Photo from Alder Bay Co-op’s 40th anniversary celebration

What is a co-op, anyway?

The short answer: A housing co-op is a form of affordable home ownership.

Co-ops are for people who choose modest housing with a rich community life.  They can have up to 3 bedroom units (or, in some co-ops, up to 4) depending on family size. Co-ops are not communal.  Each member has a private self-contained unit, and there’s usually common space with a kitchen for social events and meetings.

How does it work?

Each member owns a share which entitles them to live in a housing unit, usually an apartment or townhouse.  They don’t own the unit and they don’t accrue equity.  There’s no financial investment apart from an initial, small share purchase amount.   When the member leaves the co-op, their share is re-paid minus any unit repair costs.  While joining a co-op is not an investment opportunity, its members enjoy the security of a home for as long as the co-op exists.

How is a co-op managed?

Co-ops are governed by the B.C. Co-operative Act.  Co-ops on leased land also have to abide by the terms of the lease. Most  were built in the mid 1970s-80s and had, or have, Operating Agreements with CMHC, which provided help in the form of some initial building funds and low cost mortgages. These Operating Agreements will end by 2021, and many have already ended.

Each co-op has a Board of Directors and Finance, Buildings and Grounds, and Membership Committees.  These are hard-working groups that govern the internal policies of the co-op, manage the budget and oversee the long term maintenance of buildings and grounds.  There are often other committees such as: social, newsletter, children’s garden, sustainability, emergency planning and long term planning. Members are encouraged to participate in the running of the co-op through one of the committees or special projects.

Who can join a co-op?

Most co-ops in False Creek South have waiting lists, sometimes spanning 5 years or even longer. (We need more co-op spaces!)

Membership openings are advertised either on the co-op website or the CHF B.C. (Co-op Housing Federation of B.C.) website. Older co-ops tend to be very affordable because their initial leases and/or mortgages have been paid or mostly paid off.

Co-ops use a mixed-income policy regarding member income which includes the potential of subsidy or housing charge assistance for lower income members.  Most co-ops define a basic income level to enter (as the subsidy funds are limited) and some co-ops also have income caps. However, if members’ income declines (such as on retirement), their housing charges may be reduced.  Subsidized members are income-tested anonymously by the co-op management company.  In False Creek South, about 30% of members are subsidized. Some co-ops provide housing charge assistance for low income members with higher housing charges for higher income members.

Who decides the size of unit for co-op members?

Co-ops try to “rightsize”- that is, to match members to the size of unit appropriate to that family. This is relatively straightforward with new applicants where assigning a unit follows a known ratio of the number of bedrooms to the number of people. But as existing families grow or contract, it’s not always possible to ensure the same ratio at any given time.  In many co-ops there are not enough one bedroom units for empty nesters because the co-ops were built primarily for families.  For this reason several False Creek co-ops would like to infill with new units, and/or construct new co-op buildings with more one bedroom units, thereby freeing up the larger suites to be filled again by families.

– Nancy Hannum (Alder Bay Co-op)