CO-HOUSING COULD USE SOME HELP: How community associations and governments can assist

Recently, groups seeking to live in collective housing arrangements have been springing up across the country. They may be seniors who want social contact and the security of having friends and supports nearby as they age. They may be young people, living far from parents and grandparents, who want to raise their children in a supportive context. Many also want to reduce their environmental footprint and share resources like autos, bicycles and lawn mowers. They may like eating and socializing together. The extent of communalism varies with the preferences of the group. 

Statistics Canada  points out that social support systems help people be happier. They reduce social isolation and loneliness, improve mental health and practical wellbeing. Collective living arrangements provide these support systems and can enhance the effectiveness of community infrastructure and services. 

Given the tangible benefits, we see groups of all ages pursuing a range of options from individual ownership with common facilities; to shared ownership;  to collectively-owned or managed rental housing. There are groups (iGen) seeking intergenerational mutual support living arrangements.  There are of groups of seniors living in the same building or neighbourhood, who want to manage their own services. They want to save money and increase efficiency by for example, arranging for personal support workers to serve several members. There are groups organized to recruit students or other young people to rent rooms in seniors’ homes, possibly providing some service in return for reduced rent. 

In this paper, I use co-housing to describe all such collective arrangements, although the groups themselves would probably make some distinctions.

But the going is tough. Only a minority of groups achieve their visions, and in those instances, the members who hang on and succeed are often far outnumbered by the ones who abandoned the effort along the way. 

Inefficient use of present housing stock

Canadians often occupy housing which exceeds their needs and ability to maintain. On July 19, 2018, the Globe and Mail published data from the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis, indicating that in Ontario, almost two thirds of residents, many of them seniors, are living in houses too big for their needs, leaving 5 million bedrooms empty. Multiply that by three for the country. A huge waste that pushes up the cost of housing. Freeing up this housing for young families, or adapting it to house more people, would materially improve our housing situation and increase the effectiveness of our public infrastructure. It would help those who would like to extract the equity in their large homes and buy or rent a smaller unit. But they want to stay in their community, have a home appropriate to their needs, have friends nearby, and maybe some support in daily living. 

Given the housing needs and objectives of cities to densify and reduce the environmental burden, if co-housing were to become commonly available in the country, it could have really positive effects for people and communities. 

But the movement is precarious.

Unfortunately housing developments tend to be oriented to individual household units and are the domaine of developers. Designing and building collective housing with the democratic participation of the consumers, is a process fraught with difficulty.

Self-organized co-housing groups often disintegrate because the challenges are just too much for a small group who may share compatible goals but are in different life circumstances. Their lack of development experience, and the smaller scale of their projects, may also result in costs that exceed their capacity.

Politicians talk a lot about “affordable housing” and promise to spend gobs of money on it. But these efforts are usually directed at lists of financially dependent clients, often with multiple special needs.

Co-living arrangements (sharing the same house) tend to be transitory, and like other collective efforts, are difficult to co-finance. Banks in Canada don’t like that kind of messy ownership, although some of the nordic countries seem to have developed supportive financial instruments. 

The federal government used to encourage and subsidize the formation of nonprofit housing cooperatives. Many of those organizations have thrived for a couple of generations, evidence of the usefulness and adaptability of the co-op model. But the government withdrew from that field a few decades ago. With the exception of a few co-op associations, there is almost no institutional assistance for people who want to reside in a collective context. 

How to Move Forward

What is needed is primarily organizational help and flexible financing tools. Organizing people, providing guidance, and linking stakeholders, consumers and resources, takes time, planning and organizational expertise. 

Community associations are well-placed to encourage co-housing initiatives. With some funding assistance, they could nurture group development, bring the key players together, engage business, developers, financial institutions and governments. They could facilitate agreements between developers and prospective purchaser or tenant groups.

Municipal governments could encourage community associations with organizational support (funding or services), information/communication assistance, planning information and advice, and assistance in communication with other levels of government. Planning approvals could also encourage development applications which are partnerships between developers and co-housing groups.

Banks and other financial institutions could develop lending instruments to support collective projects through mortgages and development funding. There are a few credit unions, such as Desjardins or Vancity, who have developed expertise and financial instruments to help cooperatives. 

Developers or real estate associations could provide architectural models and simulator software which illustrate the kinds of developments or rebuilds possible on different kinds of sites.

Provincial and local governments could integrate health and personal support service facilities into or near co-housing complexes, and encourage collective service arrangements.

At the federal level, CMHC (with Industry Canada and provincial counterparts) could:

  • review and if necessary, adapt the cooperative legal model to improve  flexibility, access to credit, financing,  insurance, etc. 
  • formulate a model business corporation with bylaws which could be adopted by groups wishing to move toward an eventual condo association. The model should provide answers to questions that may arise around the investments required of members along the way, and what security they are provided in the process.
  • provide funding for cooperative associations to provide consulting assistance to community associations, in support of either legal model, and organizational grants to help community associations.
  • within the current low interest loan subsidy program that CMHC provides for the development of rental housing, give priority to development financing applications from co-housing groups, or in partnership with developers.
  • extend the provision of partial equity mortgages (currently restricted to first time buyers) to co-housing initiatives. Partial equity mortgages provide lower than market interest rates in return for offsetting equity in the land and structure, a kind of investment partnership. These investments can be recuperated later when debt loads have proportionately decreased, or upon sale of the property. Perhaps they would fit into the investment portfolio of the Canada Pension Plan. Union pension funds and community foundations might also be willing to consider such investments. 

Health Canada could provide funding for pilot projects to explore different    models and approaches to healthy ageing, combining co-housing and the provision of support services.

Environment Canada could encourage green energy design and technology in these projects.

What interested individuals could do

If you are interested in seeing these initiatives gain momentum you can:

  1. Attend a meeting of your local community association and encourage their involvement.
  2. Contact your political representatives at municipal, provincial and federal levels and ask them to become champions of the concept.
  3. Look online for a local co-housing that you could join, even if you are not intending to move right away. You may be able to help.
  4. Speak to university housing organizations and research centres to encourage their interest. 

Terrance Hunsley is a Senior Fellow with the Pearson Centre, a former Director of the Canadian Council on Social Development and the International Centre for Prevention of Crime, and Fellow of the Queens University School of Policy Studies. He can be reached at terrancehunsley@gmail.com


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