Waterfront Consumers' Co-operative
Date of Incorporation: 1972
Membership: Approximately 25 members
Type of Co-op: Consumer-owned housing
Area Served: Vancouver
65 immigrants were living together in a historic building in Vancouver's China Town when a core group of them started what is now, a quarter of a century later, a co-op with equity in lower mainland houses that provides affordable and sustainable homes for 25 members and a transition house run by a rape relief centre.
The marketing, organisational, legal skills and mutual trust we've learned in the food coops have allowed us to approach housing as a problem which can be solved. Before joining Waterfront, most of us ignored housing altogether, using the self preservation tactics of the poor: 1) Make sure you have a place to stay tonight, 2) be ready to move tomorrow, and 3) don't think about next week. 1
Getting started-financing through savings
A group of 65 people, only 5 of whom were Canadian citizens at the time, started putting aside $5 a month to save for a space of their own. After 1-2 years of saving they were ready to purchase their first house. Out of the original 65 members, 4 moved into the first Waterfront home. People who contributed to the start-up and did not move into Waterfront went in many different directions. Some of the members withdrew their money from Waterfront and from the money that wasn't paid for expenses such as incorporation. The down payment for the first house was $2000-2 members contributed $500 each, 1 member $800 and another $200. The original mortgage was with Block Bros. and 1 year later Waterfront was able to switch their mortgage to BC Central Credit Union. The first house was purchased for $21,000. That house is named First Step.
The Waterfront Consumer's Co-operative was incorporated in 1972 in order to create a structure that allowed for equitable, inclusive collective ownership of shared homes. First Step was the first house to be purchased under the Waterfront umbrella. The member-owners share goods as well as common office, kitchen, dining and garden space. The sharing level is adapted to new situations such as members leaving and new members joining. When First Step was initially purchased the members shared not only goods and space, but also household tasks such as baking bread and gardening. For the members, sharing is an efficient way to consume less and save money.
If you are serious about securing shelter you have to save money. There are two traditional way to do that: earn more or spend less. People in Waterfront have opted for the second choice because spending less develops self-discipline and the habit of sharing.2
Why Live Co-operatively?
Traditional housing was not an option for the members of Waterfront. Many did not have access to banking services or secure employment. The original founders all had incomes of less than $6000 per year and did not have families that fit into the nuclear family structure. For the members, living cooperatively is an efficient economic solution to their housing needs, as well as a conscientious alternative choice to private ownership.
Members sought out and created an alternative to suburban development as well as mainstream housing co-operative development. There are many different types of co-operative housing. In Canada, we are most familiar with non-market housing co-operatives. Non-market housing co-operatives are apartment or townhouse complexes; membership is tied to residency; many co-ops have government-subsidised units; and members do not benefit from increased equity.
Non-market housing co-ops regulate the number of adults allowed in a unit and can also place restrictions on the number, gender and age of children sharing rooms. These restrictions often do not allow for cultural diversity. The members of Waterfront live together as roommates or as a family. The individual houses of Waterfront are similar to communal housing co-operatives and the umbrella structure is similar to a community housing co-operative. In communal housing co-operatives members share food, living space and decision-making. A community housing co-operative develops or facilitates affordable housing for others-Waterfront develops it for itself. 3
More than housing
First Step became home to the members acts as the physical nucleus for a myriad of community organising and activist work. Some of the early organising meetings for CCEC Credit Union took place in First Step's dining room. In addition First Step was designated by the City of Vancouver as the Kiwassa Neighborhood Improvement Program (NIP) office. Some of the accomplishments accredited to the Kiwassa NIP office are the creation of a pedestrian overpass, a municipal park, new sewers, streetlights, curbs and sidewalks. It was the first step in creating a community tailored to fit their social and economic needs.
Growth through established networks
Waterfront grew organically from a single house in 1972 to 6 houses, including a rape relief centre in 1996. Shortly after buying First Step, a beautiful large heritage home in Kitsilano named Maya House was bought by the co-op. The people who sold Maya House to Waterfront felt strongly about preserving the house and wanted to ensure that the house would not be torn down and apartments built in its place. The co-op had sufficient equity to purchase the house and preserving historic buildings fit with the values of the co-op's members.
Maya House like the other houses came into the Waterfront fold through networks in the co-op and self help movement. For example, a staff member at CCEC Credit Union spearheaded Waterfront's purchase of two more homes. The most recent addition to Waterfront was purchased in 1996. Two tenants were living in a house in the Commercial Drive neighbourhood when the landlord announced intentions to sell. To retain their home, they put together a detailed proposal to Waterfront arguing that the purchase of this house as well as the addition of themselves as members would be a benefit to the co-op.
To show that they would not be a burden to the co-op, they had to prove that more than just the numbers made sense. They had to demonstrate that they had an understanding of what it meant to be members of the co-op and that they had the necessary skills, experience and knowledge to manage their own house and be contributing members to Waterfront.
They needed some basic maintenance skills and a willingness to learn how to do things for themselves. In addition to being willing and able to maintain the physical structure of the house, the potential members showed they would be assets to the co-op in other ways. Owning a home co-operatively requires skills such as conflict resolution, consensus building, communication and facilitation skills. These members brought previous experience in co-operative management and community organising to Waterfront Coop.
Each member is required to purchase $4 worth of shares in Waterfront Consumer's Co-operative. Waterfront carries one mortgage for all of the houses. The mortgage payments are the same for all member-owners regardless of which house they live in. Each member pays $177 each month for the mortgage with the exception of subsidised members. The co-op recently decided to 100% subsidise the mortgages of children up to the age of 18 and to partially subsidise members over the age of 65.
In addition to monthly mortgage payments the houses have other housing costs. Each member pays $20 per month to a general maintenance fund. Some houses pay more if they wish to undertake additional projects. Other costs, such as house insurance, property taxes and utilities, are different for each house. Some homes include a monthly charge to cover shared bulk purchases such as laundry detergent. The total monthly housing costs for both Maya House in Kitsilano and a house in the Commercial Drive area is $375 per person per month.
When I first visited these homes as a new resident to Vancouver (freshly outraged and completely frustrated by the high cost of rent), I was shocked at the beauty, immaculate maintenance and low cost of these homes. The housing costs are clearly below market rental rates in the city of Vancouver. Average rent for two bedrooms in Vancouver is $733 (CMHC 2000), and residents can expect to pay an additional $100-$200 per month for utilities. A single person with a roommate can expect to pay $400-500 per month in housing costs. A common definition of affordable housing used by local municipalities is "total housing costs that do not exceed 30% of a residents gross income." According to this definition, a person earning $1 600 (little more than minimum wage with full time hours) should not pay more that $400 per month in total housing costs.
Waterfront is able to provide housing at below market rates for three reasons. The co-op invested in housing before a dramatic rise in land prices in Vancouver. The member-owners, unlike renters, are paying themselves each month, and benefit from their own increased equity. In addition, Waterfront Consumer's Co-operative included a non-profit dissolution clause in their rules. That means, should the co-op ever dissolve and sell its assets, the members will not profit; rather, the money will go to a like-minded organisation. Current member-owners are in no hurry to pay off their mortgage. The co-op may decide to pay back their mortgage over a longer period of time in order to decrease monthly payments.
The members of Waterfront meet only once a year for their Annual General Meeting, where they combine business with a potluck as a chance to reconnect with the other members. They review the situation of the co-op, discuss issues and use consensus to make decisions. At the last meeting, members discussed having more meetings or communication between the houses.
Each house is run autonomously from the larger co-op. Recently, one of the houses was going through a hard time and the rest of the co-op felt they were too slow in realising it and therefore too slow in helping out. Waterfront strives to create a balance between the autonomy of each house and the objectives of overall co-op. Each house has had some negative experience with members. To address this, the co-op discussed formalising the process of bringing in new members and is currently exploring the idea of drafting an 'understanding of living here' agreement.
Living with others
For some people living communally is no sacrifice at all. However living with 2 or more people, sharing the same kitchen, living room or bathroom can be difficult. The hardest part of sharing is worrying that you are getting out as much as you put in. The number of [sharing] possibilities is proportional to our mutual trust.4
Each house is managed differently and independently from the others. Generally, each house designates one member to manage the finances. The level of co-operation or sharing is different depending on the unique house. Maya House, because it is a large house with 8 people living together, has a more formal system of sharing. Every night members eat a meal together. While it is recognised that people have fluctuating schedules it is understood that member-owners are expected to share 4-5 meals together per week. This is done to share food costs and to minimise kitchen conflicts. Maya House also employs a job board to ensure the cleaning and maintenance is done.
In contrast, a smaller house with only 4 members manages their tasks in an ad hoc way. Meals are not shared as the members are rarely at home at the same time. When the members need to communicate with each other they will correspond through notes and, for significant decisions, eventually will sit down together to meet and attempt to reach consensus.
To understand the experience of living in this co-operative, I have included an embedded case study of one of the houses. What follows is the summary of a group interview with 3 out of 4 members of a 'Quiet but Lively House.'
Embedded Case Study-A Quiet but Lively House
When people find out about the housing co-op, they tend to immediately think of horrible long meetings and tiny little barren rooms. Waterfront members have to distinguish their co-op from the building co-ops (CMHC). After explaining what they are and how they live, people immediately want to know, "How did you get started? How did you get the money?"
The current members credit the enlightened individuals in the 70's who had the foresight and gumption to take the risk to start the co-op. The reason why the co-op is now able to afford to add new houses is because of the equity in the co-op that has been building since the early 1970's. For the current members this co-op is a way to provide secure housing for people of modest income-especially in the city of Vancouver.
According to the members, one of the things people are most astounded by is how they manage the house with relative ease. The housemates communicate with each other through stick-it notes or conversation. Admittedly, it can take a long time to make a decision. For example, this house is slowly replacing furniture and appliances as assets. In other words, when it comes time to buy a couch or vacuum, the members chip in and buy one for the co-op. When an individual leaves, they take what they came with (generally items in their bedroom) but the co-op items remain behind. A decision on what vacuum to buy can take 3 weeks. This is a reflection of the commitment to a collective process as well as the members' busy lives.
Other responsibilities that require input from all the members are the upkeep, repairs and maintenance of the house. They have decided to put aside additional money each month for renovations. They jokingly argued about which side of the house they were going to paint. Eventually, they will use consensus to decide how to spend the money.
The members also have to take responsibility for when the fridge breaks down or roof caves in. Who does what usually depends on availability of time and level of knowledge. Some of the members have lived in the house for 12 years and others less than 2 years.
"...I think there is a period of time [needed] to understand what living in a co-op means and all that it entails. What are all the practical everyday things you need to know about in essence, being a homeowner."
The flip side of the responsibilities of being a member is the rights associated with co-op homeownership.
You're not building equity, but one of the major things is that we are not afraid that the house is going to be sold out from underneath us.
I lived in a [rental] house for maybe 16 years, and we were always waiting for the axe to fall. And we kind of ran it as a co-operative house, but we were always waiting for the landlord to sell it whenever it pleased him. And so, it was hard to think about investing a lot of time and energy and thought...
Security of tenure frees the members to make emotional and financial investments in the house and in the community. Because of the non-profit dissolution clause the members feel good about investing: even though they may not reap all the benefits of their investments, other like-minded people will.
Over time, the members say that improvements to the house have really helped the whole neighbourhood. They are committed to the community. Housing co-ops have contributed to the sustainability of community bonds and culture, as this neighbourhood is becoming vulnerable to the effects of gentrification and lower income people are forced to move to outlying areas. The members comment on the advantages of co-operative living:
We're not just fixing it up and then going to sell for big bucks and move to Shaughnessy.
It's an advantage for people who live on the street... They [the immediate neighbours] have lived here for 7 or 8 years now and they have a child. It's really nice for them to have an anchored neighbourhood.
It also provides more security. Although we may not know them by name, we know who lives across the street.
I asked the members if they had to 'make a leap' to let go of the idea of owning their own home and building their own equity. They responded by telling me that they had no illusions about owning their own home-especially in Vancouver. Particularly for women on their own with modest incomes, co-operative living is really the only viable option.
In addition to being a practical solution to an affordable housing problem, the business of Waterfront fits with the values of the members. In general, the members don't really like the idea of private property and shared ownership fits with their basic philosophy.
"...I'd say that our basic value systems are somewhat similar, with the three of us. I think that is actually the foundation of Waterfront."
Unanimously, they agreed that having a similar worldview and basic common values is key to the household functioning. When there have been members in the house that do not share co-operative philosophies it is demonstrated in the lack of participation and shedding of responsibility.
As new members move into the house, the group culture must adapt to a new person's communication, conflict resolution, work, and living styles. For the existing members, it is a matter of striking a fine balance. They strive for continuity in their home life. In order to ease the disruption felt when a member leaves, they try to recruit new members that fit with the spirit of the house while allowing for new members' personalities to become a part of the house. Recruiting and introducing new members is the most challenging and important task of their house. The members have learned to actively solicit people who are interested in making a long-term commitment to the co-op.
When I asked the members how they would advise a similar group they said:
More space! Make sure you have enough common spaces!
And two telephone lines.
Clarity! Clarity of vision, expectations and a mechanism for conflict resolution.
Have someone-a resource person, who has done this before, help out in the beginning.
Links to community
Members do not personally increase their equity; so what are the benefits of co-operative housing? In the case where member-owners have no other housing options, the benefits are significant. In other cases, the benefits are subtler. For example, members make financial investments in house and thus the life of house is extended & better maintained. Diversity and community culture is sustained. When property values rise, lower income people do not have to move. Security of tenure leads to stability in the neighbourhood and trust among neighbours. One member provides insight into how co-operative housing teaches members to relate to each other in a positive constructive way:
I think it's a great education. It has to do with self-sufficiency and that contributes to your sense of being capable in the world. I think we can teach one another about it. So I really urge you to go for it-just for that. And learning how to-just in a small way-manage conflict, or learn self-management techniques that allow you to be part of a larger cooperative, which allow you to be part of a larger community.
1 Author unknown. Article: "Waterfront Consumer's Co-op." No date.
2 See note 1.
3 Kinnis, Sol. Co-Operative Housing Today. BCICS: http://web.uvic.ca/bcics/research/housing/models.html#community
4 See note 1.
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. Further information regarding this study includes the following:
Researcher: Nicole Chaland
Date of research: 2001
Author: Nicole Chaland
Date of writing: 2001
Editing: BCICS editorial group
Supervision: Kathleen Gabelmann, BCICS Research Co-ordinator