Peterborough’s oldest housing co-op is an oasis of affordability. Could more like it help solve the housing crisis?

A 3-bedroom townhouse at Peterborough Co-operative Homes goes for $828 a month. But there’s a four-year waiting list to get in.

There’s a patch of grass in front of Tiny Budd’s west-end Peterborough home where the neighbourhood kids like to play.

Budd, 76, feels a sense of satisfaction seeing them from her kitchen window. The kids might not know it, but it’s partly thanks to her that most of the families on her street have an affordable place to call home. 

In 1979, Budd helped found the city’s first housing co-operative, Peterborough Co-operative Homes. She is now one of its longest-standing residents, living in a tidy, brick-and-vinyl townhouse at the end of Chamberlain Place, near Chamberlain Street and Goodfellow Road. 

Budd’s two-storey home is one of dozens just like it that the co-op built along this quiet cul-de-sac in the early 1980s. “My friend and I… we used to come down every day and check on the workers, to see what they were getting done,” Budd said. A single mother at the time, she moved in a few years after construction was complete – and she’s never thought of leaving since. “I’m going to stay here until I die,” she said. “I just love it.” 

As members of the co-op, Budd and her neighbours are their own landlords. They manage the co-op’s 59 townhouses collectively, making decisions like when to renovate and whether to raise their monthly housing charges. It’s an arrangement that drives down the cost of housing significantly. Today, a three-bedroom unit rents for an eye-watering $828 per month, whereas the average price for newly-listed one-bedroom apartments found on over the last week was $1687. Twenty of the townhouses are even more affordable, with geared-to-income rents that are subsidized by the federal government. 

The co-op also gives Budd and her neighbours security of tenure, meaning they don’t have to worry about a landlord evicting them in order to sell or renovate their units.

“Sometimes… I give a little speech about how lucky people are to live here,” Budd said.

Co-op looks to expand

A quarter of a million people live in housing co-ops across the country, according to the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada (CHF Canada). Most of those developments were built in the 1970s and 1980s, with funding and loans from federal and provincial levels of government. But that funding was slashed amid the government austerity of the 1990s. Now Canadians are paying the price, according to Tim Ross, executive director of CHF Canada. “Had we continued building community housing, nonprofit housing and co-op housing at the rate that we were in the ‘70s and ‘80s, perhaps we wouldn’t be in such dire straits when it comes to the current housing situation,” he said.

Three decades later, the federal government is now showing renewed interest in co-ops, as the housing crisis deepens. This year’s federal budget includes $1.5 billion toward funding and financing new co-op housing. It’s the biggest investment in the sector in 30 years, with a goal to build 6,000 units by 2027. Ross sees it as a good first step. “We hope that this is the start… and not an ending for the growth of co-op housing in Canada,” he said.

The funding announcement could be good news for Peterborough Co-operative Homes. It was part of Canada’s first big wave of co-op construction. Now more than thirty years after the last townhouse was built, residents want to expand as part of a new wave of co-op growth.

Peterborough Co-operative Homes is comprised of 59 townhouses clustered around Chamberlain Place and Applewood Crescent. A non-profit model helps to drive down costs — members currently pay $828 per month for their three-bedroom units. (Photo: Will Pearson)

Anti-poverty group spearheaded co-op’s creation

Peterborough Co-operative Homes got started when a local anti-poverty group was seeking to bring more affordable housing to the city in the 1970s, according to Budd. That search led members of the now-defunct United Citizens organization to take a tour of some housing co-ops in Toronto. Budd, who was the group’s vice president at the time, was among them. Before the trip was over, she and the other members had already decided they wanted to start a co-op of their own, she said. “We could hardly wait to get back to Peterborough and get this thing rolling.” Eventually the Peterborough and District Labour Council came on board and plans for a housing co-op “took off like wildfire,” she said.

By 1979, the group had leveraged federal funding to buy the co-op’s first 10 townhouses. Those homes are located on Applewood Crescent, near Lansdowne Street and Kawartha Heights Boulevard. The co-op quickly outgrew that location and added its second site, on Chamberlain Place, in the early 1980s.

In the decades since, the co-op has been a life raft for many families struggling to make ends meet, according Janine McDonald, the co-op’s long-time property manager.

“You see the kids go out in their soccer uniform, because parents can now afford to take their kids to soccer, which maybe before they couldn’t,” she said.

But anyone can apply to live there, regardless of what their income is. “We have everybody all across the board: we have single parents, we have two-income families, we have seniors,” she said.

“I have people phone every single day telling me that they need a place to live”

McDonald knows the benefits of co-op living first hand. In the 1980s, she was a newly-single mother living in her parents’ basement when she helped start another Peterborough co-op – Leta Brownscombe Co-operative Homes, a townhouse complex off Milroy Drive in the north end. Living there for several years allowed her to save money to buy a home. But she didn’t move far: she can see Leta Brownscombe from the backyard of the house she moved into, where she still lives today with her husband. “I really just bought a house over the fence, so my kids didn’t leave their school and they didn’t leave behind all of their friends,” she said.

Even after moving, McDonald remained deeply tied to the co-op movement. She is an active volunteer with the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada and also the property manager of both Kawartha Village Co-op, near Lansdowne Street and Ashburnham Drive, and Peterborough Co-operative Homes, where she’s worked since the early 1990s.

With Peterborough rents at historic highs and an apartment vacancy rate of only one percent, demand to move into the co-op has never been higher, McDonald said. “I have people phone every single day telling me that they need a place to live.” She can often hear desperation in their voices, but there’s not much she can do to help. The waitlist for a unit is four-to-five years long, so all she can do is add them to the list and hope they find somewhere else to live in the meantime.

Units don’t come available often because residents just don’t want to leave, McDonald said. “We have almost no turnover because people move in, they like the community, their unit is kept in good condition – and where else would they go for $828 [a month]? So they stay,” she said. “I wish we had more units to offer.”

That’s why it was “really happy news” for McDonald when this year’s federal budget included new funding for co-ops. But she still can’t wrap her head around why the provincial and federal governments “abandoned” their earlier programs to support co-op construction in the 1990s. (The federal program that helped Peterborough Co-operative Homes get established was cut by the Mulroney government in 1992). “Now…we’re in a housing crisis where people have nowhere to live. So what were they thinking? Where did they think people were going to go?”

Co-op needs accessible units for seniors, people with disabilities

Next year, Kerri-Anne Hinds will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of her move to Peterborough Co-operative Homes. In 2012, a friend suggested that she apply to live there. A year later, she finally got a call saying that a three-bedroom townhouse on Applewood Crescent had come available. The rent was about half of the $1,600 a month she and her husband were paying for their apartment on Stornoway Place, and it came with a basement and a backyard for their four kids to play in.

Once they moved in, Hinds quickly began meeting her neighbours. “It’s almost like an instant community when you move into a co-op,” she said. Before long, she ran for a seat on the organization’s board of directors, which she still holds. 

Kerri-Anne Hinds has lived at Peterborough Co-operative Homes for almost a decade. She loves the co-op’s community and affordability. But her husband will soon need a unit that is more accessible than their current one, and the co-op doesn’t have any to offer. (Photo: Brett Throop)

Hinds works part-time at a bookstore and her husband relies on Ontario disability support payments because of a workplace spinal injury. Moving into the co-op has made it easier for them to get by on their tight income. “We can actually kind of live as opposed to survive,” Hinds said. 

But it will be difficult for the couple to grow old in the home they love, Hinds said. Her husband’s condition will get worse with time, causing him to lose mobility. Eventually, he won’t be able to climb the stairs to the second floor, where the bedrooms and only bathroom are located. “If we had a place to go that was more accessible that would be awesome,” Hinds said. 

Other co-op residents are in a similar predicament. All of the townhouses are two-storeys and some seniors with limited mobility already can’t access their second floors, Hinds said. That’s the case for Budd, who said she often has to go up the stairs to her bedroom on her hands and knees. 

But Budd doesn’t want to leave the co-op. And Hinds said many other seniors don’t either. So a few years ago, the board of directors came up with a solution. They would build a small apartment building with accessible units for seniors and people with disabilities. It would allow those residents to stay in the co-op while also freeing up some of the townhouses for families that need the bigger space, Hinds said.

Residents face a tough choice

Hinds and the other board members began looking at properties to buy. They were daunted by the high prices, but kept searching. Then they got some bad news. It turned out the co-op’s existing townhouses needed some major renovations – everything from new roofs and windows to better insulation in the attics. The price tag would be in the millions, and they couldn’t afford to do the repairs and build a new apartment building at the same time, Hinds said. The members would have to vote on what to do next.

The night of the vote was an emotional one for Hinds. She said she “almost felt defeated.” She knew that the renovations were needed, but she also wanted the co-op to expand so it could help more people and “build more of a legacy,” she said. In the end, the members decided to go ahead with the renovations and put their plans for a new apartment building on hold. It was a tough decision, but Hinds said she believes they made the right choice.

Last year, the co-op secured a $2.3 million loan to complete the renovations, according to McDonald. Hinds thought it would be years before the residents could pay it all off and start thinking about expansion again. But when the federal government announced funding for co-ops last spring, it gave her new hope. She’s now waiting to see if Peterborough Co-operative Homes can access some of that money to build a new apartment building after all.

But the government has not yet released details about what types of projects the funding can be used for or what groups will be eligible to receive it. The spring budget proposed a new “Co-operative Housing Development Program” to roll out some of the money. The program will be developed in collaboration with stakeholders in the sector. Tim Ross, the head of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada, said talks about what the new program will look like began in late spring.

Neighbours look out for one another

Meanwhile, Hinds is bracing for the day when her husband will no longer be able to make it up the stairs. If they have nowhere else to go by then, he’ll be confined to the main floor living room, she said. But for now, she’s grateful they have a roof over their heads. ”If we didn’t have this place, I think we would be homeless to tell you the truth.”

As for Tiny Budd, although it’s becoming harder to get around her house as she gets older, she said she gives thanks for living in the co-op every day. She said it’s a place where she can count on her neighbours to look out for her, especially now that she lives alone following the death of her husband in 2010. Her neighbours cut her grass and offer to take her shopping and pick up her groceries. “We have absolutely wonderful people in the co-op,” she said. “It isn’t just a place to go and live and pay less housing charges.. it’s a community.”

Budd said living so closely with others teaches you to “deal with people’s differences.” But after all these years, there’s one thing she struggles to accept.

She’s a devoted baseball fan, and she can’t understand why some of her neighbours don’t share her love for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Whenever her favourite team has a game on TV, she dons the Blue Jays jersey she keeps on the back of a chair in her living room. And then she gets up from the couch and closes the front door. 

Normally she loves hearing the neighbhourhood kids play outside, but baseball takes priority.

“If I leave my door open, then I can’t hear my Blue Jays,” she said.

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