Non-profit housing co-operatives are democratically run, independent co-operative corporations. These organizations own buildings (either houses or apartments) in which housing units are leased back to their resident members at cost. If a member moves out of the co-op, their membership lapses. Co-ops are different from other forms of non-profit housing in that they are governed by a resident board of directors democratically elected by the membership. Members help to make certain other decisions at general meetings.
Co-op members enjoy most of the benefits of ownership apart from the power to buy and sell their housing unit or make a profit on co-op shares. They have the right to live in their co-op as long as they respect the obligations of membership.
More information about housing co-operatives is available on the website of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada.
Students were early innovators in the provision of housing through the co-operative model. In 1936, Campus Co-operative Residence at the University of Toronto began to offer affordable housing for students. Its 70-year history makes this the oldest surviving housing co‑op in Canada.
During the first half of the twentieth century, building co-ops were active in the Atlantic provinces and other parts of Canada. The members of a building co-operative first pooled their resources to buy building materials and then contributed “sweat equity” by working together on the construction of a house for each member. Once everyone was housed, the co-operative dissolved. Building co-operatives provided housing for those who could not otherwise have afforded home ownership. However, they were not the model followed by the Canadian co-operative housing movement during its period of growth.
The first continuing co-operative housing corporation was Willow Park, occupied in 1966, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. This early co-operative received funding from many sources, including the broader co-operative movement and its own members.
On an experimental basis, between 1970 and 1973, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) allowed a few housing co-operatives in different regions of the country to draw on its Innovative Fund for development assistance. Most of these pioneer co-ops were eventually rolled into one of the formal programs under which later housing co‑operatives were developed.
There are currently about 35,000 co-operative homes and more than 500 co-operatives operating under different federal programs in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Prince Edward Island.
Between 1973 and 1991, CMHC participated actively in the development of co-operatives under various programs. These programs are often identified by the section of the National Housing Act in which each one appears in the most recent revision of the Act.
These programs are different in many respects, but all provided co-operatives with some form of financial support. This could include start-up funding, bridge funding for the early years of operation and funds to reduce the housing costs of those who could not otherwise have afforded to live there. Apart from two “deep-subsidy” programs, under which few units were developed, these housing programs successfully created mixed-income communities.
The founding boards of housing co-operatives contracted with resource groups that guided them in obtaining land, developing the property or purchasing existing housing, setting up management and governance structures and marketing the units.
As of the end of 1991, the federal government cut off its support for co-operative housing development through unilateral federal programs. However, the government continues to honour its operating agreements with more than 500 existing co-operatives, which house their members under these legacy programs.
A number of provinces have also provided support for co-operative housing development, both as partners of the federal government and independently. Information about these programs appears on provincial government websites:
- British Columbia
- Newfoundland and Labrador
- Nova Scotia
- Northwest Territories
In Ontario, responsibility for provincially funded co-operative and non-profit housing programs was devolved to municipal governments in 1996.