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Co-operative Housing in Canada: A Model for Empowered Communities

Keywords: Homelessness & Housing
Community participation & Communications


Volunteer-managed Canadian housing co-operatives boast a successful twenty-five year record of sound and cost-effective management, self-governance, sustained public-private partnerships, and participation in broader social issues. This success can be traced directly to the empowerment of ordinary Canadians to own and democratically manage their housing. Although economic circumstances and the roles of government may differ among the groups represented at Habitat II, CHF Canada believes that elements of the co-operative empowerment experience can be used in other countries, by governments and NGO's alike, to enable citizens to build and manage their own housing.


This Best Practice submission highlights the accomplishments of the co-operative housing movement in Canada. Among the most significant of these accomplishments are:

* supplying modest, affordable housing to Canadian families with low and moderate incomes;

* improving Canada's urban and rural environments;

* enabling community-based not-for-profit organizations to build, own and manage housing

* empowerment of ordinary, low-income Canadians to control and managesignificant housing assets with a minimum of government oversight;

* encouraging participation by housing co-operative members in supporting social justice for the benefit of all Canadians.

Volunteer managed Canadian housing co-operatives are proud of their successful 27 year record of sound and cost-effective management, self-governance, sustained and positive partnerships between the public and private sectors, and participation in broader social issues. This success can be traced directly to the empowerment of ordinary Canadians to own in common, and to democratically manage, their own housing. Although economic circumstances and the role of governments may differ among the groups represented at the Habitat II conference, the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada and Rooftops Canada believe that elements of the Canadian experience can be used in other countries, by governements and NGOs alike, to enable their citizens to build and manage their own housing.


As Canada entered the 1970s, the Canadian public was disillusioned with earlier government programs to house low-income Canadians. The failure of 1960s housing models of North American urban renewal policies -- large government owned housing projects -- had become clear. Developments had become "instant slums", populated by tenants trapped in "artificial" communities with homogenous low incomes, isolated and aliented from surrounding communities. These housing projects reinforced people's dependence on government handouts, entrenching the so-called "poverty cycle". As well as diminishing the quality of life in their neighbourhoods, Canadians saw these projects as breeding grounds for urban crime and other social problems.

With other activists and socviasl thinkers, Canada's fledgling co-op housing movement encouraged the national government to change its policies, to support smaller scale, mixed income housing; sponsored, built, owned and managed by community-based not-for-profit groups. These principles formed the foundation of government housing policy in the 1980s. Canada embarked on a series of ambitious programs based on governments' enabling local groups to build and operate non-profit social housing. From the beginning , many of these local groups were incorporated as member-owned co-operatives, using the co-operative form of housing tenure.

Since then in successive Canadian co-operative housing programs, the role of government has been fourfold:

* to furnish mortgage loan guarantees so that private sector financial institutions (banks, mortgage and trust companies) can reduce their lending risk;

* to supply subsidies that reduce or defer the payment of capital financing costs by residents -- these are usually reduced or eliminated over the mortgage term (and are repayable in more recent co-op housing programs);

* to supply rent supplements for low-income households, so that their housing charges can be calculated on a rent-geared-to-income" basis; and

*to enact legislation that entrenches the co-operative form of tenure and sets out the fundamental rights of housing co-operative members.

Since the 1970s, Canadian co-operative housing has symbolized a productive partnership between local community groups, the federal and provincial governments, and private sector lending institutions.


Housing Co-operatives differ from other tenure forms in several important ways. Individual members do not own their own housing units; rather, housing assets are owned in common by all of the co-op's members. Members are empowered to mange all aspects of their housing democratically. At regular meetings, and through elected volunteer Boards of Directors and resident committees, ordinary co-op members establish policies, approve operating and capital budgets, and set the charges for each housing unit.

In Canada, housing co-operatives have created a self-sustaining network of member-controlled organizations -- regional federations, some provincial associations, and a national service organization, the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada. These groups promote the development of new co-operatives and liase with governments on housing and other issues affecting their member co-ops. Most important, they operate education and training programs, and advise individual housing co-operatives about management and community development issues.

Canada has also developed a national network of technical "resource groups" -- community based groups, mostnot-for profit, that help people who wish to build and operate a housing co-op. Resource groups provide expert consulting and technical services, to help developing co-ops tap government programs, select professional advisors (e.g. architects), evaluate potential sites and choose among competing builders.

From the first handful of co-operatives built in the 1970s, Canadian co-ops have grown to more than 2,000, housing about 90,000 households and 250,000 people in all parts of Canada. Co-ops range from less than ten to more than 200 units, but typically contain between 50 and 80 households. Today, more than half the households living in Canadian housing co-operatives receive rent-geared-to -income asssistance from some level of government. This level often exceeds the targets required by government programs, at no additional cost.

Canada's federal government has not been alone in supporting the development of housing co-ops. In the late 1980s, for example, Ontario, Canada's most populous province, initiated its own very large co-operative housing programs. Municipalities and regional governments in Canada have also supported co-operatives, often by supplying land to them on favourable terms.

In 1992, the federal government ended its financial support for the development of new housing co-operatives. Recently, Ontario's newly-elected provincial government also ceased its support for new co-op development.

Nonetheless, the co-operative housing movement in Canada is a strong and vibrant example of how successful communities can be built and sustained across a range of social economic and geographic contexts.



More than one million Canadians pay more than 30% of their gross income on shelter costs, and are therefore defined by the Canadian government as being in core housing need. Housing co-operatives develop modest housing that makes basic shelter affordable to these Canadians. In so doing, co-ops have profoundly improved the quality of life for each member.

Housing co-operatives have also been important partners in the development or redevelopment of Canada's urban spaces; they boast a successful 27-year record of building livable, environmentally sound housing projects. Many Canadian co-ops have received awards from federal, provincial or municipal governments, or from private organizations, for their acheivements in residential design, architectural innovation, urban planning, energy efficiency or the restoration of heritage housing stock.

In accomplishing the above, co-operative housing has been identified in independent evaluations as the most cost effective form of government assisted housing in Canada (See Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Evaluation of the Federal Co-operative Housing Program, CMHC, 1990). Savings are derived from high volunteer participation levels by co-op members, and through the co-op sector's federations and resource groups that serve Canadian co-ops at a relatively low cost.


Perhaps the most important co-operative principle is that all co-op members have a democratic right to decide how their community will function. In a Canadian housing co-op, each member is expected to share in the management of the co-operative, by serving on the Board of Directorsor a committee, or by taking on other necessary work. According to the independent evaluation (see above) more than three quarters of adult co-op residents regularly contribute to their co-op, through volunteer activities. For each co-op, this represents an enormous pool of volunteer labour.

Co-op volunteers are organized into committees; typically, as well as the volunter board of directors, co-op committees are struck to monitor the co-op's finances, manage its maintenance, handle its selection of new members, direct the process of continuing member education, and organize social events. Members exercise their right to participatein the day-to-day operations of their housing co-operative through these committees, establishing a direct and personal commitment to their neighbours, and to their housing communities.

Co-ops make special efforts to empower their members through training new members and helping members take on new tasks. For many years CHF Canada has operated a national "train the trainers" program, training and certifying people as adult educators. These people deliver adult education courses locally, normally through a regional federation.

Because many lower income households are led by single parents, mostly women, housing co-ops make sure that women are fully included in their decision making structures. Most co-ops, and all sector organizations, underwrite child-care costs while members are serving as volunteers. Women are full participants at all levels of the Canadian co-op houysing movement, normally in the majority at annual meetings of CHF Canada, and are very well represented among the movement's elected leadership and senior staff.

Clear independent evidence exists that co-op participation helps people break traditional "poverty cycles" by encouraging the transfer of skills learned in the co-op to paid employment. Being able to count on secure housing at reasonable cost has allowed many co-op members to further their formal education, develop new job skills, or, sometimes, to start their own businesses.


In Canada, an important consequence of member empowerment has been that co-op members have chosen to attack some of Canada's toughest social problems. Not surprisingly, members have focused on issues that link poverty and shelter, for example housing accessibility for the disabled, or the challenges faced by new Canadians.

Special mention should be made of the efforts of individual co-ops to address the shelter needs of women and children who are survivors of domestic violence. Some co-ops have supported declarations that their housing is "domestic violence free", and enacted bylaws that allow Boards of Directors to evict abusive or violent men. Some co-ops have set aside housing units specifically for women and children who are fleeingviolence, and typically make these available through an arrangement with a local social service agency.

From the beginning, co-operatives have used government financial support to build wheelchair-accessible housing for Canadians with disabilities. All Canadian co-ops, as a result, contain housing units and common areas that accomodate wheelchairs. Co-ops are proud that their residents with disabilities are active participants, fully integrated into their communities.

Co-ops have not been content simply to build accessible housing. As Canada's ethno-cultural fabric has changed through immigration, co-ops have been leaders in housing newcomers (immigrants) to Canada. Since the mid-1980s, in fact, many housing co-ops have been founded and developed by ethnic community groups, to link housing with other programs which integrate newcomers to Canada's social and economic life.

Acting on their own initiative many co-ops now provide housing for people living with AIDS; often they arrange with local health service organizations to set aside some of their units for HIV-positive members.

Several co-ops have been built to serve the needs of aboriginal people. Recognizing the inherent rights of Canada's First Nations, and wishing to further promote the development of co-operatives as an alternative to substandard housing inhabited by many native Canadians, CHF Canada members recently (1995) voted to establish a seat on their national Board of Directors for an aboriginal member, elected by Canada's aboriginal co-ops.

In each of these examples, these initiatives have been independently cultivated and promoted within housing co-operatives and their umbrella organizations, rather than imposed by government. They attest to how member empowerment can, among ordinary Canadians, promote an approach to housing that emphasizes its broader role in addressing specific social policy challenges, as well as the special needs of individual co-op members.


Canadian co-op members have also chosen to share their housing knowledge with people in other nations. Rooftops Canada Foundation was created ten years ago by co-op members who believed that the Canadian co-op model could be modified to create and manage member-owned housing in developing countries. Through Rooftops, co-op staff members and volunteers share the practical operating experience of the Canadian co-operative housing movement through technical exchanges with community-based and co-operative housing organizations in developing countries.

Rooftops promotes exchange visits with co-op members, staff, and non-government organizations in developing countries, and provides long term help through staff assignments. During these exchanges, ordinary Canadian co-op members host visitors from other countries, arranging meetings, conducting tours, and welcoming international visitors to their homes. Many co-ops have raised funds for community-based housing in developing nations. Exchanges encourage Canadians to look beyond the horizons of their own housing; they contribute to healthy community developoment. Because co-operatives in developing nations face far greater economic challenges than those in Canada, international exchanges are helping co-op members adjust to Canada's constrained economic circumstances; in effect teaching Canadian co-operators how to "do more with less".


Unlike other government assisted housing in Canada, resident members are the most important stakeholders in the efficient and effective management of their co-op. They benefit directly by any financial savings acheived through sound management. The presence of fully-empowered resident stakeholders, with a direct and personal economic interest in good management, has contributed in a fundamental way to the success of Canada's co-operative movement.

Primarily, it has allowed governments to pursue policies of "enablement", saving money and time by establishing a legislative and program framework, then devolving financial management of very large assets to ordinary co-op members. Ideally, government intervention is rare and should occur only when very significant problems arise. A strong tradition of independence from government exists among Canada's housing co-ops.

Govetrnments normally count on co-operative housing organizations to furnish direct front line help to troubled co-operatives. All sector organizations, from local federations to CHF Canada, can provide extensive support when conflicts arise between members, when financial challenges arise, or when co-ops simply want to educate their members about sound management. Informally, often through their paid staff, co-ops "borrow" ideas, skills and mangement techniques from each other.

Good governance through empowerment of individual members is nourished throughout the Canadian co-operative movement. Legislation, by-laws and policies foster full member control, and always require regular membership meetings to approvbe all significant co-op policies and expenditures. Audited financial reports are reviewed and ratified by members each year, as are annual operating budgets.

Good governance is not left to chance. For many years co-operatives have supported extensive adult education programs. These have been based on a "learner-centred" approach, designed to draw on participants experiences with a combination of theory, discussion and practice. CHF Canada supports education through the "train the trainers" model noted above, and encourages housing co-ops to educate their members in the intricacies of government programs, financial and property management, and community development. Written materials available through the Co-op Housing Bookstore are written in "Plain Language", so that the information is clear and accessible, recognizing the varying degrees of literacy skills within co-op populations.

None of these initiatives rely on government; all have been started and continued by the co-op housing movement itself.

The benefits of member empowerment in fostering sound management are also applied to local, regional and national co-op sector organizations. Membership in these organizations is voluntary, and open to all housing co-operatives. Federations of co-ops are themselves structured as not-for-profit co-operatives, and are now almost exclusively funded through fees for service or voluntary member contributions, including membership dues.

At a fundamental level, the success of Canada's co-operative housing movement is basred on voluntarism -- a special kind of voluntarism that is based on ideals of democratic functioning, member empowerment, member training and education and economic self-sufficiency. Canada's housing co-operatives, through decentralized national and regional networks, have overcome the distances of Canadian geography and sustained themselves through the economic cycles of the past 25 years.


Many operational and management lessons learned through the Canadian experience have been applied in other nations, through Rooftops programs, and \by Canada's participation in the international co-operative movement. In considering this Best Practice we ask that readers consider how best to replicate, adapt or promote the principle of member empowerment in other settings.

In summary, we offer the following successful elements of our Canadian co-operative housing experience that lend themselves to broader application:

* building a supply of small scale mixed income developments, mainly serving low and moderate income citizens, in both urban and rural settings;

* empowering resident members through strong democratic principles and through solid national, regional, and local organizations, to manage project development and ongoing housing operations;

* enacting policies and practices that encourage full participation among lower income members, people with disabilities, women and minority groups;

* fostering high levels of voluntarism and participation in local urban or rural communities;

* encouraging co-operatives to identify and participate in solving other social policy problems, using safe, affordable housing as a springboard for other activities;

* stimulating the economy by creating jobs in the construction and manufacturing industries;

* promoting participation in the economy by giving members the chance to learn new skills and expertise that lead to education, training and job opportunitites;

* conserving scarce public resources by developing innovative financing tools that reduce government subsidy costs and maintaining lower operating cost levels than any other form of government assisted housing;

* sustaining long term partnerships between the not-for-profit co-op sector, government and the private sector in building and operating co-operative housing;

* encouraging acceptance of the co-operative form of housing tenure within society.


2,000+ housing co-operatives
90,000+ housing units
250,00 co-op residents\members


The co-operative housing sector has had considerable influence in bringing lasting changes to legislation and the regulatory environment in many provinces in Canada and at the national level. Most recently, at the provincial level in Ontario changes were made to the Co-operative Corporations Act in 1992 and these, for the first time, provided corporate law framework for housing co-operatives. This legislation codifies the rights and responsibilities of co-operatives and their members, and provides regulatory guidance in such areas as evictions. This new legislation has also had a subsequent impact on by-laws and policies which co-ops utilize in their institutional framwork and operations.

Housing co-operatives have proven that they are the cheapest form of social housing and thus havew demonstrated that they are more financially sustainable than other forms.

The co-op housing sector has made its governance sustainable by empowering its member residents as the principle stakeholders. Through empowerment at the base the co-op housing sector has chanelled voluntarism to further reduce costs and improve the quality of life in co-ops. As well volunteerism has been tapped to find energy to deal with social issues in the more general community , as well as the international community.

In the past sixteen years co-ops have also dealt with environmental sustainability issues such as energy and water conservation, environmentally appropriate landscaping, healthy environments and reduction of the use of automobiles


    225 Metcalfe Street, Suite 311


    Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada & Rooftops Canada Foundation
    225 Metcalfe Street, Suite 311
    (613) 230-2201; fax (613) 230-2231


    Rooftops Canada Foundation
    Armstrong, Thom (CHF Canada)
    225 Metcalfe Street, Suite 311
    (613) 230-2201; fax (613) 230-2231

    Pinsky, Barry (Rooftops Canada)
    2 Berkeley Street, Suite 207
    (416) 366-1445; fax (416) 366-3876

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