Building together

Ready to settle down in a home? Buying or renting aren’t your only options

In any housing conversation, renting and buying are so often pitted against each other that people forget there’s another option: co-operative housing. A small group of Haligonian women tried that option in 1981 and thanks to their initiative, plus favourable programs and subsidies from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation and the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada, their successors are now enjoying a financially sound co-op with a paid-off mortgage.

Of the dozens of housing co-ops in the Halifax area, the Halifax Women’s Housing Co-op is one of the smallest, with just 10 current members. The co-op still has its three original properties, all in North End Halifax. (They sold their only Dartmouth property.)

For co-op president Laurie Martin-Muranyi, who is originally from Montreal where cooperative living is more common, the reasons for founding the co-op (to provide a safe, affordable housing space for women, particularly single mothers and lesbians) are still just as valid today.

“I think half of the women that were building the co-op had children,” she says. “That was part of the deciding factor of having an affordable space for women who had children, and for women in general to be safe, and for lesbian women in particular. There was nothing to protect the rights of gay and lesbian members of the community, back then in the ’80s, so it was even harder. And even to this day, it’s still hard to make sure that your landlord will not discriminate and your lease won’t be terminated because of homophobia. So it was a way to protect themselves.”

She rented in Halifax for almost two years before moving into the co-op. She had rocky experiences with landlords, resenting their freedom to raise the rent and feeling unsafe when one landlord in particular would enter her home without permission.

“I applied to the co-op and I really, really wanted it, because for me it wasn’t the drop in price,” she recalls. The rent was actually a little higher than her previous rental, albeit for a larger unit. “But I really felt like it would ground me to be involved in something, and involved in my housing, and it did,” says Martin-Muranyi.

“It really made me feel more secure, more at home.” She’s been living in the co-op unit for about two years, serving on committees with the other members and acting as president. Fellow member Sam Decoste lived in the co-op for four years in the ’90s before leaving and returning in 2009, and has seen the North End change.

“This strip of Gottingen is really full of new businesses and people which is sometimes great and sometimes not so great,” she says. “I think that one of the big fears is that, like Montreal, it’s going to push lower-income people further north or somewhere else in the city. Or maybe off the peninsula.”

Martin-Muranyi noticed that two houses near her unit on Robie had recently sold for around $500,000 each and that got her wondering about who can afford to live in North End Halifax.

“We were debating in our membership: how can we make even our own co-op which is women-oriented, more accessible also to women of colour, and just women in general who might need it more,” says Martin-Muranyi. “We do put it out there but are we going really out of our way, in all the ways that we could to get people that really, really need it to feel like they can apply and they will get in?”

According to Pathways Housing Services, a co-op that is run successfully should have rents priced about 15% below average in their market.

Decoste and Martin-Muranyi both serve on the membership committee which screens candidates, similarly to a job interview. What can potential applicants expect from co-op living?

A lot of volunteer hours, for starters. Members must join at least one committee such as executive, maintenance, membership, or finance, and all decisions come from a group consensus. Meetings occur at least once a month, or more depending on maintenance needs and pressing financial matters.

“I think the fact that we’re running on feminist principles, we have a similar worldview,” says Decoste, “[means] we’re making decisions together on a consensus basis. And I think that makes things run a little bit more smoothly.”

With the newfound financial freedom of being mortgage-free, the members have more decisions. For now, the focus is on the maintenance fund, to keep the century-old properties safe, and keeping rent low for members.

“It’s the closest thing I think for a lot of people in a co-op, that you can get to owning a home,” says Decoste. “So it’s kind of like a condo that you own, except that you can’t sell it when you leave. But when you’re here, it’s yours.”

HOW IT WORKS

A housing cooperative is a legal entity, usually a cooperative or a corporation, that owns real estate, consisting of one or more residential buildings. A co-op is membership based and tenants don’t have landlords. Each member has the right to occupy one housing unit. Members are able to pool their resources, thus lowering the cost per member for the services and products associated with home ownership.

CORRECTION: In an earlier edition of this story, Sam Decoste’s name was incorrectly capitalized and in one instance, the wrong pronoun was used to describe her. The text above has been updated. Halifax Magazine regrets the error. 

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