The Appeal of Co-op Living
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The Appeal of Co-op Living

It's increasingly difficult to find affordable housing in the city. Here's why some people are calling co-ops home.

The 60 Richmond Street East Housing Co-operative. Photo by edk7 from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The 60 Richmond Street East Housing Co-operative. Photo by edk7 from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Scroll through the many panicked posts in Bunz Home Zone and it becomes increasingly clear how expensive and difficult it is to find a place to live in Toronto.

The city’s rental vacancy rate is an alarming 1.6 per cent, considerably lower than the rate in other large Canadian cities. With many student and marginalized renters tasked with finding affordable and safe housing options, housing co-operatives just might be the solution.

The Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada defines housing co-operatives as providers of not-for-profit housing for its members. Members who live in co-ops do not own equity in their housing, and the house is returned to the co-operative once its members move. Some co-ops charge rent that is geared to their member’s income, while some members pay the full monthly charge.

The appeal of co-op living is the affordability and autonomy it provides. Rent paid by each member goes directly into the co-op’s operating costs. Members make all decisions about their housing, from who governs the co-op to how the annual budget is spent. Since a board of directors eliminates the need for a landlord, members work together to guarantee that their housing remains maintained and affordable.

Since 1978, the Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto has worked to create and preserve over 6,000 affordable homes in the GTA. The CHFT’s biggest boost occurred from 1991 to 2000, when over 2,900 homes were sustained.

However, since 2001, numbers have dropped significantly; the group has sustained 400 new co-op homes during a 15-year period. The CHFT cites recent federal government subsidy cuts to its declining numbers.

Despite this decline, people are still turning to already established housing co-ops as a means for community and, of course, cheap rent.

Toronto’s first permanent and student-lead housing co-op, the Campus Co-operative Residence, was established in 1936. The co-op, which still exists today, is completely self-funded and has residences scattered all over Toronto.

Toad Lane, one Campus Co-operative house in the Annex, is a social justice- and vegan-themed residence. Toad Lane was established in the early 1970s as a student co-operative, and it has been a part of the Campus Co-op since the 1990s.

Toad Lane hosts weekly potlucks, fundraisers, and informal discussions about social justice. Member Tristan Laing says that he was drawn to Toad Lane’s commitment to living in “intentional community” after witnessing some disconnect in previous co-ops.

“The advantages of communal living need to be understood in relation to the increasing social dominance of the desire to live alone,” explains Laing.

“Living in community with others creates ongoing casual, unplanned chances for social interaction. This environment is highly conducive for the creation of friendships, for mutual emotional support, and for creating feelings of community—I like to think of my co-op housemates almost like a second family.”

The Toad Lane co-op. Photo courtesy of Campus Co-operative Residence.

The Toad Lane co-op. Photo courtesy of Campus Co-operative Residence.

There is an extensive list of co-ops around the city that fit the interests and lifestyles of a broad range of people. Neill-Wycik Co-operative College, for example, has over 700 rooms in its Gerrard Street East building.

Neill-Wycik’s rooms are used as an affordable student residence during the academic year and double as a hotel during the summer months. The residence boasts a weight room, computer lab, and a brand-new maker space.

Melissa Zentner, the co-op’s finance and administration manager, says that its student residents are encouraged to participate in community building and in the co-op’s operations.

“The co-operative business model is not commonly part of the curriculum in most schools, so raising awareness is something we can do,” says Zentner. “Members can run for the board of directors and learn about governance and management; this can be beneficial to students in numerous courses of study.”

However, co-ops aren’t just for students. Grace MacInnis Co-operative, named after the first female member of Parliament, was incorporated in 1976 and is a member of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto.

Located north of the Church-Wellesley Village, it provides housing for low- to mid-income families and individuals. Grace MacInnis seeks to provide a safe and secure community for its members, and each member is expected to contribute a minimum of four volunteer hours per month.

Co-ops, however, do have their downside.

Francis Tomkins, an OCAD student, has lived in two co-ops since 2014 and was first drawn to the community aspect and affordability of co-op living. Tomkins found open co-op rooms by wading through online ads and discovered that many rooms offered were $200 to $300 cheaper than neighbouring vacant apartments.

However, like Laing, Tomkins also found it difficult to find co-ops with members who wanted to put effort into community building.

“I was living in a (co-op) house with ten people whose names I still don’t know. I lived there for a year. They never introduced themselves to me, and we avoided each other,” says Tomkins. “I basically never left my room because I was very nervous to interact with them. I would recommend co-op living, but get to know your roommates first.”

Another weakness of the co-op living model, Laing says, is that there are significant challenges to growth.

Laing feels that many co-ops set housing fees at a level to maintain their housing stock. This equates to the lowest possible fees for members and just enough left to continue to maintain the buildings for future members.

“If we really wanted to build a new housing market, outside of the corrosive forces of capitalism, co-op members would need to be willing to fund not only the maintenance of their own units but also the growth of their sector by investing in new housing projects,” says Laing.

While he points out that the most difficult time to create a co-op is while the price of housing increases, he believes that co-ops can be a great way to fight gentrification in urban spaces.

“Currently, across North America the most exciting places for co-op development are American Rust Belt cities like Buffalo and Detroit—places where maxing out a group of folks’ credit cards can be enough to buy an entire house,” Laing says.

“In places like that, co-ops can be a great way to fight the tide of gentrification. By buying up properties in areas about to be gentrified, co-ops remove them from the speculative housing market, creating an ownership structure that can keep rents low against an economic tide.”

Tomkins speculates that co-ops are becoming more necessary in urban spaces because of a general lack of community in the city.

“I feel like they are so necessary, but I felt like they miss the beat on what their purpose is. The purpose of a co-op is to foster community and have networks of people (who provide) a home away from home. If more people embrace that aspect of co-op living, where you are all mutually supporting one another and not just living in a house together because the rent is cheaper, then that would be great.”

With the popularity of co-ops on the rise, their radical nature of community building and affordability in an unfriendly and expensive time just might be good news for everyone.

CORRECTION: November 14, 1:15 PM
Campus Co-operative Residence was established in 1936, not 1935, as an earlier version of this story stated. As well, we’ve corrected a paraphrased quote from Laing. He says there are challenges to growth within the co-op model, not that there is a lack of possible growth. We regret the errors.