With rising rents and tenant evictions in Vancouver, some local residents are considering turning to co-op housing as a solution. Collective housing arrangements may not provide the freedom and security they may expect.
While we’ve heard of notorious private owners, like the Sahota family who own the Cobalt and Astoria Hotels, the seedier side of co-op housing and its owners are rarely reported publicly. Tenants could be sinking themselves into a new mire of problems by switching to a co-op model.
Advocates of collective housing, like the Co-op Housing Federation of BC, tout its advantages such as better management, diverse communities and how individuals have a say in what goes on. That sounds enticing, but evidence suggests that having your neighbours become your landlord can be as bad as any slumlord in the city. Instead of dealing with one bad owner or manager, a resident could deal with 20 or more bad owners in a co-op. Further, the Residential Tenancy Act and the Co-operative Association Act are two different beasts, with the latter offering less protection.
For example, Gary Morgan, a former resident at Queen’s Park Housing Co-op in New Westminster, moved his family out after 21 months of occupancy. He and his wife and two daughters found the trouble started as soon as they moved in.
When the Morgan family had been shown the apartment they were moving into, it had new kitchen appliances. Upon moving in, they found those appliances had mysteriously been replaced with old ones. A week after they moved in, the co-op cut a hole, 8 feet by 2 feet, in their bedroom ceiling due to a re-occurring leak. Eventually, Morgan investigated the leak himself, determined it was condensation from the dryer vent, and repaired it. But the co-op never fixed the hole in the ceiling while they lived there.
As well, the previous tenant in their apartment had damaged the carpets. While the Morgans had asked for new carpets before moving in, the co-op refused.Then when the family moved out, the co-op sued them in absentia without counsel for more than $10,000 to replace the carpets, clean the suite and for various repairs. The Morgans were bankrupted as a result.
Under the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA), a tenant could file for arbitration over repairs and damages with the Residential Tenancy Office (RTO). However, the Co-operative Association Act provides no such process. It allows co-op housing complexes to set their own rules, and there’s no outside office to help a resident in need. A co-op member could get a lawyer, but good luck trying to find one that can represent you, especially if you can’t afford it.
Geoffrey Dabbs and Grant Haddock, along with Robert Fenton, are Vancouver lawyers who specialize in co-op housing and applicable laws. Dabbs says they are all the best in the city. But, in many instances, they act exclusively for the co-ops and not individual members. Haddock acknowledges the problem of too few lawyers working in this area.
Recently, I moved out of the View Court Housing Co-op in central Vancouver. The majority of people that live there are white, middle class, able-bodied people. In 34 suites, there is one resident who is a person of colour.
Tolerance is not a way of life in this co-op. One resident, Susan, complained that I closed my cupboard doors too loudly and tried to prescribe how and when I ought to be using them. She also complained that a previous tenant washed his dishes too loudly. Another, Kari, complained that residents were closing the building’s front door too loudly. Surprisingly (or not), the co-op board of directors supports these sorts of complaints. In the past, the co-op evicted someone for minor noise. Some co-op members also wanted to expand the noise policy to include when residents could cook or use exercise machines. Other co-op members want to tell residents when and where they can park their bikes.
While I lived there, the former co-op maintenance co-ordinator entered my apartment on at least three occasions without any notice. He just unlocked the door and walked in for no apparent reason while I was home. Who knows how many other times he did that when I wasn’t there.
These are just a few examples of bad practices in co-ops in the Lower Mainland. Most of them would not be condoned under the RTA and could be disputed at the RTO with impartial arbitrators at little cost.
Co-op housing might seem attractive from a distance but the underlying reality may not prove to be true.
This article first appeared in The Source, Vol. 10 No. 18, May 5-19, 2009, p 1-2.