Housing crisis pushes once-thriving co-op movement back into the spotlight

When Eric Tuck lost two jobs at separate times in the 1980s, the Greenhill housing co-operative where he lived provided emergency assistance to him and his family.

First, Tuck was laid off from National Steel in Hamilton, Ont. Two years later, he was laid off again from Firestone Tire Factory, only six months after he’d taken the job.

Tuck was the sole breadwinner back then, raising two young children with his partner. Thrown out of work, he was forced to go on unemployment insurance, which was not enough to supplement his lost wages. But his co-op came through—both times—with a subsidy to reduce his housing charge.

The Greenhill co-op was more than just an economic lifesaver. It was a community that helped Tuck find work and gain new skills. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Tuck’s building was one part of a thriving housing co-op movement with government support. Today, activists are fighting to save co-ops from extinction, despite their potential to alleviate Canada’s housing crisis.

As their name suggests, housing co-ops are collectively owned. Individuals pay monthly housing charges (not rent) to pay for their mortgage to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

For Tuck, the financial support made him want to return the favour. He won a seat on the board and subsequently became the co-op board’s president. 

“It was a great opportunity for me as a young kid,” Tuck said in an interview. 

He took courses with the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada (CHF Canada) and learned about finances.

That experience gave him the skills and self-confidence to eventually pursue union activism. Now, he’s the president of Local 107 (Hamilton) in the Amalgamated Transit Union. Last year, he came second in an unsuccessful campaign for a seat on Hamilton city council.

Even his job as a city bus driver came from the co-op, which he found via employees of the city-owned public transit service, who also lived at Greenhill.

Tuck has many other fond memories from the thriving co-op, where members volunteered on committees such as social recreation, finance, security, landscaping, sports and membership. The building even had its own volunteer-run bar and coffee shop.

Eric Tuck remembers his time living at Greenhill co-op in Hamilton fondly. Here, he poses with wife Cynthia and daughters Amanda and Kathleen for a family photo at the co-op in 1988. Credit: Eric Tuck

‘An affordable and democratic alternative’ to the private market

The 1970s and the 1980s were a unique time when governments of various political stripes were open to experimentation in housing. That included co-ops like Greenhill, which were geared for families and singles living on different incomes.

Starting in about 1974, the federal government began underwriting the construction of co-op housing across Canada. The funding of housing co-ops was pushed by the NDP, led by David Lewis, which was holding the balance of power in Parliament. The new co-op program continued after the Liberals returned to their majority two years later.

Bob Luker, a retired Toronto community college professor, recalls that easy access to federal money in this time period led to the nurturing of a social movement for co-ops. 

Activists came onboard from labour movements, socially conscious churches, anti-poverty groups and Indigenous rights, said Luker, who managed the Neill Wycik student co-op in downtown Toronto in the 1970s. “So, we had one of those moments when things come together.”

All shared the concept that co-op housing could be provided on a non-profit basis to ordinary people without the involvement of speculators seeking to make a return on their real estate investment.

“A significant part of the co-op movement leadership definitely saw themselves creating an affordable and democratic alternative to the private housing market,” said Luker. 

Some, but not all them, considered themselves socialists. A leading figure in co-ops, Mark Goldblatt, now deceased, called himself “a co-operative socialist.”

Luker also worked for one of the non-profit development groups which assisted community groups and organizations in establishing new housing co-ops. The group provided advice on how to purchase land, as well as on financing, contracting and training board members. 

A housing co-op under construction is seen in an undated photo. The 1970s and ‘80s were a thriving age for the housing co-op movement in Canada. Credit: CHF Canada

1990s policies pushed co-ops to the edge

By the late 1980s, the federal government—which had previously been the largest financial backer for housing co-ops—began reducing its support. When a recession hit in 1990, the government halted financial support for housing co-ops altogether.

Neo-liberal and increasingly market-oriented policies were sweeping the Western world. In Canada, that meant an evisceration of social programs, including housing.

Non-profit development groups in the co-op sector were hit hard. There was no paid work available for them after the federal money dried up, said Greg Suttor, a Toronto-based housing policy specialist. “A lot of the expertise was lost. The volumes of development in the mid-to-late ‘90s were close to zero. So, people did other things with their lives and careers,” he said. 

During the later ‘90s, CMHC was less interested in preserving co-ops teetering on the edge than it had been in the ‘70s and ‘80s, he noted.

Such was the case with Tuck’s building, Greenhill, which reverted to condo status after CMHC sold it to investors in 1999 for $6.1 million, according to a title search. The property is now called Parkview Terrace. 

Asked about the sale of Greenhill, CMHC told The Breach that little information was available because it happened 25 years ago. But the agency did confirm that the co-op was in default of its mortgage loan and social agreement.

By the time of the sale, Tuck and his family had already left the co-op about a decade earlier to become homeowners.

But he is still shocked that the privatization of his old co-op could have happened so quietly, without the opportunity for local housing activists to rally against the move.

Unlike Greenhill, most housing co-ops built in the ‘70s and ‘80s remain intact as affordable providers of housing outside the market. CHF Canada estimates there are now a quarter of a million Canadians living in co-ops. 

A housing co-op in the Montreal neighbourhood of Mile End is seen in March 2023. Credit: Kate Addison/The Breach

Hundreds of thousands could now face eviction

A crisis in the late 2010s helped to put co-op housing back on the political agenda. While the federal government no longer built non-market housing, it still had the responsibility to pay rental subsidies for existing co-ops and non-profits.

A majority of co-op members pay a housing charge at the low end of the housing market. About a quarter of co-op members, because of their income, also live in units where part of that housing charge is subsidized by the Federal Community Housing Initiative (FCHI).

In 2020, thousands of people faced eviction from co-ops because the FCHI was slated to expire.

About 21,000 co-op households, comprising close to 52,000 low-income Canadians, live on these subsidies. Other groups of people—even more than the number in co-ops—live in other types of social housing that also rely on the federal subsidy program.

One property management company, Homestarts, estimated that a total of 500,000 people living in co-ops, non-profits and public housing in Canada faced a loss of their housing if the FCHI ended. 

The scheduled expiration reinvigorated the co-op movement, as CHF Canada pitched a sophisticated lobbying and grassroots campaign to save FCHI. The Liberal government relented in 2019, agreeing to extend the subsidy until 2028. 

But if the subsidy isn’t extended again before then, thousands of households in co-ops could face eviction at some point, depending on when their co-op was built. 

Retired professor Luker argues that the co-ops dependent upon revenues from subsidies also faced financial difficulties. 

Regardless of the result, the rental subsidy issue helped to re-energize the co-op movement in Canada, he said. 

As early as June 2013, CHF Canada held its first rally which involved a few hundred converging on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

The Conservatives were in power then and were not keen to act, maintaining that housing was a provincial responsibility, said Harvey Cooper, formerly in charge of government relations at CHF Canada.

The 2015 federal election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals gave the issue more momentum. Co-op members and CHF Canada took the direct approach of meeting and discussing their issue with Liberal candidates, especially those running in urban ridings in places like Toronto, where there are many co-ops.

Ending the FCHI—at any time—is a complete non-starter for CHF Canada, said its public affairs and policy spokesperson, Courtney Lockhart.

“This is why CHF Canada is calling for continued rental assistance, and for FCHI to not end in 2028. We mentioned this last in our federal budget recommendations, and also in previous years,” she said.

So far, the Liberals have not budged.

What scares housing activists like Suttor is the prospect of the federal Conservatives being elected back by 2028 and a move by them to permit the FCHI rental subsidy to expire.

Cooper suggests that the FCHI subsidies are unique in terms of their scope and cost as a federal program and this may explain the hesitancy among the Liberals for permanency. 

But he also points to a strategic advantage that the movement has this time: subsidies for all the co-ops are set to expire at the same time in 2028, which was not the case before. 

“By 2028, we have got every single federal co-op in the entire country being impacted, with a lot more political clout,” Cooper said.

Feds make a (small) new investment

The timing of the 2019 extension was important because the Trudeau government was already pursuing its National Housing Strategy (NHS) in the face of a serious and complex housing crisis—and non-market housing has reappeared as another solution to the problem.

Last year’s federal budget announced $500 million in funding and $1 billion in loans would be invested in a new Co-operative Housing Development Program. This is expected to translate into the building of a modest 6,000 new co-op housing units over five years.

One of the issues for Suttor is that the NHS is not putting enough money into the program to lower the housing charges in the planned co-op units to an affordable level.

He estimates that the feds are proposing to invest a total of $250,000 into each unit, which won’t be enough to alleviate the expected very high costs of construction. Some additional money must come from the province or municipality where the new co-op would be located.

Typically, provinces are asked to provide matching funds for federal supported housing projects. But the second level of government may not always be willing to play ball, according to Suttor. 

“If not, good luck,” he said. 

Lockhart at CHF Canada declined to comment on the possible cost of the planned new co-op units. She said the announcement is an important first step towards “the next generation of co-op housing.” 

CHF Canada maintains its vision that co-ops represent a more affordable form of housing than market rental units. A recent study shows that co-ops in five Canadian cities on average charge $400 to $500 less per month than the private market.

Sarah Cooper, another housing specialist who teaches at the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba, points to a recent report showing that private market developers receive the bulk of the support from the NHS, primarily for medium-cost and

just below medium-cost housing. There should be more assistance for non-profit housing providers serving lower-income Canadians, she said. 

The scheduled expiration of a housing subsidy reinvigorated the housing co-op movement in the late 2010s. In this photo, co-op supporters rally in Regina in 2019. Credit: CHF Canada

‘Resilient people’ in ‘a resilient sector’

The ability of the co-op movement to survive the lean times following government cuts in the 1990s makes Lockhart rather optimistic about the future of her sector. 

“The thing about co-ops is that they build resilient people [in] a resilient sector and we

have to be adaptable to all sorts of governments and situations,” she explained.

One longtime co-op member, Lynda Winter of Corktown Co-operative Homes in central Hamilton, admits taking for granted how fortunate she is to live outside the volatile and expensive renting housing market.

When co-ops expanded in the 1970s and 1980s, they were seen by some as a transition to home ownership and the middle class. But at Corktown, co-op living is embraced as the better way, said Winter, who raised her son there.

“The people that have stayed for the long haul are here because they want to be here,” she said. “There is a family here that can afford to buy a house. They don’t choose to because they like living in this community.”

This article first appeared in The Breach.