No landlords, more community — why these residents say Calgary needs more housing co-ops

Philip Cox, member of Sunnyhill Housing Co-operative, says many people join the co-op for its affordability and stay for decades because of the community.  (Karina Zapata/CBC - image credit)
Philip Cox, member of Sunnyhill Housing Co-operative, says many people join the co-op for its affordability and stay for decades because of the community. (Karina Zapata/CBC - image credit)

In Calgary's tight and unpredictable rental market, living at Sunnyhill Housing Co-operative has been a saving grace for Philip Cox.

He first moved into the 66-unit townhouse in Calgary's neighbourhood of Sunnyside in 1987. At the time, he was looking for a sense of community; the affordable housing fees and security of tenure were a plus.

Now, 36 years and three children later, Cox says there's a "huge need" for more housing co-ops to be developed in Calgary — especially as waitlists continue to grow for the city's 13 existing ones.

"A lot of us are vulnerable these days and a lot of us could use a bit more security in their housing and this model provides it," said Cox.

Karina Zapata/CBC
Karina Zapata/CBC

A recent report from Rentals.ca noted that listed rentals for two-bedroom units in Calgary jumped 21.4 per cent in the last year to $1,860. Cox pays $1,076 for a three-bedroom unit at Sunnyhill.

"It's the best-kept secret… We don't blow our horn loudly enough about the importance of this model of affordable housing," said Cox. "I'm hoping that our time is coming."

In the 2022 budget, the federal government invested $1.5 billion to build new co-op and rental housing in Canada. One third of that will go toward launching a new co-operative housing development program.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation – the federal agency that will administer the program – said it will be co-designed with the housing sector and more details will be released soon.

How it works

Housing co-operatives are not a new concept. The idea originated in Europe but they have existed in Canada for decades.

They represent something of a middle ground between renting and owning — security of tenure without the often prohibitive cost of a down payment. Members buy shares, equivalent to the cost of a security deposit, instead.

Submitted by Philip Cox
Submitted by Philip Cox

All residents — or, as they prefer to be called, members — co-own, co-manage and help govern the co-op.

"In a sense, we are the landlords and the tenants at the same time," said Cox.

Instead of paying rent for their units, everyone contributes a housing fee to a collective mortgage. With no landlord, their goal is to break even and sustain the co-op, which means they're often much cheaper than market rentals. They also tend to be more stable, because most cannot be sold.

Karina Zapata/CBC
Karina Zapata/CBC

At Sunnyhill, members created a subsidy system, Cox says, for those who have lived in the co-op for longer than a year and are struggling to make ends meet. Members who can afford it pay a small surcharge to pay for the subsidy.

Waitlists of more than two years in Calgary

Alberta is "woefully lacking" in housing co-ops compared to other provinces, according to Brenda Davies, executive director of the Southern Alberta Co-operative Housing Association (SACHA).

And at the same time, demand for them has been growing, she says.

"We are inundated regularly on calls for people wanting to get into house co-operatives and it's sad because there's not any availability. It's very rare that there are any vacancies."

Karina Zapata
Karina Zapata

With a lack of affordable housing, waitlists for Calgary's co-ops are more than two years long, Davies said.

"It's dire," she said about the need for more housing co-op development.

One benefit to creating co-op housing, she says, is that you don't have to start from the ground up — you can convert most residential buildings into one.

She says SACHA is conducting a research study to figure out how they can get things moving. Davies says that likely starts with getting the City of Calgary to recognize co-ops as a viable option to affordability.

In the meantime, Davies is waiting to hear more about the federal government's new program.

"2023 should be the time that some doors might open up."

Creating new models focused on community 

As a long-time member of Prairie Sky Cohousing Co-operative, Sarah Arthurs is working to get more co-ops developed in Calgary — but with a twist.

Prairie Sky is different from other co-ops like Sunnyhill. It's a cohousing model, meaning its priority is community. Arthurs says it's a "lifestyle kind of choice," where the neighbours have weekly dinners and celebratory events.

"People choose to live in cohousing because they want to be connected with the people they are geographically next door to," said Arthurs.

"My hope is to marry what we know about how the social infrastructure of cohousing can support community … with the ownership model of co-ops."

She's looking specifically to buy a 36-unit apartment building and turn it into a co-op with an added aspect of intentional community.

But it doesn't come without its challenges.

"Right now with interest rates coming up, it's becoming dramatically more expensive," said Arthurs. "It's been a real challenge for projects that have been being built in North America over the last two years with supply chain issues."

She says at many levels, it's complicated for a group of amateurs to come together and try to build a new model of housing. But she's committed to a different future for housing in Calgary.