Could co-op housing make a comeback?

A local co-operative housing advocate is thrilled that the recent federal budget included some major commitments to affordable housing. Now, he says, the real work begins

March 31, 2016

By Max Fawcett

If the donning of a new pair of shoes is the most common budget-related ritual in Canadian politics, then complaining that its contents didn’t meet your particular group or organization’s needs has to be a very close second. So it was for the Trudeau government’s first budget, as interest groups from coast to coast—many of whom will receive substantial increases in funding from it—lined up to do their best impression of Oliver Twist in the soup line. That is, with one notable exception: the co-operative housing space. Thom Armstrong, the executive director of the Co-Operative Housing Federation of British Columbia, seems positively delighted by the contents of the recent federal budget and what they might mean for co-operative housing in this city. “The most significant thing, once you get past the numbers, is that the federal government is actually re-engaged in a significant way in housing,” he says. “That’s something that’s been absent for the better part of two decades. So that’s the real news, as far as we’re concerned.”

The federal government disengaged, he says, back in the early 1990s, when deficit reduction was the top priority in the land and Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Finance Minister Paul Martin were slashing everything in sight. Any hopes that their string of balanced budgets would lead to a more constructive conversation around funding for co-operative housing ended when Stephen Harper’s conservatives were elected, first to a minority in 2006 and then a majority in 2011. “The federal government, at least for the last decade, has been bound and determined that it has no role in housing other than to meet its existing contractual commitments on those legacy programs,” Armstrong says. “Other than the targeted homelessness expenditures and the affordable housing initiative transfers, which were pretty modest, there hasn’t been any hope that there could be a coordinated approach with much impact.”

That changed with the Trudeau government’s first budget, which was highlighted by a $30-million commitment to near-term support (in the form of rent assistance) for low-income co-operative housing residents. It also promised to double the funds transferred to the provinces through the Affordable Housing Initiative and support energy and water efficiency retrofits in existing social housing facilities. But the biggest item of all might be the pledge to offer low-cost loans to those building new affordable rental housing. “That’s got a $500 million per year allocation for at least five years,” Armstrong says, “so there’s $2.5 billion that could be made available to municipalities and housing developers to get new affordable rental housing projects up.”

Equally important, he says, is the $208 million that the government is allocating over five years to what it’s calling an Affordable Rental Housing Innovation Fund, something that hasn’t happened since the last Trudeau became prime minister. “To find something like that in a federal budget, you have to go all the way back to 1968, when they actually put $200 million into an innovation fund. And from that fund actually came the pilot projects that resulted in what we now know as the co-op and non-profit housing sector in Canada. If this innovation fund could spawn anything like that stimulus of new ideas and new models, it would have a profound impact.”

The key, Armstrong says, is that other levels of government not see the federal government’s re-entry into the affordable housing conversation as an opportunity for them to exit. If anything, he says, the cities need to match their offer. “The municipalities have to come to the table not just with land on reasonable terms but reasonable zoning requirements and an attempt to cut the red tape that currently makes development so risky and so time-consuming. In the projects we have under construction right now in Vancouver, through the community land trust, we spent close to $5 million before we even had the first shovel hit the ground.” After all, innovation fund or not, that sort of up-front sticker shock is going to make it difficult to add much in the way of new supply to the city’s stock of affordable housing.

Still, Armstrong isn’t in the mood to pick nits right now. He’s just happy the federal government is back in the game and ready to play. “Everybody gets frustrated, and everybody thinks that no amount of money is ever enough. If you’re a housing advocate, it’s your job to say that it’s not enough. We practice that all the time. But what I’ve been saying to anybody who’s asked is that this is a 20-year hole we’ve dug for ourselves, and you don’t dig yourself out of a 20-year hole in one budget. So there’s $2.3 billion over two years from the federal government that wasn’t there yesterday. Now we have to make the best use of it.”

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