I'm sitting in a small, windowless basement on the rough side of Shuter Street with about a dozen women.
They're a real mixed bag. Black, white, straight, lesbian, students, pensioners, middle-class professionals and welfare recipients. They all share the same housing complex, a commingling that is rare in Toronto, but not if you live in a co-op.
"Living in a co-op is the first time I've relaxed about my housing," I hear one of the women say, and I know exactly what she means.
My own 10-year experience in co-ops felt the same. In a city as monied as this, where the biggest expense most have is the roof over their head, I landed in a co-op at a point when my writing and music plans were as ambitious as they were financially dubious.
I won't forget the day we moved from a $1,000 flat in Kensington Market to a subsidized three-bedroom co-op unit in south Riverdale for half that amount. But the most exciting part of co-op living I recall is on display here tonight: community in all its messy glory. Let's face it, it's hard for neighbours to find connections these days apart from a shared interest in the upward trajectory of their property values and the safety of their children.
By today's standards, a co-op is an almost quaint idea: affordable housing, collectively run, and no profit is ever made. But it's the affordability issue in particular that's brought members of the Toronto Women's Housing Co-operative down to this meeting room. They're here brainstorming ways to avoid having to evict about a dozen low-income members who are months away from losing their rent subsidy.
In a city desperate for cheap housing, thousands of subsidized units have disappeared the result of a cash grab by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMCH). (Co-ops have to offer between 15 and 25 per cent of their units to those requiring subsidies, though many voluntarily go as high as 50 per cent.)
While 60 of Toronto's 150 co-ops are affected to varying degrees, the small 28-unit Women's Co-op will hit the financial wall by August if the CMHC policy isn't reversed.
"What do we do?" asks exasperated board member Beth Wilson. "Go heavily into deficit? Raise the rents to where no one here can afford them? All our choices are bad." Raising rents to market level at her co-op would mean a leap from $335 to $682 plus utilities for a one-bedroom.
Through a funding formula that only Kafka could find funny, CMHC assesses how much subsidy money it will give to a co-op based on its mortgage. Because interest rates have been going down over the last 10 to 15 years, co-ops are saving money when their mortgage rolls over. CMHC says these savings should be put toward the co-op's internal subsidy pool, thereby reducing the amount CMHC coughs up.
Sounds fair, right? If you're saving a buck on your mortgage, that's a buck the feds shouldn't need to give you for your subsidies. The problem is that for over a decade CMHC has been slowly starving co-ops' subsidy pools by withholding far more than co-ops are saving.
Consider the case of the Women's Co-op. Since 2000, its monthly mortgage payment has decreased by $4,460.53. But CMHC cut its subsidy by $6,550. For many larger co-ops, this funding gap has meant shrinking the number of subsidized units. St. Lawrence Market area co-op Windmill Line, for example, has gone from more than 100 subsidized units 10 years ago to only 41 today.
All this while CMHC, a federal Crown corp that holds the mortgage on most co-ops, sits on an accumulated multi-billion-dollar reserve that has helped puff up the feds' hit parade of budget surpluses.
Toronto Women's Co-op needs CMHC to restore about $28,000 it cut this year from its annual subsidy. That's just over two grand a month to keep a dozen women and children off the street. Sounds like a bargain.
"There's an affordable housing crisis, and it doesn't make sense not to fund these subsidies," says Tom Clement, exec director of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto. Co-op activists say restoring the subsidy to affected co-ops would create thousands of affordable housing units, and this is "without putting a shovel in the ground," says Clement.
While the former Liberal government in Ottawa finally roused itself to action last year, its remedy didn't go nearly far enough. It fixed the policy so that any co-op mortgage rollover would be dealt with on an even dollar-for-dollar basis but 80 per cent of co-ops with mortgages that rolled over before 2005 were left out of the deal.
I ask Fatima Barros, CMHC's director of portfolio administration and agreements, what's up with the subsidy grab? "The CMHC will work with any group to find viable solutions," she tells me. She says any co-op in distress can apply for what's called an additional financial contribution. "This has been in place since 1996, and would bridge the gap," she says.
Co-op workers call this program a cruel joke. "No co-op in Toronto has ever been approved for it," snaps Clement. "There are all sorts of onerous conditions: the members lose control of the co-op, and CMHC wants all rents to be pushed to market level. Co-ops don't want this. Besides, they aren't in this situation because they have been mismanaged."
The basement meeting is about to wrap up, with members agreeing to a letter-writing blitz. "We want to keep our community together," says resident Caroll Downey. "If all these units have to be rented at market value, this co-op will die."
Percentage of Torontonians who are renters: 49
Percentage who pay more than 30 per cent of their income on rent: 42
Percentage who pay more than 50 per cent of their income on rent: 20