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
THE PUBLIC POLICY ENVIRONMENT
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
CANADA'S HOUSING CO-OPERATIVES
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
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.
KEY IMPACTS OF CANDIAN CO-OPERATIVE HOUSING
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
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.
EMPOWERING LOW AND MODERATE INCOME CANADIANS
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
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.
SERVING CANADIANS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS
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
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
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
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
MANAGEMENT AND GOVERNANCE
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
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.
POTENTIAL FOR BROADER APPLICATION
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
* 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
* 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
* 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