada’s first government-assisted cooperatives were built in the 1960s. In 1973 CMHC created a program to make it easier to finance these projects. One of the key features was that 15 to 20 per cent of the units had to be occupied by lower-income households who paid monthly charges based on their income. CMHC provided 100 per cent financing for these projects at a fixed, preferential interest rate along with subsidies.

Today there are more than 14,500 units in 260 government-assisted projects in British Columbia.

In the mid-1990s CMHC stopped funding cooperative housing. While it continues to honour its mortgage agreements, many of these agreements are set to expire in the next few years as the mortgages are paid in full. You are going to hear a lot more about this in the coming years.

Co-op members have security of tenure in that they can live in their units for as long as they wish provided they follow the coop rules and pay monthly housing charges. Unlike residents of the older Russian communal buildings, Canadian co-op members usually form close-knit communities that work together to keep the housing well-managed and affordable.

But not always.

Unfortunately, as was the case in Russia, in many cases major repairs have been put off and insufficient funds have been set aside to carry them out.

In the absence of government funding for co-ops, some communally minded people are now developing co-housing, a hybrid form of condominium living offering a greater amount of shared communal space. Upon completion the units are individually owned, like in any other condominium. However, there is usually a greater amount of shared space where owners can gather for communal meals or other activities.

The projects are developed as condominium ownership since most banks are reluctant to finance cooperative ownership developments. However, I believe this may change if some wealthy baby-boomers decide to develop small exclusive co-operative projects so that they can decide who moves in and who does not.

Michael Geller
Michael is an architect, planner, real estate consultant and developer with more than four decades of experience in the public, private and institutional sectors. Some of his notable projects include the redevelopment of the South Shore False Creek, Bayshore in Coal Harbour and UniverCity at SFU. He is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and is an affiliate of the UBC Masters in Urban Design program. Michael is a well-known commentator on real estate and housing and an adviser to the City of Vancouver's Affordable Housing Task Force. He is also a past president of UDI Pacific and UDI Canada, and has been honoured as a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners and a Life Member of the Architectural Institute of BC.