News

My Co-op Is Falling Down

Shoddy construction and expiring subsidies puts my home at risk. Preview of a new series.

By Katie Hyslop 6 Nov 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth for The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

[Editor's note: Deteriorating conditions at reporter Katie Hyslop's 27-year-old co-op housing unit in East Vancouver mirror that of thousands of other co-ops across Canada, as federal and provincial subsidies dry up. The once-promising co-op experiment, which provided affordable housing to a generation of tenants, is eroding.

The housing news isn't all bad. Across Vancouver, fed-up innovators are field-testing a wave of new ideas for breaking out of our affordable housing gridlock. David P. Ball digs into some of those ideas in a new Tyee Solutions Society series, starting Friday.]

Co-ops played a big part of my life growing up in Newfoundland. My mom helped people set up co-op businesses for a living. We shopped at co-op grocery stores and bought generic co-op products. Our canvas shopping bags displayed advertisements of co-op conferences Mom attended.

As teenagers, my sister and I attended co-op camp. The rainbow LBGTQ flag? We knew it first as the co-op flag.

So when a unit came free last year at an East Vancouver co-op, I jumped at the chance. The 575 square foot, second floor apartment was a big step up from the basement apartments I'd lived in for the previous five years.

The rent was $737 per month, cheaper than most market apartments in Vancouver. The other appeal? While waiting lists for many Vancouver co-ops can last years, I got an interview right away.

There was a slight catch. The reason I got in so fast was because the building was falling apart. Like many Vancouver co-ops, mine is leaking. It adhered to the building code when first constructed, but we've since discovered how loose that code was: The building actually directs rain and ground water into the building instead of out, causing mold in the building frame and walls.

The 31-unit Aaron Webster Co-op, which opened in 1987, was a co-op jointly funded by the federal and provincial government. It's a four-storey, U-shaped building and each unit has a door to the outside, motel style.

It took tenants nearly a decade to discover the extent of the water damage, according to current tenants. (None of the original Aaron Webster tenants lives in the building today.)

But we have never had the money for repairs. The management services company that does our maintenance and budget advised us that a bank would not lend us money until we paid off our mortgage.

Beams needed to support walkways

Today, large beams shoring up the walkway on each floor frame my front door. All the balconies have been condemned. Thankfully my unit doesn't have leaks, but on some of the top floor units, the plastic tarps – which are replaced every year -- are the only thing between the rain and the ceilings.

But there are more pressing problems at the Aaron Webster Co-op than broken doors and sagging roofs.

Our federal subsidies are slated to end when our mortgage is paid, which could be as early as 2018. When that money stops, many of our low-income residents will have to move out.

Thousands of other Canadian co-op residents face a similar fate as the federal government withdraws its support for co-op housing. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the federal government granted subsidies to co-ops through operating agreements that paid off the co-op's mortgages. Their subsidies, like ours, end when the mortgage is paid off.

Across B.C., subsidy agreements are scheduled to expire in more than 3,000 units between now and 2020.

Subsidies kept rents low

For years, those subsidies allowed rents to stay low -- 30 per cent below the market rate.

When the subsidies end, our rents will skyrocket to market rates or higher, likely pushing my most vulnerable neighbours out of their homes.

It didn't have to be this way. We might have been able keep the building in better shape if we'd put more money aside for repairs than the minimum $15,000 a year, which the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation recommends. Our auditor recommends residential co-ops keep a fund of about $5,000 per unit for major repairs. But instead, our co-op chose to keep rents low. When the building needed repairs, we couldn't afford to cover them all.

Today, there is just $4,000 left for major repairs this year.

But the co-op's decision to keep a lid on rents is exactly why I chose to move there.

The Aaron Webster Co-op caters to people -- just like me -- who can't quite afford market rents.

My neighbour, friend and former co-op board member Adrian Estergaard is in the same boat.

"People who would not be able to manage market rent or other living arrangements, the co-op supports them," Estergaard said. Lower rents have meant housing, albeit increasingly decrepit housing, for tenants with few other options.

By 2011, conditions in the building had gotten so bad the city wanted to condemn the building. It reconsidered when we agreed to close off our unsafe balconies and shore up the walkways outside the units with wooden beams.

582px version of Moldy apartment
Mold caused by leaks in Hyslop's co-op building.

The costs of repairs have been hard to swallow. Black mold, caused by water leaks, decimated one ground floor unit, costing us $60,000 we didn't have to renovate it. Shoring up the walkways on all four floors went about $23,000 over budget. We're just crawling out of debt from those expenses, and we still haven't touched the roof or balconies.

Since I moved in, rent has gone up three per cent across the board every November, which enables us to put aside $36,000 each year for major repairs.

But we spend that amount every year doing repairs and fixing up empty units to attract new tenants. Some of my neighbours have been waiting 10 years for new floors.

An end to subsidies

Board member Cherise Craney said co-ops need government support.

"Unless [either] government starts coming up with more subsidies for co-ops, we will lose our subsidies when the mortgage goes," Craney told me.

The federal government "washed its hands" of co-ops in the early 1990s, she added, ending funding for co-ops. B.C. government-funded co-ops with expired operational agreements have already lost their subsidies. As a result, rents have soared, some as high as 40 per cent, Craney said.

The Co-op Housing Federation of B.C. has lobbied the province to set up a subsidies fund for co-ops, but so far there's been no change announced by the province.

If we do lose our subsidies, I'll be fine. Unlike many of my neighbours, I have no dependents and I expect to earn more money in the future. I now live with my partner, and together we could probably afford this tiny one-bedroom at market rate.

But most of Aaron Webster's tenants can't afford unsubsidized rent, which is why they're here.

Estergaard, 37, a father of a nine-year-old boy, hasn't held a regular job since his son started school a few years ago. His boy has autism and is diabetic. Estergaard is on call every school day in case his son's diabetes flares or if the child has outbursts.

He's studying web and mobile development and hopes to eventually earn a decent living working from home. But if the subsidies are cancelled before he finds that job, he'll make sacrifices to stay here.

"I would not be able to move because even without subsidy this would be the most affordable rent I could manage," Estergaard said.  [Tyee]

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