A Victoria co-op offers 3 bedrooms for $1,000 a month — if you can get past the wait list
Housing co-ops like this one are a popular solution to the affordability crisis in other countries
For at least one family in Greater Victoria, housing affordability isn't an issue. Nicole Cardinal and her husband pay $1,010 a month for their family of four's three-bedroom townhouse.
In a region where the average one-bedroom rental is $2,073 a month, Cardinal's living situation might seem unattainable to many. And it is — she lives in the Marigold Housing Co-op, which has a five-year wait list for applicants.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
Around the world, there are models — some, like Marigold, are already in place on a smaller scale on Vancouver Island — that experts say could go a long way toward increasing affordability for those struggling to find affordable housing.
In B.C., there are only 269 co-ops with about 15,300 units. Demand for a place — as witnessed by the five-year wait list at Marigold, Vancouver Island's largest and oldest co-op — has soared in recent years.
If you can get in, it's one of the most affordable places to live in B.C.
Co-op president Jay Watts says that how much each resident pays each month is determined by the co-op's overall expenses and the household's income level.
Once co-op members determine how much the mortgage, bills for water and sewage, and other expenses will cost the non-profit for the year, they divide that number by the 86 units to get the average co-op fee per household that year. For Cardinal, the monthly rental fee is $1,010.
Residents with lower incomes, like retirees on fixed incomes, pay subsidized rates as low as $600 a month.
Cardinal first moved into the Marigold Housing Co-op five years ago. She and her husband were about to have their second child, and they were drawn to the co-op because of its reputation for affordability and a sense of community.
They had to buy shares to move in, similar to a deposit that is fully refunded when moving out. The share price varies based on the size of the unit, from $3,110 for a two-bedroom space to $5,120 for four-bedroom townhouses.
Living in a co-operative is different from traditional renting or homeownership. Residents pitch in to operate services and maintenance. Getting along with neighbours in co-op housing can have high stakes, as residents may have to also work alongside them.
"We all own the co-operative jointly and therefore are responsible for running it jointly," Cardinal said.
"So nothing gets done around the co-operative without the work of members, whether it's fixing a fence, whether it's putting on a social event, whether it's having your gutters cleaned … it doesn't run unless the members make it run."
A 300-person wait list
The application process has grown increasingly competitive over the last three years, according to Watts. Only two or three members leave a year, and about 300 applicants are currently on Marigold's wait list.
Marc Lee, a senior economist for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said that most non-market and social housing — such as co-ops — were built before the 1990s when federal and provincial budget cuts halted investment in this type of housing. Currently, non-market affordable housing makes up just four to five per cent of B.C.'s housing stock.
Models such as co-ops and other non-market housing have been implemented internationally to ease the financial burden of housing on residents. Countries like Austria have seen success from embracing widespread social housing and co-op infrastructure, according to Oxford associate professor Alexander Vasudevan.
About 60 per cent of Vienna residents live in subsidized housing, and almost half of the housing market is made up of publicly-owned or co-operatively-owned apartments which charge below market rent.
Finland is 15 years into a "Housing First" strategy, which aims to house everyone in the country by 2027 through the creation of permanent subsidized housing and social support.
Juha Kahila, the head of international affairs for the Y-Foundation—a social housing provider and the fourth largest landlord in Finland — said that this strategy has reduced homelessness by 80 per cent since the 1980s and is expected to save the government €15,000 ($21,500 Cdn) per person a year.
Since 2017, B.C. has seen a resurgence of co-op housing due to provincial funding, according to Thom Armstrong, CEO of the Co-op Housing Federation of B.C.
The federation's community land trust has been able to open seven new co-ops since 2015, amounting to 1,143 new homes in co-ops across B.C. Armstrong says the Rental Protection Fund announced last month that will enable non-profits to buy older rental buildings could allow for a further expansion of co-ops.
However, he says this emergence of new co-ops has yet to be fully realized on the Island. Although there are two new co-ops planned for North Cowichan, the investment in new co-ops doesn't approach that of the years prior to the 1990s.
"It's hard to get affordable housing built these days," Armstrong said, due to a lack of land and money.
Andy Yan, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University and an expert in urban housing, says increased co-op housing could be an important tool to help alleviate the housing crisis.
"I think it's particularly geared toward an income bracket that is, unfortunately, not addressed in a lot of non-market housing," he said. "We're talking about people with a stable income who are locked out of market housing."
He says co-op housing could offer some relief to working and middle-income residents who have found themselves priced out of renting and homeownership in recent years. This type of housing can be an alternative to ownership while still offering more stability than renting, Yan says.
Access to subsidized housing through her co-op has allowed Cardinal and her family to explore opportunities they might otherwise have been unable to afford. She and her husband are both able to work part time and have more time for their two young daughters instead of putting them in child care.
"Rather than investing in housing, we've been able to invest in our children's upbringing," she said. "That's a decision that we will always be happy that we made."