A co-op housing boom

  22 March 2021

  • “Do not underestimate the importance of community building,” Janine Johnston of Fraserview Co-op said. “That is what holds it all together.”
    The smell of fresh paint may still be in the air, but a handful of new Community Land Trust (CLT) housing co-ops are fostering the strong sense of community that co-ops are known for.

    More than just the concrete, bricks and mortar that went into these construction projects, the new co-ops recently completed in South Vancouver’s Fraserview neighbourhood are welcoming individuals and families who have been busy making connections, starting up committees and finding unique ways to get residents involved – even during the pandemic.

    At Fraserview Housing Co-op, Janine Johnston and her family are thrilled to be in a new home that finally feels truly theirs. They have a beautiful view of the Fraser River, complete with nearby walking trails as well as shopping and services, and good friends who live next door. Most importantly, Johnston said, is the sense of security that comes with living in a co-op.

    “We love being able to watch the tugboats go by every day, seeing the herons and the dogs and people walking down below,” said Johnson, who serves on the Co-op Housing Federation of BC (CHF BC) board of directors.

    She and her husband, and their now seven-year-old daughter, moved into Fraserview in November 2018. They had been renting a home in Mount Pleasant and felt frustrated by their inability to improve the energy efficiency of their home, and worried about the risk of the unknown inherent in a rental; moving to the co-op solved both issues.

    Johnston joined the Member Advisory Committee (MAC) and was later elected to the first resident board of directors; she quickly discovered the value of getting involved in her co-op community.

    The group set up a Recycling Committee, and used money earned from refundables to support co-op gatherings that welcomed new residents and made the new building feel like home. The success of that first group has been the catalyst for several new committees, covering everything from kids’ activities to social events, gardening and more.

    “I think we developed a good community feel right at the get go,” Johnston recalled. “People were super keen to build that sense of community – being a co-op definitely attracted people who really wanted that.”

    COVID-19 hasn’t been the only challenge in the co-op’s first few years, said Johnston, particularly during the early days before the elected resident board was in place. “There were so many ideas, and people wanted to move ahead quite quickly. The pace of the co-op growing and managing everybody’s expectations was challenging, but it’s just part of the process.”

    The pandemic has shifted the co-op’s social activities to the virtual world, but Johnston said the Social Committee has done an amazing job at keeping everyone engaged.

    “They’ve had really cool ideas to engage the kids, we’ve had Zoom game nights, singing from balconies, cheering for the essential service workers,” Johnston said. “At Halloween the kids dressed up and paraded across the building, we’ve had gift bags for kids for seasonal events and crafts in the lobby. It’s been great, but it will be wonderful when we can get everyone together for a barbecue again.”

    Johnson’s tip for other new co-ops just getting started is to focus on creating connections within the co-op – even during the pandemic.

    “Do not underestimate the importance of community building,” she said. “That is what holds it all together.”

    Fraserview Housing Co-op is just one of several new developments under the Community Land Trust model in the past few years – and there are more on the way.

    The Community Land Trust (CLT) was first created in the early 1990s as the social purpose real estate development arm of the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC; it acquired six existing co-ops at the time, and then fell quiet until 2014. That’s when partnerships with the City of Vancouver, as well as BC Non-Profit Housing Association, breathed new life into the CLT co-op model with developments across four sites: Fraserview Housing Co-op and Fraserview Towers Co-op, and non-profit housing developments operated by Sanford Housing Society and Tikva Housing Society.

    Fraserview Towers is where new community partnerships have really blossomed, with four apartments dedicated for adults with developmental disabilities or acquired brain injuries who can live independently with support from Community Living Society.

    “That’s a 358-home portfolio on four sites,” said Thom Armstrong, CHF BC CEO. It’s a winning combination for everyone, he added, since municipalities have land but lack development capacity, while CLT has development capacity but no land. “Put those together and you have ready-made communities in co-ops, and we haven’t had that in a long time.”

    Desiree Morin is re-discovering the unique benefits of co-op housing while navigating first-hand the process of building the sense of community that helps a co-op thrive. Morin isn’t new to co-op living – she and her parents lived in the Pacific Heights Housing Co-op while she was a student at UBC – so as she and her husband bounced between rentals throughout Vancouver they knew a co-op would offer a greater sense of security.

    “We really wanted to be part of a community…and it’s a great way to also have a more affordable place to live,” Morin said. “There’s definitely a sense of ownership with a co-op, in that you’re not paying rent to some nameless, faceless corporation.”

    The couple had been searching for a long-term place to live for some time, and were thrilled when they had the opportunity to apply for a one-bedroom suite in the Fraserview Towers Co-op. “It’s beautiful – there are gorgeous walking trails along the river, parks, nice local restaurants and shops.”

    Until Fraserview Towers elects its first resident board later this year, there is a Member Advisory Committee that serves as a liaison between residents and the CLT. Morin joined shortly after moving to the co-op in September 2020, handling communications and spearheading the Welcome Committee.

    Connecting residents hasn’t been easy during a year in which getting together with neighbours has been impossible due to the pandemic, but Morin and the MAC have come up with some creative solutions.

    “It’s been tricky, but I didn’t want the co-op to become a co-op in name only, where we didn’t interact with each other because of the pandemic,” Morin said. The Welcome Committee has helped mitigate the sense of isolation with an introductory email packed with resources like a neighbourhood map and coupons for local businesses.

    The committee has also set up the co-op with Discord, a free online forum where co-op members can connect with each other for virtual chats, along with organizing virtual “meet-ups” so new members can get to know each other in a casual setting.

    “There’s definitely some growing pains,” Morin acknowledged. “There are a lot of people here who have never been in a co-op before…but that can be a good thing. It means we can define what a co-op means to us as a community, and decide how we’re going to be.

    “I’m definitely loving the idea that residents are coming here because we want to be friendly with our neighbours. It definitely feels like more of a community.”

    For Armstrong, seeing the buildings take shape and the new co-ops thriving is just the outcome he was hoping for. “We’re finally delivering on the promise that the CLT model holds for the community housing sector,” he said.

    The co-op resurgence started with the Athletes Village Housing Co-op shortly after the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but it certainly didn’t stop there. The CLT co-op developments have come in waves since the first breakthrough in Vancouver’s Riverside neighbourhood about seven years ago.

    Just down the street from the Riverside developments is the Kinship Housing Co-op, which has just finished construction and is ready for 141 new households to move in.

    Construction has just started on a new seniors’ housing co-op, which will feature a seniors’ community centre on the ground floor, at 3510 Fraser Street. Further east, in Coquitlam, CLT is embarking on the first stage of its three-phase redevelopment of the Hoy Creek Housing Co-op. And on Vancouver Island, CLT is building nearly 120 new co-op homes in Duncan and Chemainus for families, women and children fleeing violence, and seniors.

    “Our original thought with CLT was that this would be a great way to get more co-ops in the ground, but the real story is that it’s a great way to get any housing in the ground,” Armstrong said of the partnerships with municipalities, and across the community housing sector, that have led to the housing co-op boom.

    “Co-ops are back,” Armstrong added. “We’re growing again, and we’re able to offer more co-op homes in more communities. That means a whole mix of incomes and backgrounds can come together and support each other, and create real communities that are so much more than just walls, roofs and doors.”

    Photos: During the pandemic, Fraserview Co-op organized outdoor movie nights for its members; Fraserview and Fraserview Towers Co-ops’ kids found opportunities to get creative; the co-ops’ views take in a thriving, growing community in the River District; and the neighbourhood welcomes the latest Community Land Trust development, Kinship Housing Co-op, with more developments on the way.