Another Missing Middle: Co-operative Housing and the Climate Emergency

Kathryn Sheps – Vice-chair, CHF BC Climate Emergency Task Force

I was fortunate to be able to attend the National Cooperative Business Association’s IMPACT 2021 conference, which took place online during the first week of October 2021. This conference celebrates everything co-operative, and featured a session on how co-ops can address, and are addressing, climate change: Co-op Values at Work for Current and Future Generations: Tackling Climate Change. While the focus of the session was on other types of co-operative businesses, including agricultural and food-production co-operatives, there were lessons to be learned from the expert speakers that can easily be applied to housing co-operatives here in BC. 

One speaker, Dr. Rebecca Carter, Deputy Director of Climate Resilience at the World Resource Institute, termed co-operatives as the “missing middle” of climate action. This is a term that you might have heard in relation to housing, where it refers to housing forms that allow higher density than a single-family house but are not as large as a full-scale multi-unit residential building. Dr. Carter described how around the world, co-operatives fill the gap between high-level state and federal climate policy, and the level of individual or consumer climate action.  

In many ways, co-operatives are perfectly placed for climate action. In the transition to a low-carbon future, co-operatives are exceedingly well adapted for peer-to-peer learning, sustainable relationship-building, and the sharing of best practices — skills that are and will be essential in navigating climate impacts. The deeply democratic nature of co-operatives helps move adaptation to and mitigation of climate change beyond what might be possible with individuals working alone — helping more people support the kinds of transformative changes that are necessary in our lives and lifestyles. Further, as collectives, co-operatives are better equipped to communicate local needs and experiences to policymakers than individuals, and they may be better positioned to attract project financing, when it’s needed. 

Stories of co-operatives leading and delivering sustainable climate solutions to members were drawn from all over the world. In Liberia, a small farming community developed a solar co-operative and microgrid and turned its village into a regional hub for engineering, healthcare and sustainable agriculture. There were other examples of agricultural co-operatives in Mexico, Costa Rica and Madagascar, where working co-operatively has allowed communities to make decisions that best meet their needs, adapting and adjusting to climate impacts.  Each of these provided inspiring real-world examples of how co-operative oversight of valuable assets — solar arrays, valuable farming land, and forest ecosystems — can be managed democratically, to the benefit of the entire communities, and not just the bottom line.  

Our housing co-ops in BC do this, as well —  decisions made democratically by housing coops can have large impacts on the energy used and the emissions produced by their members’ households, much more so than individual consumer choices made by private homeowners. Co-operative oversight of our valuable assets — our homes and the land on which they sit — leads to better and more sustainable outcomes for our members, which in turn, increases the well-being of the communities beyond just our co-op members. Further, housing co-operatives’ commitment to the co-operative principles give the most vulnerable members of our communities a voice in decision-making in ways that can be transformative. 

Resilient communities are the cornerstone of climate resilience. When we work co-operatively, we are much stronger together than we are apart, and this allows us to achieve together what might not be possible alone. Decisions made in our housing co-ops affect the ways in which we live, work and play, and our strengths can allow us to be leaders in building the climate resilient communities we’ll all need to withstand the growing climate emergency. I’m looking forward to hearing and creating more stories of community strength, resilience, sustainability and transformation we can tell about our housing co-ops in BC. 

If you have a story to share, please feel free to reach out to CHF BC’s Climate Emergency Task Force — we’d love to hear it.