Q&A: Julie LaPalme

Program director for Cooperative Housing International

How was 2020 for Co-operative Housing International and the co-operative housing sector in general?

The year 2020 has been a very busy and constructive year. We are a very small team but we manage to accomplish so many goals, both planned and unplanned. CHI’s board members are phenomenal and their dedication to sharing knowledge and best practices about housing co-operatives and springing into action when opportunities to fight for co-operative housing come up, is truly why it’s been a good year.

In spite of the challenges and hardships of 2020, housing co-operatives all around the world keep inspiring us with their stories of resilience and community spirit. It’s thanks to actions like starting community gardens and sharing the bounty with neighbours in need, rent deferrals and solidarity funds, members doing the shopping for their neighbours in isolation, and distributing food kits for communities that housing co-ops are proving once again that the strength and resiliency of the co-op model is what gets them through these difficult times. Just take a look at this annual report the Co-operative Housing Federation of British Columbia in Canada put together in video format, to see how the co-operative principles are the driving force behind the success of housing co-ops.

Communicating good practices and sharing information about housing co-operatives is a big part of what we do and this year was particularly good for us in that respect. Thanks to additional funding from the Canadian co-op housing sector (shout out to CHF Canada et al) we were able to produce a series of one-minute videos that explain what housing cooperatives are, how they are financed and governed, the benefits of living in a co-op community and so on… Go to our YouTube channel to see our collection of videos. You can even brush up on a few languages by watching them in French and Spanish!

What were the key challenges you faced?

For CHI the challenge of not meeting in person was short-lived. We are used to meeting virtually but not in such great numbers. Now that we have better tools we are seeing the benefits of connecting people from all around the world virtually. We did more webinars than we had originally planned and a lot less travelling which is good for the planet. The webinars are great learning opportunities and they’re also very good for connecting cooperators with one another. Collaborating is essential for growing the co-op movement and with covid bringing inequalities to the forefront, it’s important that we work together to continue growing the co-op movement.

What opportunities could 2021 bring to your sector?

There are always opportunities. We just had a member forum on December 10 and three of our newest members, Student Co-op Homes (SCH), North American Students for Cooperation (NASCO) and the Federation of Peoples’ Sustainable Development Cooperative (FPSDC) presented their work to the other CHI members. We’ve already collaborated with SCH and NASCO on a webinar that provided an overview of student cooperative housing around the world. We plan to do more learning exchanges with them on more in depth topics like governance and development.

As a leadup to the ICA Congress in Seoul, where we may actually meet in person, we want to connect housing co-ops in the Asia-Pacific region via virtual networking events. For example, FPSDC in the Philippines, is working on an amazing project called Co-op Ville, which we learned about in the CHI Forum the other day. So many cooperative values are at the heart of this initiative, cooperating among co-operatives, environmental sustainability, self-help, autonomy and independence, and the list goes on. We want to share these stories and connect with cooperators in as many Asian-Pacific countries as possible.

What are your plans for the year ahead?

We are doing a lot of aggregating next year. We are working with ICA’s legal team to aggregate co-op housing legal frameworks from different regions of the world. We also want to gather all the different finance mechanisms used by housing cooperatives for their development.  Knowledge is power!We also plan to do a podcast series on Growing up in a Housing Co-op, produce more webinars and videos, continue our collaborative work with the CoHabitat Network, and share more knowledge about student housing cooperatives. And as mentioned earlier, connect housing co-ops through networking and learning events in the ICA Asia-Pacific region. It’s going to be a busy year!

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