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The end of an era: Raising the alarm on co-op subsidies

She was a single mom with a little baby, living in a one-bedroom basement suite before an affordable option to live in a bright, two-bedroom townhouse-style home in a co-op at the Quay came along.
Christine McKenzie van Kalsbeek
Safe house: Christine McKenzie van Kalsbeek moved into the Westminster Landing Co-op in 1998 and relied on a federal subsidy for her first six years there. She fears the federal government's plans to end subsidies for co-ops will mean vulnerable residents will lose their housing.

She was a single mom with a little baby, living in a one-bedroom basement suite before an affordable option to live in a bright, two-bedroom townhouse-style home in a co-op at the Quay came along.

Once she got into the comfortable new space at the Westminster Landing Co-op, Christine McKenzie van Kalsbeek relied on a federal subsidy program to help her make ends meet. She wasn't employed at the time, but she was going to school to become an education assistant.

Having that subsidy enabled her to go to school and eventually become employable. Today, the mother-of-two earns enough as an education assistant to push her over the threshold, but having that subsidy when she needed it made the difference between a life of poverty for her and the kids and a way out.

"Who knows what I'd be doing right now?" McKenzie van Kalsbeek says, when she thinks about the years, from 1998 to 2004, that she relied on the subsidy.

Now, McKenzie van Kalsbeek is concerned about what will happen to the approximately one-third of British Columbia co-op residents who will be without the subsidy when federal agreements to provide them come to an end over the next five years.

McKenzie van Kalsbeek, who is the president of her co-op, says they are only now learning about the fact that the government subsidies are slated to run out.

For her co-op that end date isn't until 2019, but she worries about what it will mean for the 16 per cent of co-op members in her 84-unit building who rely on the subsidy to survive.

Those people include single mothers, new immigrants, people with disabilities and the elderly.

The history

The Government of Canada started building co-operative housing in the 1970s and '80s as a way to provide housing during a crisis in the rental sector, explains Thom Armstrong, executive director of Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C.

"That's going to sound pretty familiar because analysts are going to describe the same thing today," he says.

At the time, not enough rental units were being built because it wasn't profitable for developers to build them. The housing that was being built wasn't affordable for a big chunk of the population, so the co-op programs came along as the result of a federal government decision to get involved in providing community-based housing where the market wasn't, Armstrong says.

The result: Mixed communities, where some people would pay the full break-even rent and others would receive a subsidy based on their income, so they wouldn't end up paying more than 30 per cent of their gross income toward their housing.

"CMHC (Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation) was actually a leader at the time of finding innovative ways of financing social housing. They lent the money themselves," Armstrong says. "They insured private mortgages, and all of the co-ops that were funded under those federal programs signed operating agreements with CMHC that ran for either 30 or 35 years."

The operating agreement stated that the housing corporation would provide co-ops with a subsidy for the entire life of the agreement, which would help the co-op make up the difference for some of its members.

"What the government was really doing was creating a community-based delivery system for affordable rental housing, which as a model for a government investment in housing was a screaming success, because co-op operating costs are cheaper than public housing or non-profit housing," he says.

But those operating agreements are set to end for the 13,000 co-op homes provincewide, and one-third of those homes is estimated to receive a subsidy.

In New West, there are a total of 417 families living the city's nine co-ops. Based on the provincial averages, that means about 150 homes receive subsidies, according to Armstrong.

"It's a conservative number," he adds. "(That's) 150 families who depend on a monthly subsidy from the federal government to make their housing charges affordable."

The hope

When the government subsidies across Canada come to an end, the federal government is slated to save $1.7 billion annually, Armstrong says.

There's no denying that's a lot of savings for the government. But the issue remains: Who is going to pick up the slack?

Armstrong's agency wants to work with the provincial and federal governments to find a solution.

"We think the federal government should just leave the money on the table, not reverse the withdrawal of those funds and transfer enough of the resources to the provinces to make it viable for the provinces to fund a re-supplement program for those co-op members," he says.

His group is just beginning discussions with B.C. Housing, Armstrong says.

"To their credit they (the province) haven't said no," he adds. "They said, 'We fully understand this is a problem, we just haven't fully worked out a solution for it yet.'"

The other challenge for co-ops is the fact that many have had to take on new debt to maintain aging buildings. 

"It's going to be a very rare co-op that can serve that new debt and also provide low enough housing charges for low-income members, and that's a choice you just don't want people to be forced to make," Armstrong says.

The government

The CMHC mortgage subsidies for social housing providers were long-term agreements – 25 years and up – and when they end, the federal government says it will have fulfilled its commitments to co-ops.

The mortgages on the properties are expected to be paid off, which the government says would mean many housing groups could continue to provide affordable housing to low-income members.

The office of Minister of State for Social Development Candice Bergen declined to be interviewed for this story, but emailed a statement to The Record.

"Our government has made record investments to ensure low-income families and vulnerable Canadians have access to quality affordable housing," she notes in the statement. "With respect to the agreements, once the mortgages are paid off, there is no longer a mortgage to subsidize. We are committed to ongoing engagement with the provinces and territories who have primary jurisdiction over these areas."

A backgrounder from her ministry notes that provinces can use funding provided under the Investment in Affordable Housing to assist housing groups, and the Economic Action Plan 2013 pledged a further $1.25 billion to renew the federal government's investment in affordable housing.

As well, the province and feds announced a $30-million boost to social housing last week, but no word yet on whether it will go toward co-op subsidies.

The waiting game

Meanwhile, McKenzie van Kalsbeek says many co-op families aren't even aware of the impending cuts.

"A lot of people don't know. It's still very hush. It's very, very quiet," she says.

Asked if she is surprised that there are no plans in place to carry on the subsidies by either level of government, McKenzie van Kalsbeek says no.

"Probably a year or two ago I would have been surprised, but now I'm not ... because of the climate of the government - the two of them," she says. "It seems that they're moving further away from social programs."

As for her co-op's waitlist, McKenzie van Kalsbeek says there is a currently a single mother with a daughter who is eager to get into a two-bedroom at the Westminster Landing Co-op - eager, so that she can, just like McKenzie van Kalsbeek before her, find a suitable home to build a life for her and her child.