Celebrating the co-operative legacy of equality for Women’s History Month

  9 March 2021

CHF BC recognizes the contributions of its leaders and staff, both past and present, and the role of co-ops in supporting women across the province

The Co-operative Housing Federation of BC stands with countless organizations and individuals around the world in honouring the exceptional accomplishments of women as we celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month.

CHF BC is proud to be part of a sector that places equality at the centre of its mission and values. These values are firmly rooted in the seven co-op principles. Since its inception, co-op housing has been a place where women can feel safe physically, financially and socially. This provides a foundation from which they can flourish and succeed. As the organization representing housing co-ops across the province, CHF BC has worked to further these gains. We support the cause of gender equality through training, education and employment opportunities.

Women have been part of CHF BC’s staff and leadership structure since the organization’s beginnings nearly 40 years ago. Today, 54% of CHF BC’s workforce and 71% of its management team are female, while more than half (58%) of the CHF BC board of directors is female.

Today, we’re shining a spotlight on some of our extraordinary leaders of the IWD 2021 campaign Choose to Challenge.

Isabel Evans and Suzann Zimmering

Isabel Evans and Suzann Zimmering are two women who have been challenging the status quo and paving the path to justice and equality for several decades now. In 1980 Zimmering and her partner were living in their apartment at 7th Avenue and Quebec Street in Vancouver when the owner informed tenants of a planned 65% rent increase. Instead, the residents banded together and purchased the building, turning it into The Manor Housing Co-op.

Inspired by the experience, Zimmering started attending CHF BC and CHF Canada meetings. She took advantage of the education opportunities and became a certified instructor in the co-op and non-profit housing sectors alongside her work in arts administration.

“I learned more in one week through CHF than I did in two years of teacher training,” Zimmering recalled. “It empowered me to give back while at the same time continuing to do what I loved. When I started with [CHF] it was like I came home; I was working on something that was important to me. My voice was heard, and there were opportunities for me that I never would have imagined.”

In the early 1990s, Zimmering was a founding trustee and chair of the Community Housing Land Trust Foundation when the Community Land Trust took in its first six housing co-operatives. About 20 years later, the Community Land Trust has been at the forefront of ushering in a new wave of co-op development in Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island. Zimmering has served four terms on the CHF BC Board of Directors and is currently the Board President. She has also served on the boards of COHO Management Services Society, CHF Canada and the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association.

Isabel Evans recalled moving into the Granville Gardens Housing Co-op in 1987 as a single mother and being struck by the strong female leadership in the co-op sector at the time.

“I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve never been in any organization when I’ve seen so many really strong women.’ So that really encouraged me to become more active in my own co-op and eventually to run for election to the CHF BC Board of directors,” Evans said. Since then she has served two terms on the CHF BC board, and was Board President from 2012 to 2014; she has also served on the CHF Canada board.

During her CHF BC tenure, Evans helped spur a resurgence in the Community Land Trust to begin planning some of the first new co-ops after a nearly 20-year drought. She helped lobby against the downloading of responsibility for housing co-ops from CMHC to the provinces, and worked to steer CHF BC to an outward-looking growth strategy that included cross-sector partnerships with non-profit housing providers Terra, Sanford Housing and Tikva. It was during this time that CHF BC moved to its current offices on Commercial Drive, which would later pave the way for the Housing Central partnership with BC Non-Profit Housing Association.

“We’re stronger together, and we all had the same visions of providing well-maintained, safe, affordable housing,” Evans said. “CHF BC is one of the strongest federations within the co-op sector, and I think it’s due to the leadership of the strong staff we have. It’s very forward-thinking…and visionary.”

Evans credits her move into a housing co-op for many of the opportunities that later opened up to her, citing the education, leadership succession planning and sense of inclusivity that helped propel her forward. “When I moved in I was a single parent with an almost 10-year-old son. I don’t know what would have happened to us if I wasn’t fortunate enough to be here. It’s a great community to be part of – it’s more like having an extended family. And one of the great things about a housing co-op is that members have a voice – anything that goes on in their housing, the members make the decision.”

Cassia Kantrow and Catherine Haynes-Porter

Cassia Kantrow (Trout Lake Housing Co-op) and Catherine Haynes-Porter (Pine Ridge Housing Co-op) have also been instrumental figures in shaping today’s housing co-op landscape.

Kantrow, a member of CHF BC’s board from 2014 to 2020 and its President from 2017 to 2020, took the revived enthusiasm for housing co-ops and put the momentum into overdrive, solidifying the Housing Central partnership, cementing the Community Land Trust as a prominent player in the development community and setting a growth agenda for co-ops as CHF BC eyes a national movement of Community Land Trusts.

“So much happened in the six years I was on the board, the trajectory was like this,” Kantrow said, with an upward swoop of her arm.

Strengthening the Community Land Trust aligned with emerging support for affordable housing from all levels of government, and it was Kantrow’s business acumen – she’s a certified management accountant – that guided the restructuring of CHF BC to be in a better position to take advantage of new opportunities for the co-op sector.

“We underwent a more business-like approach to things like strategic planning, the organizational functioning, we worked on the alignment of operations with the management structure and we reduced the number of board meetings so that we could be handling more things at once,” Kantrow said. “It’s been a wild ride.” Zimmering also applauded Kantrow’s work in restructuring what was a siloed organization of three entities – CLT, COHO and CHF BC – into a cohesive unit of 118 staff members serving 93% of all housing co-ops in BC, and all working toward the same vision.

Catherine Haynes-Porter’s time on the CHF BC board ran from 2006 to 2012, with a term as President from 2010 to 2012. Thus, it’s no surprise the highlight of her leadership term as acquiring the First Avenue Athletes Village Co-op and serving as an honorary board member to set them up for co-op success. Haynes-Porter also served a term as COHO’s president, furthering the organization’s performance measures and supporting the push for COHO’s property management technology. Her interest in finance led Haynes-Porter to CHF Canada’s audit and finance committee as well, where she helped establish Encasa Financial to further strengthen the co-op sector.

Like their predecessors, Kantrow and Haynes-Porter credited the women who came before them for inspiring their leadership aspirations – and their co-ops and CHF BC for providing opportunities for success.

“In my co-operative, looking at our current board, we’re mostly women,” Haynes-Porter said. “I do think co-ops foster that kind of thing – women see that and think, ‘I can do that too,’ and they’re able to step forward and become leaders in their own right.”

“It’s that security of tenure, and having access to affordable housing – it’s an equalizing platform for women,” Kantrow added, recalling her move to a housing co-op as a single parent. “It meant I had safety and security, and the financial security to build a career and build my life and care for my child. It meant that I ended up as president of the CHF BC board – I couldn’t have done that without having that base, that foundation for not just surviving, but thriving.”