Slow and steady loses the race for affordable housing in hot real estate market
Co-operative housing federation says it's tough competing with big real estate companies
It's a slow, tough slog to get financing for some housing co-operatives in New Brunswick that are trying to expand, while affordable housing stock continues to be sold off and upscaled.
"Trying to develop affordable housing solutions in this market context, it's like a David versus Goliath proposition," said Tim Ross, executive director of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada in Ottawa, and a native of the Fredericton area.
Co-ops and other non-profits are "often being outbid and outmaneuvered," by large real estate companies, said Ross.
"It's really putting the squeeze on low income and working class people."
Thousands of people are on the wait-list for affordable housing in the province. For now they are either paying more than they can afford for housing or living in unsuitable places.
"It's terrible," said Anna Bastarache, manager of the Cornerstone Co-op in Moncton.
"I get people calling here so many times looking for places. I even have people show up at the door with their children in hand and crying for an affordable place."
Cornerstone was built in the 1980s. It has 109 townhouses in the Mountain Road area behind the community college. Housing charges range from $875 to $995 a month.
Many of the people who live there work at places like banks, grocery stores or the casino.
Some, like Bastarache, eventually move out after they've been able to save up for their own home.
The waitlist to get a townhouse has about 500 names.
Now, members of the co-op want to build a new 51-unit apartment building to cater to seniors and others who need single-storey living, said Bastarache.
It would free up a number of under-occupied townhouses, she said, for younger families with children.
The co-op has the required land and zoning approval, said Bastarache. They've been meeting with provincial and federal government officials on a regular basis about financing.
She hopes a deal may be finalized by next spring.
Unlike wealthy investors, co-op members, who typically have low to moderate incomes, aren't in a financial position to put their buildings at risk to finance new development, said Ross.
But housing co-ops have proven themselves to be viable businesses. They pay off their mortgages. And according to provincial officials, none in the province has ever failed.
And people like living in co-ops, said Kit Hickey, of Housing Alternatives Inc. in Saint John, because they're well maintained and only some units are subsidized, avoiding the social stigma of living in a housing project that is fully subsidized.
Housing Alternatives helps develop and manage non-profit housing in southwestern New Brunswick, including the Unified Saint John co-op.
"It's a challenge for us because we don't have any equity," said Hickey.
But this year, Unified Saint John was able to open a new 14-unit building on Victoria Street, she said, bringing its total complement to 294.
It took about two years to secure the financing through provincial and federal government programs, she said, and another year for construction.
Unified Saint John would gladly acquire more properties, said Hickey, if it had quicker access to 100 per cent financing.
It's in a good position to expand, she said, because its amalgamation of nine separate co-ops has been "extremely successful."
They saved a lot of money on things like insurance and if they ever have vacancies — a rare occurrence these days — it's a relatively small hit to their revenues.
Hickey thinks there's "absolutely" potential for other co-ops in the province to do the same.
Ross said the 13 housing co-operatives in New Brunswick have a total of 830 units.
They are located in Saint John, Moncton, Riverview, Dieppe, Shediac, Sackville, Tracadie, Miramichi, Fredericton, Woodstock and St. Stephen.
According to the Department of Social Development, the average provincial government support to co-ops that are still paying off mortgages is $4,500 to $5,230 per unit a year.
The department said that to build new government-owned housing projects these days would cost up to $160,000 per unit.
Ross said the province could use hundreds or thousands more units in co-ops and other types of non-profit housing "to provide affordability and choice for renters in low-income households."
Unified Saint John plans to keep expanding, said Hickey.
They are hoping for a funding commitment in the next year, she said.
But she's reluctant to talk about any specific plans because she can't afford to get into a bidding war with private investors.
Ross pointed to another way to build more co-op housing that's happening now in Nova Scotia.
Several co-ops partnered with municipalities, he said, to build affordable housing in a parking lot in downtown Halifax, an old school in Digby and a former library in Shelburne.
The federal Liberals promised during the election campaign that they would boost investment in co-op and non profit housing by $2.7 billion over four years.