History of Co-op Housing
The housing co-op movement can trace its roots back to where all co-ops eventually can: 1840s Rochdale, England. It was here that a group of weavers had had enough of the high cost and poor quality of goods being sold by shopkeepers. Together, they pooled their resources and were able to open their own shop, providing quality foods at fair prices. In so doing, they set the stage for the co-operative movement.
Housing co-ops in Canada began much the same way they did for the Rochdale weavers. There was a need for safe, affordable housing, and people got together to plan, develop and eventually move into this type of housing. The Antigonish movement in Nova Scotia promoted the earliest forms of housing co-ops, where members came together to build houses for one another.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the co-operative values struck a chord with many students. Some of the earliest housing co-ops in Canada were student housing co-ops, including Campus Co-operative Residence at the University of Toronto, which opened in 1936, and Science ’44 Co-operative, which opened at Queen’s University in 1944. This wave of student housing co-ops continued throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, with co-ops like Neill-Wycik in Toronto sprouting from this era.
The benefits of co-operative housing spread from university and college campuses to the wider public with the opening of Willow Park Housing Co-op in Winnipeg in 1966. Shortly after, in 1968, CHF Canada was formed as a joint initiative of the Canadian Labour Congress and the Co-operative Union of Canada. Its purpose was to encourage the development of housing co-operatives. The heyday of co-op development would begin.
Period of development
The 1970s through to the early 1990s was a period of rapid growth for Canada’s housing co-ops. A combination of government programs and lobbying from CHF Canada produced many of the co-ops that still flourish today.
The 1990s were not a kind decade to co-op housing – or to social programs in general – as austerity and cutbacks were trademarks of governments of this era. Federally and provincially, funding for new development was halted, sometimes even mid-construction.
In Ontario alone, this meant 17,000 units of non-profit and co-op housing slated for construction in 1995 were cancelled. The co-op housing movement was down, but not out.
A new era
The new millenium brought renewed optimism and hope for Canada’s housing co-ops. Important milestones included the opening of Atkinson Co-op in Toronto in 2003, the first conversion of a public housing project to a housing co-op. Blue Heron in Kanata, Ont., opened its doors in 2004, and The Agency for Co-operative Housing was formed in 2005.
In the 2010s, the co-op housing sector continued to find innovative ways to grow and change. In 2015, eight co-ops in Saint John, NB, merged to become the Unified Saint John Housing Co-operative, one of Canada’s largest at 252 units. In 2018, the Community Land Trust in Vancouver announced that it would build over 1,000 affordable homes, including Fraserview, soon to be BC’s largest housing co-op with 410 units.
The launch of Canada’s National Housing Strategy in 2017 brought renewed optimism to the co-operative housing sector. The 10-year, $40 billion National Housing Strategy includes grants and loans to finance the construction of new co-op housing, and continues rent-geared-to-income subsidy funding enabling co-ops to house low-income members.
Housing co-ops will continue to be an important part of Canada’s social fabric for years to come. For more on our history, check out Leslie Cole’s insightful book Under Construction: A History of Co-operative Housing in Canada.