Housing co-ops face tough decisions as subsidies end

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

Frank O’Brien
Van. Courier

Aging B.C. housing co-operatives are in limbo as federal government subsidies end and restrictions limit their options. Ironically, for some of Vancouver’s 108 non-profit housing co-ops, real estate speculation could be the saviour.

There are 264 housing co-operatives in B.C., mostly in Metro Vancouver. About 6,000 Vancouver residents live in co-ops, some of which are located on prime West Side real estate.

The Government of Canada started building co-operative housing in the 1970s and ’80s to provide housing during a crisis in the rental sector, explained Thom Armstrong, executive director of the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC (CHF-BC).

Under the agreement, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. provided co-ops with a subsidy for the entire life of the mortgage, which allowed co-ops to keep rents below market value. For a percentage of members, the subsidy kept rents at 30 per cent of their income. Those people, an estimated 1,600 in Vancouver, include single mothers, new immigrants, people with disabilities and the elderly.

All of the federally-funded co-ops signed operating agreements with CMHC that ran for either 30 or 35 years. Starting this year, those agreements — and the subsidies —  are ending. About 70 per cent will have expired before 2020 and 2017 will be the peak year for agreements to end.

“Housing co-ops face a horrible choice,” Armstrong said if the province, which is now responsible for housing, doesn’t step up with funding. “The co-ops either have to cover the rental subsidy themselves or stop maintaining the asset.”

Armstrong estimates “from $20,000 to $80,000 per door” is needed in upgrades to keep the decades-old structures liveable. “We estimate a total of $400 to $500 million in reinvestment is required,” he said.

Housing co-ops are able to borrow funds to cover such repairs and maintenance, Armstrong said, and realize they will have to raise rents. But, without government assistance, they cannot afford to also continue subsidies for the lowest-income residents, most of whom would be forced out.

© 2015 Vancouver Courier

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