A family-friendly solution to the city’s tight housing market

Housing costs and issues with land-use when building homes are leading some Calgarians to consider alternatives to the traditional single-family home.

One option is co-operative housing — also known as co-op housing.

Co-ops are different than cohousing. Instead of being owners or renters, people who live in co-ops are shareholders. They can take different forms, from condo-style, to townhouse, to row housing or even an apartment building.

Decision-making and day-to-day maintenance of the co-op is taken care of by a board of directors made up of members. Under the board, there are a number of committees.

 West Heritage Manor

Kim Halvorson is a resident of local co-operative housing community, West Heritage Manor, in S.W. Calgary. She says that the co-op has about 15 committees responsible for different aspects of co-op life. This is typical of most co-ops.

Finance committees, grounds committees, and social committees are all examples of groups crucial to maintaining the smooth and enjoyable operation of a co-op.

Halvorson says she is surprised by how little people seem to know about co-op housing.

“It does seem to be a well-kept secret,” she says.

West Heritage Manor was established in 1981. Halvorson says that due to a serious housing shortage problem that existed at that time, “a group of interested and concerned people set up a meeting to study the merits of developing a co-operative housing project.”

West Heritage Manor, which has about 110 units in total, has a current buy-in price set at $2,500. Halvorson says that $2,500 buys members a portion of all the units in the community.

Each member also pays a monthly housing fee. In West Heritage Manor’s case, that fee goes towards the organization’s mortgage, as well as a reserve fund.

“Because we’re not-for-profit we only charge what it takes to maintain the co-op,” says Halvorson. A small surplus from housing charges goes into the co-op’s reserve fund.

A lack of federal support

The co-op is under the federal government umbrella, along with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. West Heritage Manor is required to send all financial statements to the government.

West Heritage Manor receives about $10,000 in subsidy from the government each month, and will continue to until their mortgage ends in 2017. That subsidy is for members who cannot meet their housing payments.

“We have about 20 units that are on subsidy,” says Halvorson.

Fern Preece is another member of West Heritage Manor. She says that although the federal government has been responsible for setting up and funding co-op housing in the past, it’s taking a step away from the co-operative housing area.

“You have to find the funding,” she says, “and right now that’s the major problem because the federal government is taking a hands-off approach.”

Halvorson says that co-op housing is “not low-income housing.” However, with an initial fee of $2,500 and the monthly housing fee for a three-bedroom unit currently sitting at $825 a month, co-op housing is certainly an affordable option compared to many others in the city.

Ward 11 Coun. Brian Pincott says he believes the city could use more co-op housing.

“We need to get the federal government involved in that again,” says Pincott.

Pincott adds that Sarcee Meadows, a co-operative housing community in the city, is the largest is Canada.

“We need to figure out, as a city, how we can get more rental units built,” Pincott says. He adds that he supports co-op housing because it increases the amount of overall choices for housing within the city.

Sunnyhill

Roberts chose to move from a traditional house to Sunnyhill partly because she didn’t know any of her neighbours. She says the residents of Sunnyhill were welcoming and interested in getting to know her.

Photo by Olivia GrecuJane Roberts is a member of Sunnyhill, another local co-op located in the Sunnyside community.

Roberts says she thinks co-ops are a good way to address high-density housing and sustainable neighbourhoods.

“It would make sense to put some more in Inglewood and Bridgeland,” Roberts says. She says she thinks these are good areas because of their location and proximity to amenities.

Sunnyhill is row housing. Roberts has a three-level, three-bedroom unit.

“You can fit several buildings into a small area,” says Roberts.

Preece agrees that location is key for many co-ops.

“Since we’re inner city we’re now on the west leg of the LRT,” she says. Preece says that high-school-age members of the co-op can easily take the LRT to attend nearby Ernest Manning High School.

Preece says being near amenities like the LRT and Westgate Shopping Centre is important.

“It might be a little more difficult to do that in a newer area because you don’t have the infrastructure in place,” says Preece.

Roberts says she believes that Sunnyhill was established in the 1970s. The location was chosen because Sunnyside Elementary was already established in the area.

“I think they built the co-op specifically to attract young families and keep the school going,” she says.

Sunnyhill differs from Heritage Manor in a few key ways. First of all, they have internal funding so the government does not subsidize Sunnyhill.

Each year, every member must submit his or her financial statements to the board.

“If you are earning above a certain level you pay a small surcharge,” she says. That surcharge goes into Sunnyhill’s reserve fund, and some of it can go to members who need subsidy.

The other difference for Sunnyhill is that the co-op is on leased land.

“We had a chance way back when our co-op was founded to buy the land,” says Roberts. “But someone decided to lease it.”

The co-op is on prime real estate, minutes from downtown and within sight of the popular Bow River pathway. Though it’s still some time from now, Sunnyhill members are not sure what will happen when their lease ends in 2039.

Co-op housing vs. affordable housing

Roberts says a three-bedroom unit in Sunnyhill costs close to $900 a month. In terms of affordable housing, Roberts says she believes co-op housing is a better option than other alternatives offered in the city.

Roberts says she has had friends who lived in Calgary Housing — a city-run project that provides eligible candidates with affordable housing — and they often saw issues such as people earning too much money to be eligible for the program.

“I think a lot people lump co-ops in with affordable housing,” Roberts adds. “They think it’s going to be rundown, it’s going to be poorly maintained, it’s going to be bureaucratic.”

However — similar to cohousing communities — Roberts says, “there’s a definite sense of intentional community with co-op housing.”

Co-ops make a community a home

Jane Roberts walks her dog through one of Sunnyhill’s community green spaces. She says she often meets up with other residents and their four-legged friends on her morning walk.

Photo by Olivia GrecuRoberts moved into Sunnyhill as a single parent eight years ago. At the time, she was new to Calgary, and says she had a cat, a dog and two children. She says she lived in a house, which was fine, but that she knew almost none of her neighbours.

When she was offered a place in Sunnyhill, Roberts said she jumped at the opportunity.

“People were welcoming, they wanted to get to know you,” she says. She says that whenever she needed babysitting or a helping hand around her unit, there was always somebody to help out.

“For somebody who doesn’t have extended family it was really helpful,” Roberts says.

Preece and Roberts both agreed that co-ops particularly like accepting new members who have children.

“That’s where energy comes from for a community,” says Preece. “Children seem to be the binding force for any community.”

Halvorson adds that the co-op is a very safe environment for children to grow up in.

“We have kids playing out all the time,” she says, “and you don’t have to worry because there’s always a bunch of people around who also know those kids.”

Sense of community was highlighted once again this summer when many members of Sunnyhill were touched by the major flooding in June.

“I couldn’t get to my unit on the Monday when they said you can go back and see what damage has been done,” Roberts says. “So I went to one of my neighbours and I said ‘Hey, my place is still flooded. I can’t go there, so what can I do for you?’”

“There was some real excellent community spirit there,” she says.

That community spirit and welcoming, all-for-one attitude might be part of why many people seek out co-op housing.

“We’re multi-cultural,” says Halvorson of West Heritage Manor, adding that residents come from all walks of life.

Halvorson says the co-op is home to everyone from seniors, to families with children of all ages, to young professionals who are just starting out.

All this is to say that co-op members don’t see it as short-term housing — they see it as home.

“You want people who are going to stay,” says Roberts.

Roberts says that in many cases, when a family’s children move out, the parents move into a smaller unit so they can stay in the community.

“They’ve gone from bigger units to maybe single bedroom,” she says. “They love the community.”

Preece says West Heritage Manor also prefers applicants who plan on staying for a long time.

“This isn’t going to be the stop off while you’re saving money to buy the mansion on the hill,” she says.

Preece adds that the children of many original members, who grew up in West Heritage Manor before striking out on their own, now want to move back into the community.

“It’s what they’re familiar with and they like the atmosphere,” she says. “Because it’s home.”

Halvorson says she believes that the city needs to seriously consider building more co-ops.

“I think you’ll find that if there is a waitlist for a co-op, that waitlist is closed,” she says. “The existing ones are full.”

ogrecu@cjournal.ca

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