Equity Housing Co-ops – the Forgotten Cousins

March 24th, 2021 by Celia Chandler

This article was first published in The Co-op Current, by Ontario Co-operative Association.

The neat thing about the co‑operative model and its principles is that you can apply them to just about any endeavour.

We see the third principle, Member Economic Participation, driving large commercial enterprises like Gay Lea Foods Co-operative or Co‑op Cabs in Toronto. We see Autonomy and Independence, principle 4, fueling the workers at Urbane Cyclist in Toronto and Planet Bean in Guelph – both worker co‑operatives. We see non‑profit housing co‑operatives enriched by their Voluntary and Open Memberships, Democratic Member Control, and Concern for Community, principles 1, 2, and 7. We know that Co‑operation among Co‑operatives, principle 6, is central to the role of the Ontario Co-operative Association (OCA) and the Co‑operative Housing Federation of Canada. Education, Training and Information, principle 5, is a particularly significant benefit given by CHF Canada and regional federations to their members.

Iler Campbell is a full-service law firm of seven lawyers serving co‑operatives, charities, non‑profits, and socially‑minded small businesses. Our experience with Ontario’s co‑operative movement stretches back more than 40 years. Firm founding partner, Brian Iler, was a key figure in starting many Ontario co‑ops. Today we serve co‑operatives from across Ontario: from Ottawa to London, and from Gravenhurst to Niagara Falls. We are also proud to count OCA among our long‑time clients.

We are passionate about the co‑op mission. Our goal is to deliver high quality, prompt, cost effective, legal services that respond to clients’ goals and values. We pride ourselves in clear, legalese‑free communication and contracts. While we serve many co‑operatives of all stripes, there is no bigger group on our client list than our housing co‑ops: we count over 100 housing co‑ops among our active clients. We are proud of our close relationship with CHF Canada and its regional federations.

But there are some lost cousins in the movement, known as equity housing co‑ops. These entities are more like Gay Lea Foods or Co‑op Cabs than non‑profit housing co‑ops, because their members each make an economic contribution to purchase shares. Those shares bring with them the right to occupy residential units. Because of the occupancy right, the day‑to‑day issues the equity co‑ops face make them more similar to non‑profit housing co‑ops than any other kind of co‑operative, with issues like building management and reserves, noise, smoking, pets, parking, people management, human rights, and so on.

Our equity friends are not “organized” in any way, often operating as islands unto themselves with no sense of connection to anything bigger, and therefore missing out on the significant benefits derived from principle 6. We know that CHF Canada and its regional federations and others have tried to rectify this, and to bring some much‑needed community among these communities. Efforts haven’t succeeded for a host of reasons, but it probably boils down to the fact that they’re the same, but also different.

Alia Abaya, Director, Community Impact and Member Experience at Alterna Savings and I have long considered this group an opportunity. If we could bring them together for some education and networking, they would benefit – and so would we.

On March 16, 2021 we took our first stab at doing this by hosting a “Knowledge Hub for Equity Co‑ops”. We were delighted to get a small but mighty attendance of fifteen, including some shareholders and some staff, from nine different equity co‑ops in Toronto and Hamilton. Alia gave a short talk on fraud prevention, reminding participants of the importance of internal controls to manage online and offline banking, drawing from experiences she’s seen among co‑op members of Alterna. I followed it up with an overview of human rights in the housing context, which led to discussions about elevators and other accessibility challenges faced in old housing stock.

Participants swapped stories, asked questions, and talked about our presentations, and we were thrilled when some asked to exchange contact info – mission accomplished! We sowed the seeds of connection among this important but often forgotten group of co‑operatives.

Members of the group are planning to have conversations with each other. There’s also a Facebook group that some are involved (we are not associated with this group and are not members, therefore cannot vouch for its content, but we share this information in case it’s useful to you). And we have already committed to running another session, with suggestions to discuss reserve fund management and privacy law. If you would like to contribute an idea for discussion, please contact me at [email protected] or Alia at [email protected]

Stay tuned for information on the next session. It’s a great chance to mingle virtually, with like‑minded people who are committed to living differently!

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

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