Rent has steadily increased in Waterloo Region and finding affordable housing is a barrier for new and long-time residents in the city. Many different organizations and experts have suggested possible solutions for affordable housing, but Union Co-operative introduced a new model.
Union Co-operative buys properties in the region for permanent affordability through community ownership.
“We want to find properties that are already leasing to tenants, and purchase them so we can take them out of the speculative real estate market and hold on to them for long- term affordability within our community,” Sean Campbell, a founding member and executive director of Union Co-operative, explained.
Campbell works as a non-profit and charity management consultant with people who are committed to the betterment of the community. Unstable housing is a major obstacle for these people and amplifies existing challenges such as mental health, employment or building a family.
“Lack of housing also has long-term impacts on the likelihood of children completing high school and completing college or university. There’s all these rollover effects that happen from housing,” Campbell said.
He explained that one of the inspirations to start this model stemmed from similar co-ops in other parts of Canada. The co-op model is used in Alberta and British Columbia to raise investment dollars and loan to small businesses and social enterprises for a low rate.
In the USA, a BIPOC- led organization called East Bay Ppermanent Rreal Eestate Cco-operative raises funds from the community and pools them together into the co-op to buy properties to provide affordable housing and prevent gentrification in San Francisco.
Union Co-operative is the first organization to use this model in Ontario.
One of the big pieces of their mission is purchasing naturally occurring affordable homes to keep them affordable. These are older buildings with long-term tenants that have enjoyed rent protection.
Campbell explained how real estate investors look at such properties in the Rregion for rental enhancement strategies or wait out current tenants so that they can increase the rent. However, Union Co-operative will purchase these properties on behalf of the community so that they can preserve the affordable rent.
“We’re really lucky in our community that people are deeply committed to this issue and are looking to make our community a more affordable and gentle spot to live,” Campbell said.
Anyone who lives, works or has a connection to Waterloo Region can get involved and join as a member in this co-op. A membership share can be purchased for $500, which will be returned if they decide to leave the co-op. They can also be involved in the administration by investing in the co-op, running for board, getting involved in decision making and more.
Investments are pooled together to form the down payment, and the mortgage is acquired from a credit union or bank that is insured by CMHC. They contract with a property management company that has experience working with low-income tenants and can take care of the property.
Members can invest between $1,000 and $10,000 in preference shares wherein an annual board-declared dividend is earned.
“What that means is at the end of each year, the board looks at the surplus available in the co-op and decides how much we can distribute to members after setting aside sufficient reserves,” Campbell said. “With preference shares, we’re able to lower the dividend payments in one year and increase it in another to make sure that it is accommodating the demands of affordable housing.”
There are many ways for members to be involved, whether it is through a passive involvement of investing, voting at the AGM, or receiving their dividends, or a more active involvement, such as serving on committees, or volunteering directly on a task.
“The reason why we chose to be a cooperative is because people can get engaged … they can learn more, they can help make decisions, and we can make our community a better place to call home,” Campbell said.
For more information about Union Co-operative, visit unionsd.coop.