November 28th, 2011
The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto right now is $1,532. Betty Hodgkins pays $896. Her building has an outdoor gazebo, regular euchre nights, holiday lunches and dance lessons, plus free ESL classes for residents who want to improve their English.
The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $2,037. David Demchuk pays $971. His place is a 15-minute walk from the subway, and also a quick stroll from the Eaton Centre or Riverdale Park. The 254-unit complex has a small but decent gym, two computer labs and a shared vegetable garden.
Affordable housing, in a city with a 1.6-per-cent vacancy rate, seems ever more endangered. Earlier this month, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation announced a plan to raise funds by selling off over 700 city-funded properties. But as Ms. Hodgkins and Mr. Demchuk can attest, there is another model for mixing market and subsidized units: housing co-operatives, or co-ops. It, too, however, faces the threat of extinction.
Like many people responding to ads for co-op apartments, Mr. Demchuk didn't exactly know what he was signing up for. “I thought everybody had to be on a committee, that we all had to do a certain amount of work per month,” says Mr. Demchuk, who moved into Bleecker, one of the city's 150 co-ops, a decade ago. That's not how Bleecker works. It's a co-op because every person, regardless of his or her housing cost, is a member with an equal say on all decisions, from financing to decor. No one has to volunteer to take out the recycling – all of the day-to-day work at the Cabbagetown complex is done by paid staff. The property is owned by the co-op as a whole, meaning every member is an owner, although they can't make a profit when they move.
Bleecker gives priority to people who are HIV positive. At Almise, the Don Mills co-op where Ms. Hodgkins resides, the apartments are meant for those 59 and older, and some are fitted with wide hallways and low countertops to accommodate wheelchairs.
Half of the people who live in both co-ops are charged just 30 per cent of gross income. “I can see some people might find that challenging,” says Mr. Demchuk, a radio writer at the CBC, about subsidizing other members, “but that mix is vital to who we are.” Both he and Ms. Hodgkins are market renters, meaning that their monthly rent covers the full costs of their personal space as well as investments in a reserve fund and part of the supplement received by fellow residents.
Nadia, a full-time York University student who lives at Bleecker, pays about $100 a month for a three-bedroom unit for herself and her two children. “This is completely different than where my friends live – the cleanliness, the interactions with staff,” says the 27-year-old. “I am never leaving this place. It's warm and welcoming and safe.” Because no one is making a profit off of their payment, market renters get a break, too: for Ms. Hodgkins, a similar accessible unit at the seniors' home down her street starts at $3,000 a month.
The housing model's popularity is reflected in the fact that none of the city's co-ops has subsidized units available. At Almise, the waitlist is eight years long. Bleeker has a waiting list for a market-rent unit of about 18 months.
Despite this, co-op development has almost ground to a halt. Only one co-op – 60 Richmond St. E. – has been established in the last decade.
The late 1970s through the early 1990s were the heyday of co-ops in Toronto. Buoyed by different grants, loans and tax incentives, people put their minds to the goal of member-run affordable housing. All co-ops were able to pad their rent subsidies with help from one of the three levels of government.
Now, the city's co-ops are trying to figure out what to do when those funding programs end. Some federal operating agreements will finish as soon as 2015, and all of Canada's co-ops will have a financial reckoning by 2035.
“All levels of government are running and hiding now,” says Tom Clement, executive director of the Co-op Housing Federation of Toronto. The federation has chosen 2020 as the target date for lobbying governments and figuring out how buildings can become financially independent. Market rents could rise dramatically. Mr. Demchuk worries that other co-ops will be forced to switch to a for-profit condominium model, but says Bleecker is committed to keeping its subsidized units.
Continuing to maintain that mix should be less trouble for Almise, which recently got new appliances for all its members, and Bleecker, which got all-new balconies and roofs five years ago. The two co-ops are exceptionally well maintained, but others have trouble attracting the market renters they need to balance their budgets. Market renters won't settle for dirty hallways or leaky windows.
Money is often a worry, even for co-ops that take good care of their reserve funds. The board of directors at Almise is trying to figure out how to afford replacing the underground garage. The long-term maintenance review had it scheduled for 2021, but it's deteriorated much faster. “I fear we'll use most of our reserve money to replace it,” says Heather Fralick, president of the board. Unlike a condominium, co-ops aren't legally allowed to ask each member to pony up an equal share of what unforeseen repairs will cost. Almise is subsidized by the City of Toronto, so it's ineligible for federal or provincial housing grants, and the city has said it has no money to help.
When 2020 hits, some co-ops could decide to eliminate the subsidized units where about 800 Toronto families currently live. That would be a blow not just to affordable housing, but to a way of life.
“The best move I made was moving into this place,” says Ms. Hodgkins, who considered a condo when she could no longer live in a house. “Everyone is friendly and knows each other. All of my friends who visit me here have applied to get in.”