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Calling a new generation of co-op pioneers

September 7, 2011

Last week I said that “everyone loves co-ops.” I am one of those people. I got my first real job in a housing co-op, moved in, met my husband and raised my children in a co-op, and have loved them ever since.

But lately, my affection has been tinged with worry. When I talk to some of my colleagues – smart public servants who have themselves worked in co-op housing — I often hear about co-ops in danger. “The scary thing,” they say, “is that these co-ops’ boards don’t even realize just how close to the edge they are.” My friends wonder aloud whether more and more co-ops will have difficulty sustaining themselves 10 or 15 years from now.

Co-ops are not alone in the challenges they face. All affordable housing – social and private – suffers from aging buildings and chronic under-investment. All social housing will lose its subsidy safety net as mortgages are paid off.

But co-ops are particularly vulnerable. And the tricky thing is, these vulnerabilities are intertwined with co-op housing’s greatest strengths: resident control, small tight-knit communities and a deep sense of history.

The clouds in front of every silver lining

Let’s start with resident control. Co-op members have powers that tenants can only dream of. They own the buildings, set the rents, and make all the big decisions.

But residents are also the only ones who can serve on the co-op’s board of directors. For many co-ops, that leaves a mighty small pool to choose from.

Co-ops were built to create close communities where everyone knows your name. An average sized co-op in Toronto is 110 units; across Canada, it’s closer to 40 units.  The families in these units were brought together, not because they have skills the co-op needs, but mostly because they wanted an affordable home.

Now let’s remember that turnover in successful co-ops is low; in a 30 year old co-op the most able members will have been tapped many times over. Let’s remember that provincial waiting list regulations mean many new members will be fleeing domestic violence and have enough on their plates without volunteering. And let’s remember that, in our busy world, it is always hard to find willing volunteers.

Who does that leave? Maybe 50 people? Or 30? Can this small pool provide the skills needed to oversee a multi-million dollar property?  And will they have the courage to raise their next door neighbours’ rents to invest in infrastructure those neighbours may neither see nor care about?  (If they do, they have more courage than most politicians can muster!)

I think the answer to these questions is “possibly,” but only in the right conditions.

Attracting fresh talent

Volunteer boards – even grass-roots boards with few formal skills – succeed when they are supported by expert staff and advisors, and are fed by innovative ideas.

In the co-op sector, expertise historically came from activists who learned the skills on the job. Some of those activists are still around, but most are in their 50s and 60s and preparing for retirement.

This mass retirement could be an opportunity to revitalize the co-op sector and bring in new skills. But are co-ops positioned to attract new talent?

They can’t offer big money. Like many non-profit organizations, co-ops cannot afford the salaries that governments and the private sector pay. Whether the manager works directly for the co-op, or is part of a property management company, there is simply not much money to pay for the complex array of skills the co-op needs.

Money isn’t everything, of course. Talented people will always be attracted to a good cause. But co-op housing isn’t seen as the cause it once was.

That’s partly because the sector is no longer growing. New development is said to be the “Viagra of the housing sector,” attracting new people, new thinking and new investment.  When government programs changed and new development dried up, so did much of that energy.

It’s partly because co-ops have been saddled with government regulations that don’t suit them.  Co-ops may be autonomous corporations. But the government sees them as part of a tax-funded housing delivery system and regulates them accordingly. Co-op managers are increasingly spending their days on paperwork, not the people they were hired to serve.

But it’s also because co-ops tend to turn to their past, not the present, for inspiration. Co-ops have a proud history, starting with the enduring co-op principles crafted by Britain’s Rochdale Pioneers in 1844.

But what about the exciting things that are happening right here and now? I see the Maytree Foundation’s DiverCity initiative vaulting immigrants into leadership positions. I see The Stop bringing young and old, rich and poor, together through community kitchens and urban agriculture initiatives. I see ideas a-popping at the Centre for Social Innovation. Green initiatives. Accommodating vulnerable people. This is the sort of work that co-ops care about. But I rarely see these innovators partnering with co-ops or even exchanging ideas at conferences.

Movements such as these are attracting the brightest and best. If housing co-ops stand entirely outside them, will fresh talent see co-ops as part of the action, or even know they exist?

Time for the “New Pioneers”

I don’t think the problems facing co-ops are insurmountable. In fact, co-op leaders have been developing great ideas for revitalizing the sector. In the next couple of weeks I hope to profile some of these ideas.

But I do believe co-op housing’s continued success depends on everyone who lives and works in co-op housing – not just the leadership – being ready to try out new ways of doing things.

And who knows?  Perhaps years from now, co-op members will fondly recount tales of the “Pioneers of 2012” who set the course for co-op housing’s next 30 years.

Friends and colleagues – both inside and outside the co-op sector:

Is there a problem? And is it the problem I think it is?

And where do you think co-op housing should head next?

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