Rising Star Housing Co-op

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Date of Incorporation: March 25, 1985 (the actual housing co-op was built and occupied in 1986-87)
Membership:  44 (with additional Associate Members)
Activity: Providing housing for members and promoting co-operative housing issues.
Area:  Commercial Drive, Vancouver, British Columbia

Building Community

In the last 17 years many different people have made Rising Star Housing Co-operative their home. Over the years, the members have struggled to work together to manage their housing co-op, and to build and maintain a strong community.

For many, being part of a housing co-op means living in a real community where neighbours know each other, and where people contribute to a lifestyle that is unique to both the co-operative and the surrounding community.  For others, the co-op simply represents an affordable alternative to traditional rental markets. These interpretations can conflict, but a handful of dedicated members at Rising Star have shown that they can also be quite compatible.

One thing about community to me is having security.... it doesn't mean that I'm the same as everyone that is in the community.  Because frankly, I don't think I'm the same as anyone in this co-op, but I still feel that I get along with them... we can all work together, whether we're the same or not.  So that, to me, is a community, being able to work together whether you're the same or not (Rising Star co-op member).

Membership and Governance

Membership in Rising Star is granted to anyone over the age of 19 who purchases the $1200 membership share, agrees to the participation requirement, and meets the income requirement. Potential members must demonstrate that the monthly housing charges will not require more than 30% of their income. Among policy makers, 'affordable housing' is commonly understood to mean that housing costs do not exceed 30% of a household's total income.

Many people who express interest in becoming members of Rising Star do not meet the income requirement. The application of the definition of affordable housing has had the unintended result of making affordable housing inaccessible to those who need it the most urgently.

Until 1992, the co-operative had an arrangement with CCEC Credit Union, which enabled new members to borrow the share amount. "The co-op now allows new members to run an arrears with the co-op-to pay their shares in instalments of no less than $42 per month for a period of no longer than 2 years," said Rising Star member Janis Kaleta.  The amount paid up on these shares is returned, minus any Housing Charge arrears or damages costs paid to the co-op, when a member moves out.  Membership in the co­-op is tied to residency.  Families living in one unit usually have only one membership. In 1991, Rising Star made a change to their constitution to allow joint memberships, although no members have yet made use of the amendment. Recent changes to the Co-op Act support this policy. The Board of Directors is elected by and from the membership at any general meeting during the year. The co-op policy stipulates there must be between three and nine Directors.

Participation

Potential members are told during the interview process that they are expected to voluntarily contribute approximately eight hours each month to help run the co-op. The eight hours are usually comprised of a two-hour committee meeting, a general meeting every few months, and a chore. There is no easy method to use to enforce these obligations.

When all members are not fulfilling their volunteer commitment, the responsibility of decision-making and the "real" work (e.g. recruiting and selecting members, taking care of the finances, arranging maintenance) falls on a few.  There is no one to defer responsibility to. If the members who live in the housing co-op do not pay their mortgage or fill vacant units, there is no landlord to look after these responsibilities for them.

Like many co-ops, Rising Star has struggled with participation since it began.  June, a Rising Star member, explains one reason why it is difficult to establish collective participation:

I think in this society we are not encouraged to live co-operatively.  It's a real problem... There's so much emphasis on the individual.  'I don't get anything directly out of it, so why do it?' A [previous member] used to always use the word 'they' as in "When are they going to fix the whatever..." instead of "when are we going to fix the..."

Lack of participation in housing co-ops may result in serious consequences such as resentment between neighbours, or vacancies, which threaten the co-op's financial stability.  Rising Star has had experience with both of these issues. In order to deal with these concerns, Rising Star has debated the possibility of fining people who do not fulfill their responsibilities. It has also discussed the possibility of allowing members to hire others to do their chores. The co-op has decided that providing monetary disincentives or allowing members to hire others would create inequities within the co-op. To address the low participation rate the co-op did hire a part-time volunteer coordinator for three months. Unfortunately, this strategy was unsuccessful and as a result, the position has been temporarily suspended.

Committees

The co-op has five active committees comprised of volunteer co-op members: membership, financial, maintenance, landscape and social. The social committee was experiencing low participation, but is now more active. It was a critical component through construction at the co-op because it provided support and guidance during a stressful time. The Social Committee also publishes a monthly newsletter and arranges social events such as holiday parties and children's craft evenings.

The co-op's policies require that the Membership Committee be comprised of four to six members who have a term of office that is at least one year but not more than two.  It meets once a month unless further meetings are necessary.  This committee not only co-ordinates efforts to find new members when needed, it also handle inquiries, advertising and communication within the co-op concerning the rules and regulations of co-op life.

The Maintenance Committee is also required to meet monthly, and the volunteer members have similar terms of office.  However, there must be at least six committee members, but not more than ten.  The Maintenance Committee's main objectives are to maintain sound building structure, to ensure standards of cleanliness are met, and to keep mechanical systems and services in good functioning order.  It is in charge of the entire maintenance program, including the supervision of both volunteer and paid labour and contractors. It carries out unit and grounds inspections, and sets goals and formulates policy concerning the physical condition of the co-op.

The Finance Committee is required to have at least six volunteer members, who meet monthly unless more meetings are required. The committee tries to ensure effective and efficient management of the co-op's finances, and oversees the creation and enforcement of financial policies and procedures, the collection of revenue and the keeping of records. It also carries out income and housing charge assessments, and reviews the budgets submitted by each committee prior to the annual general meeting. The Board also reviews these budgets, but the Finance Committee sees them first.

Troubles

The Rising Star Housing Cooperative started leaking in 1988, just one year after it was built.  However, the co-op did not see itself as part of the larger 'leaky co-op' issue until 1996, when the problem acquired a great deal of publicity in British Columbia's Lower Mainland.  For Rising Star, the problem became political in 1996 when it approached the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) for assistance.

CMHC was willing to give Rising Star a second mortgage to pay for the repairs and a third mortgage to ease the monthly mortgage payments for the residents. The real problems began with negotiating the third mortgage.

Rising Star is a break-even co-op.  They don't have a surplus.  In addition, revenues were down as members had moved out because they did not want to live under tarps (due to repairs). Monthly charges had been reduced in an effort to fill vacant units.  Essentially, CMHC offered it the third mortgage under terms it could not accept. "They wanted the co-op to forcibly reduce the amount of subsidy available to members and re-direct the 'freed up' subsidy to reduce the amount of the 3rd mortgage loan," said Janis Kalenta

This meant taking the subsidy away from lower-income members.  What could these members do? Pay the extra $200-300 per month, or move out? Rising Star fought this.  Kalenta explains why it was important for her to remain in her home in the Commercial drive neighbourhood:

I chose Commercial originally because it was the type of neighbourhood I felt I "belonged" in: working class, ethnically diverse, politically alive and diverse life-styles.

As it turned out, it was also very suited to my needs re: my disability and other limitations on mobility (no car, little money).  Everything I needed was within blocks of my home- doctors, physical therapists, food stands and Safeway, swimming pool, my daughter's school...

Rising Star's political campaign brought them into alliance with leaky condo owners, the Co-op Housing Federation of BC's leaky co-op committee, the Tenants' Rights and Action Coalition, and the Main and Hastings Community Development Society.  The latter two organisations picked up on it immediately as a homelessness issue and proved to be great allies in the campaign. The conflation between Rising Star and the leaky condo issue was both helpful and troubling. The leaky condo owners were extremely vocal, and the media lapped up the story of upper class and upper middle class buyers having been cheated by cost-cutting construction companies.

Rising Star felt that the leaky condo issue was distracting the public from its main concern, which was its fight with CMHC. Co-op members who were interviewed by two major local news programs reported having their names deceptively placed on the television above the phrase 'leaky condo', which confused the two different issues.  Although the co-op members and the leaky condo owners equally could not endure the wait of a long and possibly unsuccessful struggle for compensation, and both were obligated to take out loans to fix damages that needed attention immediately, the two situations were different. "Leaky co-ops differ from leaky condos because a co-op must get a collective loan to pay for repairs, while condo owners must go into personal debt" (The Vancouver Courier, January 16th, 2002). Both co­op members and leaky condo owners wanted compensation for repairs, but this difference is why Rising Star needed cooperation from the CMHC.  Rising Star believed it should not have to borrow funds to fix a problem caused by the federal government and the building industry.

Lower subsidy rates, a result of lower interest rates and the mortgage troubles, had already had an effect on the social fabric of the co-op: "Up until recently, about 30% of the membership were people of colour and new Canadians, but over the years, due in part to the leaky co-op crisis that has dropped to about 10%." (Janis Kalenta).

During the conflict with the CMHC, Rising Star demonstrated at the office of Hedy Fry, the federal minister for multiculturalism and women at the time. The purpose of the demonstration was to make apparent the links between affordable housing and social diversity.

The Star is Rising...

While the federal government initially had little response to the problem, local opposition MP Libby Davies was extremely helpful. Eventually word came from Ottawa, and Rising Star got their loan agreement without the clause that would have forced a reduction in its subsidy use to pay back the loan. The fight had taken four years, and it had changed the social composition and the financial condition of the co-operative.

Being placed in the same category as the leaky condo issue caused some misunderstanding in the public's eye for Rising Star, but the misinterpretation was ultimately favourable - the media was pivotal in the Co-op's victory.  Rising Star acknowledges that their successful battle with the CMHC and the federal government created a "blueprint for political activism" for other leaky co-ops. While other groups could point to Rising Star as an example and ask why they can't have the same concessions, media attention can be fickle, and some members wonder whether the same methods would actually be effective again.

Case Study Information

This case study was developed for a report entitled Situating Co-operatives in British Columbia - 2000 - 2001, which was prepared for the Province of B.C. (Ministry of Community Development, Co-operatives and Volunteers) by the British Columbia Institute for Co-operative Studies, University of Victoria.  To obtain the information for the case study BCICS and the co-op entered into a partnership agreement. BCICS is grateful to the co-op members for their contributions and time. The case study is published with the approval of the co-operative.

Researcher: Nicole Chaland and Victoria Bowman

Date of research: 2001

Author: Nicole Chaland and Cory Rushton

Date of writing: 2001

Editing: BCICS editorial group

Supervision: Kathleen Gabelmann, BCICS Research Co-ordinator

Creator - Author(s) Name and Title(s): 
Cory Rushton
Nicole Chaland
Publication Information: 
Situating Co-operatives in British Columbia, 2000-2001
Date: 
Monday, January 1, 2001
Publisher Information: 
BC Institute for Co-operative Studies, University of Victoria

Location

Vancouver, BC
Canada
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