Published: 03 December 2012
Extracted chapter from Griffiths, David (Ed.) Co-operators - Co-operation and Co-operatives, Southeast Housing Co-operative Ltd, 2012, pp 52-54.
An extract from a report from a study tour to visit Co-operatives and peak organisations involved in the Canadian Co-operative Housing movement in August 2008. The tour was conducted between August 18 and August 29 2008.
Co-operative housing is far more developed in Canada than in Australia.
There are over 90,000 co-operative homes across Canada owned and managed by over 2000 co-operatives. The scale size and operational models do vary across the different provinces (States).
The origins of co-operative housing in Canada date back to the early sixties but certainly had widespread support and rapid growth throughout the seventies and early eighties. Unlike Australia the initial impetus for the development of co-operatives came from a broad range of different interest groups rather than from a government initiative. It also should be noted that there were two strong and complementary driving forces behind the emergence of co-operative housing, the desire for affordable housing provision and also a lobby for a genuine alternative to private ownership. The strong support for co-op housing from the credit union movement, other existing co-operative enterprises and the trade union movement was as much about alternative tenure and consequently viewed as a mainstream housing initiative. The strong support and investment from church or welfare based agencies was probably driven by the desire for affordable housing for the financially disadvantaged.
There were a wide variety of models that developed in a range of different aspects-size, financing models, operating models with some very different patterns emerging in different provinces.
The co-ops vary enormously in size from very small co-ops with a handful of properties to large entities comprising hundreds of properties. The largest single co-op has over 400 members. There were no opinions amongst people I interviewed or any empirical evidence that the size of a co-operative affected the long-term viability of co-operatives.
There were strong advocates of the Canadian model, as it is more in line with the broader principals of co-operatives being autonomy and economic independence. However there are also disadvantages especially in the instance where there have been significant contributions from government, as there are concerns or perceptions of lack of control or potentially financial advantage to the co-operative members.
There are also various models of voluntary contributions by members, employment of staff or more commonly purchasing of services from outside organisations by co-operatives. Again this was an area of differing opinions, but there was general consensus that the employment of co-operative members as staff was problematic, and also that employment of staff by smaller co-operatives often proved difficult with both adequate range of skills and employment conditions being problematic.
The problems of active member involvement sounded very familiar with too much left to too few. People only seeking membership for the housing benefit were also common problems encountered and sounded very familiar. Though it was strongly agreed that education and better strategies for engaging people could be taught to co-ops through well planned and delivered programs.
The Importance of Retaining Core Values
The success of the Canadian movement is based around very strong core values. These are quite simple but must be continually reinforced throughout the sector. Co-operative members understand and are committed to the international principles of co-operation - co-operative members must cooperate.
CEHL as the resource agency must take a lead role in educating co-op members and also training existing members in passing on the co-operative values and practices to new members. The Federations in Canada have developed some excellent training resources and material which are readily available for CEHL to use. There are specific programs developed to address issues common here in Victoria such as participation, sharing workloads, governance, housing management etc.
Co-operatives exist to provide affordable housing. Affordable means rent and charges are within each individual member’s means to pay and that the costs of the housing compares favourably to the costs of private housing in the same market. It does not mean that all co-op houses are provided at a great bargain price for every member.
Security of tenure underpins co-operative housing. Security of tenure is of equal importance to affordability. This means that every co-op member who meets their obligations under their co-operative membership rules and their tenancy agreement will not be required to move from their property involuntarily.
Co-operatives provide other benefits to members beyond affordable and secure housing. Co-operative members should benefit through their membership through involvement in decision-making, mutual support, social networking and opportunities for personal development.
Co-operatives must establish and retain good positive links within their broader communities. Co-operatives must establish themselves within their own communities and broader public arenas. Members should feel proud to be members of their co-operative.
The Canadian models success comes from their development and promotion of co-operatives as a housing choice. Whist it is important to expect co-operatives to provide this choice to needy people in their communities, the success of the Canadian model is that it is not viewed as welfare housing, but rather a housing system that includes, rather than excludes, needy people. There are many financially and socially successful people who make informed decisions to join housing co-operatives, which ensures co-operatives are both financially viable as well as well-managed organisations. Victorian co-operatives should be encouraged to identify needy populations that they wish to include in their co-operatives but not be expected to cater exclusively for high needs people.
John McInerney is the Managing Director of Common Equity Housing Ltd. CEHL is a company owned by 120 voluntary housing co-operatives in Victoria. The company currently owns over 2029 properties that are head-leased to its shareholder co-operatives. The properties are currently valued at over $650 million. John has held a number of senior positions in the community housing field both in the non government and government sector. In 2002 John was appointed Managing Director of Common Equity Housing Ltd. The company has experienced significant growth over the last few years completing a construction program of over 400 dwellings since 2010.