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Co-ops concerned about loss of funding

Dan Thiessen (right) visits his fellow co-op resident Sammy McMurphey (left) at her home.  - Alex Butler
Dan Thiessen (right) visits his fellow co-op resident Sammy McMurphey (left) at her home.
— image credit: Alex Butler

After years of moving around, Sammy McMurphey has been living in the same home in the Brooksford Place Housing Co-op for 28 years.

Before settling in Abbotsford with her children, McMurphey had moved from Langley to Aldergrove, and then to Abbotsford as rent increased. She settled into a complex in Abbotsford and moved three times within it as the owners kept selling the rental units.

She was constantly worried and mistrustful of people. But after waiting two years after applying to Brooksford Place, a unit opened up. There she found a community that was safe, stable and affordable – where she felt her neighbours were there to help her and her children when they needed it.

Her family desperately needed stability and they found it at Brooksford Place – but that may be coming to an end.

The average homeowner views the end of mortgage payments as a relief. But for the residents of Brooksford Place – and many co-ops across the country – that’s a daunting prospect.

Many co-ops have mortgages with the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), put in place 30 to 35 years ago. As those deals end – for Brooksford Place that’s in early 2015 – co-ops will face a difficult choice.

Dan Thiessen, a 10-year resident and current president of the board of Brooksford Place, says it’s a dilemma that could jeopardize the housing stability of some people in the 51-unit complex. Generally, 14 to 17 of the households in the complex require assistance.

Co-op members own a share in their facility and pay a monthly housing charge that goes towards maintenance and care of the buildings. The CMHC mortgage comes with a housing agreement – providing some residents of every co-op with a reduced monthly housing charge based on their income. The government covers the difference between the full amount that is charged to other members.

With the federal assistance set to end with the mortgage, Thiessen said they can raise the rates for residents who are more financially secure so low-income residents can keep their subsidized housing, or raise fees for the families most financially at-risk, potentially forcing them to leave and face the difficult task of finding more affordable housing.

But even tenants with higher incomes may still struggle with affordability, and Thiessen said the co-op is hoping for some middle ground in the form of a provincially funded rent supplement program for low-income members.

The Co-operative Housing Federation of BC (CHF BC) has launched a campaign to encourage the province to create a program based on the rent supplement agreement that some co-ops already have with BC Housing – under the federal Index-Linked Mortgage program.

But BC Housing says the co-op subsidy is a federal program and that’s the place for any discussions on continued funding. The provincial agency has programs in place to support low-income families and seniors, but in private market rentals.

The province will invest about $400 million this year to provide affordable housing to more than 98,000 households.

CHF BC says its plan will not add more than $2.5 million to the province’s annual housing expenditures at first, but will increase as agreements come to an end. By 2020 the cost would not exceed $20 million, they say. They argue it “pales in comparison to the social and financial costs of homelessness.”

Thiessen said he understands that CMHC likely thought in 35 years co-ops could be self-sufficient.

“What they have failed to calculate is the cost to maintain 35-year-old buildings and 35-year-old properties.”

Though co-op members agree to volunteer in some capacity, including taking on building maintenance and yard work to reduce outside costs, housing charges have to be used to cover the major repairs.

Brooksford Place will be the first co-op in Abbotsford to see its mortgage end. In 2017, it will be followed by three other local co-ops, totaling 169 units. The Abbotsford Co-op Villa, which has 106 units, will have federal support until 2026.

CHF BC states that between now and 2017, 1,500 co-op households will be affected by the change and that will climb to almost 3,000 by 2020.

Thiessen said while the province could build some new affordable housing, it would still only shift the problem in a market that already has a high demand for affordability, and those families may require other forms of assistance. He said the most economic way would still be to subsidize the people who live in the co-ops and allow them stay in their homes.

Thiessen says co-operative living “isn’t a utopia by any stretch” but remains a community where neighbours help take care of each other and it’s one that they want to see preserved. For more on the campaign visit http://www.chf.bc.ca/eoacampaign2014.

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