Canada’s housing co-ops doing well despite Covid-19 challenges

A recent survey finds the sector is optimistic after arrears remained unaffected by the pandemic

Housing co-ops in Canada remain positive about the future, despite the challenges posed by Covid-19 this year.

A recent survey conducted by the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada (CHF Canada) during a virtual town hall held last month revealed that 96% of co-op managers and staff were ‘doing well’. 

Most housing co-ops in Canada are rental co-ops developed during the 1970s and 80s under government social housing programmes targeting people with low to moderate incomes. Across Canada, over 2,200 non-profit housing co‑ops are home to about a quarter of a million people in over 90,000 households.

The majority of housing co-ops charge at least between 10% and 20% below the standard rental in an area, making them more affordable than other private rented accommodation. The co-ops bring together people of different backgrounds and income levels. Between 20 to 30% of the co-op housing units also receive subsidies from provincial governments.

According to CHF Canada’s survey, 60% of housing co-ops surveyed felt 2020 had been a ‘very challenging’ year, but over 40% remained ‘optimistic’. The survey also showed that almost half of the co-operatives represented were doing the same on arrears as before the pandemic, while 30% were doing either ‘a little’ or ‘a lot’ better.

Fieldstone Co-op held a community sing-along with members taking part from a safe distance, on their balconies and in the garden (c) Zoe Gemelli

“The big question we’ve had in the sector since Covid started has been housing charges and arrears,” CHF Canada’s programme manager for co-op and planning services, René Daoust, who organised the town hall, said in a statement. “We see from our surveys that it’s not bad, and in some cases it’s a bit better than before.”

“We were prepared for increases in arrears, but surprisingly that never happened,” Homestarts‘ manager of co-operative housing operations, Kathleen Tilson, told CHF Canada. She added that the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which gives financial support to employed and self-employed Canadians who are directly affected by Covid-19, had helped in this respect.

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While there has not been specific support for either the co-operatives themselves or the federation, CERB enabled housing co-op members to gain the income they needed to pay their housing charges. As a result, co-ops themselves have been quite resilient. There have been calls for CERB to be transitioned into a universal basic income (UBI) that would last beyond
the pandemic.

On the other hand, a big challenge for the co-operatives surveyed had been difficulty gaining access to units to undertake maintenance, and the reduced availability of contractors and materials. The pandemic also resulted in more members attending virtual meetings, Ms Tilson told CHF Canada.

“It was a great idea of CHF Canada to put these town halls together, especially for independent staff who can get isolated,” she added.

CHF Canada has been supporting members by researching different tools that can be used during digital meetings, particularly those that allow online voting.

Another challenge for some co-ops has been that tenants with limited incomes often have limited digital access. To address this some co-ops have considered hybrid meetings, with most members participating virtually and some in person.

CHF Canada plays a key role in informing members about the latest restrictions and the best practices they can adopt. Some of these are featured on its designated Covid-19 page.

Huronia Family Housing Co-op has had similar issues. Property manager Robin Argue told CHF Canada the biggest challenge for her co-op had been with meetings because of its arrangement of 25 scattered units. 

“None of them are next door to each other, and some people are seniors… Some don’t have computers or smart phones and the majority don’t drive, so we’re trying to figure out how to have a meeting.” 

Patricia Tessier, CHF Canada’s director, member services said: “We are relieved but not surprised to see how Canada’s housing co-ops have stepped up to face this challenge. This includes the boards and members of the housing co-ops, their property managers and staff, and the staff of Canada’s co-operative housing federations. It’s been really inspiring to see so many people stepping up with such hard work, creativity and concern for one another. It has been a challenging and scary time in many ways: health and safety, economic security, stress and isolation, but we’ve done incredibly well so far.

“Tests like this pandemic can be an opportunity to show true leadership and character, and in many ways it has shown us new and exciting ways of doing things that will far outlast the current crisis. Amazing things happen when a community comes together, that is at the heart of what co-op housing is all about. We may have to stay physically distant, but co-ops know how to connect when it’s needed most.”

What will the future bring for the co-operative housing sector in Canada? In recent years various community land trusts have been set up across the country, including Ottawa and Toronto, with some projects financially backed by local credit unions. Covid-19 remains a big threat, due to the long-term impact it could have on the Canadian economy. But for now housing co-ops are hopeful that they are going to be able to weather the worst of it.

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