Seniors Co-Housing:
Re-Thinking Traditional Housing Models for Canada’s Growing Senior Population

March 28th, 2019 by Brian Iler and Claudia Pedrero

This article was originally prepared for the Ontario Bar Association’s Real Property Law & Elder Law program on March 22, 2019

The Toronto Star recently featured a High Park co-housing project – Wine on the Porch. That project, its story, and a small handful of others like it, has helped spark renewed interest in co-housing (or collaborative housing) in Ontario.

That story began:

“It began half in jest — two couples enjoying their annual weekend getaway, strolling the streets of Stratford, Ont., wistfully admiring the pretty Victorians and wondering aloud about the future.

“Would it be feasible to avoid the loneliness that creeps with age by joining forces in a private home with room for shared meals and laughter and cosy nooks for private chats or reading?”

They, in turn, were inspired, in part by the ‘Port Perry Golden Girls’, four older women who live in, and co‑own a house in Port Perry.

As the Star wrote of the ‘Golden Girls’:

“While the women are still active and independent, they didn’t like the housing choices available to them as they thought about growing older. …

“My mother was in a retirement home and Martha bought a house with her mother so she could take care of her,” says one of them. “But those options didn’t appeal to us.” They didn’t want to impose on their children, they didn’t like the steep cost of retirement-home living, or the idea of living alone in a condo or apartment.”

What is Co-Housing?

There is a long history of shared housing ‑ from boarding houses, to extended families sharing a home, to 60s communes, to equity housing co‑ops (not often actual co‑ops) to non‑profit housing co‑ops, to shared ownerships.

There are numerous equity housing cooperatives in Toronto, mostly the result of conversions of existing rental buildings in the nineteen seventies. The Rental Housing Protection Act enacted in 1986 put a stop to this by prohibiting conversion without municipal approval. This act was repealed in 1998. Now, the conversion of rental buildings with six or more units to any form of co-ownership requires the consent of the City of Toronto.

Co-housing is a general term to describe a housing model that has these common characteristics:

  • an intentionally built community with individual dwelling spaces, communal areas, resources and amenities, involving some form of shared ownership. The spectrum of projects can provide different balances between social connections and privacy.
  • co-housing projects are deliberately designed and structured to encourage interaction and develop a meaningful sense of community. Active participation in the project’s community is essential – and that’s not for everyone. Meal times are great for building community:

Grace Kim, a Seattle architect who designed co-housing projects, and lives in one, explained in a Ted talk how she tells a successful co-housing community from a less successful one: how often members eat together. Those communities that eat together several times a week are quite successful and those that eat together once a month are less so.

  • these are often participant-driven rather than developer-initiated projects, but participants usually engage the services of a project manager or development consultant.
  • co-housing projects are self-governed, usually by a board of directors, or, on smaller scale projects, the property owners themselves.
  • most opt for consensus group decision-making ‑ that does require a high tolerance for group decision-making. Some use a colour card system ‑ a green card meaning you approve, a yellow card meaning you can live with the decision, and the red card meaning you oppose. A healthy community is one in which the red card is almost never used.

There’s a presentation made at the 2018 Co‑housing Conference in Vancouver, titled Co-Housing 101 that provides a comprehensive and informed outline of how co-housing projects are developed, and operate.

There aren’t many co-housing projects in Canada – 18 or so, mostly in British Columbia, but there are more than 160 in the United States. In Denmark, where the model originated back in the nineteen sixties, some 50,000 people live in co-housing. There’s a similar model in Germany, called baugruppen.

Co-housing projects tend to be much smaller than non‑profit housing co-operatives ‑ Wine on the Porch contemplates five or six units. Whole Village, situated on a farm near Caledon is comprised of eleven apartments and a collective living space and kitchen. Whole Village residents are members of a housing co-operative and are members of another co-operative that owns and operates the farm. By contrast, most non‑profit housing co-operatives have more than 100 units.

The Case for Seniors Co‑Housing

Seniors co-housing has the potential for offering benefits over traditional retirement residences or long-term care facility.

For some, institutional seniors’ residences can limit independence, provide unneeded services, and contribute to social isolation when a facility puts little emphasis on community-building. As Canada’s population of seniors expands, the idea of seniors co‑housing is gaining popularity and attracting media attention.

Drawing on their experiences in developing one of Canada’s first seniors’ co-housing projects, Harbourside, in Sooke, British Columbia just outside of Victoria, Margaret Critchlow and Andrew Moore prepared an exceptional guide for seniors’ co-housing, entitled Innovations in Senior Housing: The Complete Guide to Cohousing. They make the case:

“On reaching the age of 55, a person in Canada can expect, on average, to live another 30 years. How can we ensure that this gift of longevity does not become a burden to ourselves, family, friends, and state? The aim of Senior Cohousing is to transform the challenges into opportunities.”

The guide contains a diagram (below and on page 15 of the guide) that illustrates the continuum of housing, care, social, and financial needs for wellbeing as one ages. It shows five concentric circles, with each circle closer to the centre representing a greater level of support and intervention as one needs more care.

Aging Well in Community Matrix from Margaret Critchlow and Andrew Moore’s “Innovations in Senior Housing: The Complete Guide to Cohousing”

Their diagram illustrates the range one might experience from home care as one ages in one’s home, to support in a retirement home, to institutional care such as assisted living and complex care to hospitalization and acute care. Co‑housing ‑ the second ring ‑ supports aging in place in community, with intentional design around shared public space and social communities, which combats social isolation.

  • Level of autonomy/decision making: High
  • Risk of social isolation: Low
  • Cost: Medium-Low

Once a senior finds themselves slipping towards ever increasing levels of care it is very difficult for them to find their way back. Senior co‑housing and co-care (discussed below) aim to substantially slow this process down mostly through prevention – allowing seniors to remain independent by becoming interdependent.

If aging at home can be integrated and supported by the principles of cohousing and co-care (the two outer circles combined), then a senior may be less likely to become isolated and more able to put off the day they will need to move into an institution.

They will also be less likely to need access to short term acute services. Falls and illness prevention, mutual care and health support, retrofitting existing building for safety, animating existing communities, making living more affordable, and encouraging proximity to friends and neighbours all help to not only address social isolation amongst seniors, but helps them to thrive.

Co-housing can be affordable, although it generally approximates market costs. The extensive common amenities (gardens, common house) can increase the development and operating cost of a project. As a result, co-housing can be as costly (or more costly) to develop and operate than regular market-priced housing.

However, where projects are developed with the assistance of government grants (such as CMHC seed funding), or project founders take on some of the development role, residents can reduce the cost of their housing. Also, the community-focused design of a project may offer reduced day-to-day costs when items such as cars, tools and utilities are shared.

Legal Models for Co-Housing

Co-housing is not a legal model, but a model for living together.

The three co-housing legal structures are:

  1. Condominiums;
  2. Equity “Co-operatives”; and
  3. Joint Ownership.

This paper will discuss the three models, along with the benefits and challenges of each in the co-housing context.

The legal model follows from the founding group’s agreed-upon values.

Some groups may feel it is important to keep housing affordable over time, while others may wish to ensure re-sale prices reflect market rates. Some groups may have participants who offer to contribute more than their share, to make the project happen, with appropriate security for repayment over time of that excess, so an important question may be how much risk of another resident’s non‑payment does the group wish to assume? The model chosen is affected by how important collective control over who occupies units is. Finally, economics will be an important factor. Amassing the capital needed to develop the project may well force compromises.

Financing may be a challenge for some models: many lenders dislike self-management, or feel the need for the security of a developer.

Condominiums

This is perhaps the most familiar concept and is used by most of the co-housing projects in British Columbia. The Ontario Condominium Act sets out the structure of condominium corporations and rights of owners who obtain title to their unit and an interest in the common elements.

Condominium units are easier to finance than equity co-operative units – each unit owner can finance their purchase price through a mortgage on the unit for which they alone are liable. Condominiums typically have shared common spaces and amenities, and in a purpose-built co-housing project, can be expanded.

Self-management by unit-owners is accomplished through a board of directors elected from among the owners.

Apart from being costly to set up, condominiums don’t allow co-housing projects to be selective of the residents they bring in to the community. That can be partially addressed by self-selection – designed to encourage community interaction, it will attract those who seek that, and will not attract those for whom privacy is a paramount consideration. As well, word of mouth is more likely to be the common means of locating buyers, if the project is successful.

Replacement reserve funding is mandatory for condominiums, and that can add considerably to monthly common expenses. The alternative is to fund major expenses as they arise – and that will be daunting for some.

For those projects where there is a desire to maintain affordability over the longer term, the condominium Corporation might choose to obtain an option agreement, requiring that any resale unit is first offered to the condominium Corporation, which can then sell the unit to someone approved by the Board of Directors.

Harbourside Co-housing in Sooke, BC is an example of a co-housing condominium project. Residents own strata title to their self-contained units and have a large common house with a full kitchen, dining area, lounge, care-giver suite, workshop and meeting spaces. Harbourside’s residents participated in the planning and design of the project, which reduced some of the development costs and allowed residents to purchase units at below-market rates. Residents regularly share meals, do yoga classes and garden together.

Equity “Co-operative”

This model is most often used to avoid the approval process required for condominiums, but differs from non-profit government-assisted housing co-operatives.

The exact contractual terms vary, but generally, residents buy shares in a corporation (which can be a business corporation, or a co-operative corporation) which holds the property in trust for the residents, and residents have a contractual right to exclusive occupancy of their unit, usually through some form of Occupancy Agreement.

A significant plus for is that this model offers significant flexibility in customizing a structure and rules that fit the project creators’ values. No government approval is required, save compliance with municipal zoning requirements.

However, units are not easily mortgaged, residents are collectively responsible for mortgages of the co-operative’s property, and unit marketability can be a challenge.

Many equity co-operatives (and non‑profit housing co-operatives) have membership committees who screen and interview new residents. It is also common for the transfer of occupancy rights to require approval of the board of directors, adding another element of collective control over who occupies the units.

Cohousing is similar to non-profit housing co‑operatives built with government assistance between the nineteen seventies and nineteen nineties, in that they are both democratically controlled by their residents.

Like most non‑profit housing co‑operatives co‑housing projects are mostly on their own freehold property. In both, residents manage the project through an elected board of directors and share the project’s operating and financing costs.

Unlike non-profit housing co-operatives, residents in most co-housing projects do own equity, and their equity interest is sold to a new resident in a process, and at a price, mandated by the co-housing project’s legal documents.

Often, the founding group will wish to constrain the impact of market forces on resale prices by requiring resales to be handled by the corporation, and at a price established by a formula contained in the Occupancy Agreement. Otherwise, the project prices itself out of the range of many of those it hopes to serve.

Joint Ownership

In this model, all owners hold undivided registered title to the property, usually as tenants in common. This is common for small projects and sharing of large houses. A Co-ownership Agreement establishes who has the right to exclusive occupancy of a unit, rules, and decision-making processes.

These arrangements and Co-ownership Agreements are usually quite tailored to the founding group of residents, and the particular property chosen. This model is really only feasible for a small group.

Solterra Co-housing Ltd. is a unique developer that builds or repurposes residences that house four to six people. Suites consist of private bedrooms with a shared kitchen and living area.

The organization helps match potential residents together who purchase and co-own a house as tenants in common and share operating costs. Residents can sell their share in the home when they decide to leave.

Residents are involved in managing the property by participating in a House Committee that governs the day-to-day operations of the home. A subsidiary of Solterra provides housekeeping services and meals, as well as social services, caregiver assistance and short-term live-in caregiving.

Co-Care

Perhaps senior co‑housing’s greatest contribution to an aging society throughout Europe and now North America has been introducing the concept of co-care and mutual support. Co-housing for seniors generally does not provide the level of service of a care home or assisted living facility, so it isn’t appropriate for people who have significant medical needs or require higher levels of are. Instead, co-housing is appropriate for people who can live independently and may benefit from co-care offered in some projects, where residents provide each other mutual support by sharing meals, cleaning and shopping.

Co-care is a grassroots model of mutual support that is formally integrated into some seniors co-housing projects. While the concept of neighbours supporting each other is by no means new, formally integrating mutual assistance into a community is. The principle of co-care is focused around voluntary, neighbourly support that encourages social interdependence while allowing independence. Examples of co-care usually involve neighbours doing things for each other: running errands, driving, preparing meals, taking care of someone’s plants or pet. When integrated into a co-housing project, co-care could combat some of the isolation faced by seniors receiving homecare since co‑care focuses on building interdependent relationships. In this way individuals do not solely have to rely on family, friends, and state but can look forward to seniors helping seniors.

ElderSpirit Community, a co-housing project in Abingdon, Virginia formally integrated co-care into its co-housing project by allowing residents to choose two fellow residents that will serve as a first point of contact when they are ill or need assistance. A committee of the co-housing project keeps a central list of tasks that members can provide their neighbours. However, co-care does not extend to assisted living or medical support, and should not, unless the co‑housing organization becomes a licensed retirement home. (See page 28 of Critchlow and Moore’s guide for a case study on ElderSpirit.)

Conclusion

As Canada’s population of seniors grows, it seems appropriate to re-think the traditional models of seniors housing and look for opportunities that allow people to remain independent and engaged with their community.

Developing a co-housing project is a significant challenge. It requires a lot of work and commitment from founding members who must invest in a shared vision. However, there are enough successful projects that can serve as helpful guides to people who want to challenge the norm of seniors living.

 

Resources

Innovations in Senior Housing: The Complete Guide to Cohousing, published by Victoria’s Community Social Planning Council

Seniors Co-Housing: Inspiring Examples, published by Ryerson University’s City building Institute

Canadian Co-Housing Network

The Cohousing Option in Canadian Architect April, 2016

Canadian Senior Co-Housing ‑ an online collection of resources, contacts and blog posts

Filed in: Co-operative Law, Elder Law, Housing, Not for Profit Law

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