In honour of the United Nations International Year of the Co-op, and in partnership with Calgary 2012, Calgary based writer and musician Brian Brennan is the Artist in Residence (AiR) for the Southern Alberta Co-operative Housing Association.
To celebrate Calgary's designation of being the 2012 Canadian Cultural Centre, artists from around were paired with various organizations in the city. Brennan was been paired with SACHA to capture stories about the experience of living in housing co-ops.
"I've been interviewing and doing Q and As with them (residents of co-op housing in Calgary). These interviews will be compiled and SACHA will be using the material and experiences -- presenting the stories to the Cooperative Housing Federation of Canada (CHFC) for the annual general meeting that will be hosted in Calgary in 2013.
Brennan notes they aim to present the stories as a way, "to indicate to the delegates just how housing may differ from the way that is done elsewhere."
Brennan hadn't lived in co-op housing himself, "I didn't know the first thing about co-op housing before I was assigned to SACHA, so it has been quite an eye opener actually."
There are 16 Housing Co-Ops in Calgary, Alberta, boasting 1294 units collectively. The Southern Alberta Co-operative Housing Association (SACHA) manages and collectively organizes the housing co-ops available in southern Alberta. Outside of Calgary there are 28 units in Rocky Mountain House, 30 units in Lethbridge, and 24 units in Red Deer. SACHA is a regional organization connected to the provincial Alberta Community and Co-Operative Association (ACCA).
The Co-Operative Housing Federation of Canada explains, "because co‑ops charge their members only enough to cover costs, repairs, and reserves, they can offer housing that is much more affordable than average private sector rental costs." One of the benefits of co-op housing is that, "living in housing that will stay affordable because it's run on a non-profit basis and is never resold."
While co-op living has a clear financial benefit, long time participants identify with the idea of community living. Residents have been open with Brennan about their experience, and their reasons for choosing this particular living environment. "I liked the idea of doing things with your neighbours, knowing who your neighbours are, sharing goals and aspirations," explained one resident.
"Even though we live in a winter climate here in Calgary, outdoor space and the social dynamics that come out of it are really important," described another resident. "I like to encourage co-op residents to embellish that and make it easy for people to get together in family groups by providing picnic tables and shared spaces. The spin off of that is the social glue of the place, so in the middle of winter, the warmth of those summer encounters are still there."
Throughout this experience, Brennan sees how deeply entrenched the residents are within the model of housing co-ops. "My sense is that these are people that are so committed to co-op housing and that the only change they might make in their circumstances is they might look for different types of units geared towards seniors, or more housing that is more accessible. For the most part, they have lived in co-op housing for a big part of adult lives. They have raised their children, and they have grand children that come over to visit. They won't be moving out into the suburbs."
This was echoed time and time again, and one of the participants recalled moments from raising their children in this community centred, consensus based environment. "When they were children, because of our involvement in co-ops, our kids didn't play school or store they played co-op meetings. They would write the agenda, pack up bags, go to meetings..."
The financial model of a housing co-op means that the co-op as a whole mortgages and manages the building, and each tenant pays rent toward the mortgage of the building. Most housing co-ops are not-for-profit, so the cost of rent is determined by the cost of the mortgage. Typically, this cost is much lower than the usual renter market in any given community as the goal is cost recovery and not profit. Housing co-ops are entering into a transition period.
"For many of the co-op housing groups, they are coming at the end of their mortgages period. They got very long mortgages, way back when in the 1970s. They had very long mortgage periods -- some 35 to 40 years. Now they are coming to the end of that time, the end of the operating agreement. They will no longer have the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Association overseeing the activities. Once the mortgages are up, they will be on their own."
In speaking with a resident they noted that, "we've been like teenagers living in the basement of our parents house -- paying a little rent to mom and dad. Now they're moving out and the whole place is ours and we get to make all the decisions and pay all the bills and are we prepared to be responsible for this multi-billion dollar enterprise?"
Co-ops are primarily governed through the board, elected by the membership as whole. Individual co-ops are run by adopted bylaws and policies that are then implemented and regulated through the co-op members. In Canada, co-ops are regulated through three means: The co-op act for their province or territory, the human rights legislation for their province or territory, and the principles of natural justice. As well, all co-ops must be first incorporated and are subject to those regulations as well. They are clearly defined housing entities and are subject to various obligations.
For Brennan, this experience "has been an interesting journey for me. Mostly because I entered into it not knowing much about co-op housing or community living. It was good to get a sense of why people choose that kind of living as opposed to the more conventional where they buy a single family residence in the suburbs. It has been an interesting voyage of discovery for me."
Each province has a different system of co-operative housing, and the Artist in Residence project will provide first hand experiences to showcase the various aspects of co-op housing in our region.
Jennifer Prosser is currently the Office and Communications Coordinator for Womanspace Resource Centre, and a freelance writer based in Lethbridge, Alberta.