Propolis Housing Cooperative seeks to build lasting community in Kamloops

Propolis Housing Cooperative is a local example of how housing co-ops can offer community-centered solutions to the housing crisis.
The Propolis Cooperative founding members. Photo courtesy of Propolis

Nearly half of all renters and about 14 per cent of homeowners in Kamloops are living in unaffordable housing, meaning they pay more than 30 per cent of their income on shelter, according to a 2020 report from the city. 

But the founders of a new local housing co-operative (co-op) say investing in non-market housing has the potential to house residents more equitably.

“The scale of the housing crisis that we face as a community means that we need more of all kinds of housing being built,” says Lindsay Harris, president of Propolis Housing Cooperative, the team planning a 50-unit, net-zero housing co-op on the corner of Aspen Street and Tranquille Road. 

The lack of non-market housing options has stoked polarization between those who can and can’t afford to invest in real estate, Harris told The Wren. It also contributes to locals being priced out of their homes.

Research shows that an increase in market housing — housing that is built, purchased and sold as an investment — does not necessarily contribute to housing affordability. 

In contrast, non-market housing serves as a home first and foremost. This can include supportive housing, where a non-profit or government offers rentals below market rates to those with low incomes. But other non-market options like co-housing or co-ops have the potential to stabilize ballooning home prices, she explains.

Three-bedroom apartments in Kamloops currently rent for about $3,000 per month, according to online rental agent Zumper, while the cost of a three-bedroom townhome in another local housing co-op, the Pine Tree Gardens Cooperative, is about $1,000 per month, in addition to the one-time cost of shares, typically about $2,000. 

It’s for this reason that the Propolis team is putting in the work to bring more co-op housing to Kamloops. While membership is not yet open, Propolis is currently recruiting investors through a community bond campaign to support the build aims to have the units move-in ready by 2026.

A building on the corner has a red roof and shows signs of a sushi restaurant. This will be the site of a new housing coop.
Propolis Housing is currently fundraising $1.1 million through community bonds to support a housing co-op at 422 and 424 Tranquille Rd. on the North Shore. Photo by Lyssa Martin/The Wren

Dusting off the co-op housing model

Kamloops currently has three housing co-ops, according to the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC, and their age reflects the political climate in which they were conceived. After a wave of government supported co-op building during the housing crisis in the ‘70s and ‘80s, attention and interest mostly dried up. 

“I think a lot of people, particularly outside of the Lower Mainland, really don’t know what co-op housing is. I was guilty of it for a time as well,” says Elly Grabner, vice president of the Pine Tree Gardens Cooperative, which was built in 1983.

When you buy into a co-op,  you are actually buying a share. This essentially makes you an equal co-owner of the entire property, but with the exclusive right to occupy a particular unit. 

According to the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC, a share typically costs between $1,000 and $7,000, but is most often around $2,000. Similar to a damage deposit, the share price is returned when a member moves out, minus any repairs to the unit or debt owed to the co-op. On top of the one-time share purchase, members also pay a monthly housing fee, which is based on the operating costs of the property.

By removing the profit motive from the equation, both the housing fees and shares remain grounded to actual costs of maintaining the property.

The housing continuum shows the different catagories of non-market and market housing. Figure by Lyssa Martin / The Wren with assets from Freepik

Co-ops improve affordability for everyone, not just their members. The realistic monthly costs of co-ops contribute to driving down average rent costs, increasing competition among private landlords who may price their homes to the market or higher.

Despite flying under the radar for decades, Canada’s co-ops are some of the most affordable and sought after housing options, especially in the most expensive real-estate markets.

The Propolis team isn’t waiting for legislators to get the ball rolling again. Instead, they are seeking support directly from the community through the sale of community bonds, a first for a development in Kamloops. 

“Community bonds are a social finance tool that pairs earning financial return with earning a social return,” Harris says. “They empower communities to mobilize and collectively invest in projects that matter to them, like co-operatives.”

Bonds for the Propolis project start at $1000, enabling those who are not independently wealthy to earn a small return (currently listed at 3.5 per cent) while contributing to the future of their community.

The co-op experience

It is more than just affordability that makes co-op living desirable.

“The really key piece for us is that we don’t have a traditional landlord,” Grabner says. Because the community is collectively owned, the residents get to make decisions. 

“You can paint a wall or put plants in your yard without having to ask permission, but if your furnace goes then the co-op covers it the same as if you rented,” Grabner adds.

While some co-op members would be considered low income, Grabner says others definitely would not. It is the interesting and diverse mix of people that makes for a really good environment.

“People hear co-op housing and think of low-income housing, but that’s not necessarily the case,” she says. 

Due to a three-year wait list, they had to stop accepting new applicants. “It was really a difficult decision for us as a board to make,” Grabner says, but they felt it was unfair to expect people to wait years without knowing when something would be available.

“I wish that we could just tell everybody that they can all move in here,” she says. “I don’t know why there aren’t more co-ops.”

A wood sign reads Pine Gardens Housing co-op.
Like most housing co-ops, the Pine Tree Gardens Housing Co-op was built in the 1980s. Photo by Lyssa Martin/The Wren

Co-ops are building momentum

A major obstacle remains for cooperative housing societies: the initial cost of building housing. 

After the federal grants that fueled the first wave of co-ops dried up in the early 1990s, new developments slowed to a trickle. Funding for co-ops is starting to make a comeback with support from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s Co-Investment Program, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Sustainable Affordable Housing Fund and other sources like Credit Unions. But the long term impact remains uncertain.

This is why Propolis is taking a community-centered approach, not only in the funding of the project, but in the design phase as well. 

“A big part of that is taking stock of what assets make the neighborhood special, and making sure that they are part of whatever plan we have going forward,” Harris says. For example the current plan includes a new space for The Effie Art Collective which is currently located at the proposed site.

By including neighborhood residents and the community at large from the start, they hope to create a sense of ownership and excitement to see the project through. 

A single storey building with a red roof sits on a street corner. the building is an old sushi restaurant.
The proposed location for the Propolis Housing Co-op on the corner of Aspen Street and Tranquille Road. Photo by Lyssa Martin/The Wren

The goal is for Propolis to be net-zero, both in its construction and over the building’s lifetime through a partnership with local builder NexBuild. 

“We are planning a building that’s going to last as long as it can, with easy maintenance and the lowest lifetime cost,” says Miles Pruden, Propolis’ vice president. “Like any co-op there is an immediate quality of life improvement for the households that get to call the building home.” 

Those people then turn around and spend their disposable income back into neighborhood businesses, Pruden says, “creating a ripple effect on the economy of the neighborhood as a whole.”

Propolis also needs to factor in the importance of creating a building that is resilient to various factors of climate change, like fires and floods, which will only get more common, Pruden says. 

“These are challenges, but if we’re aware of them we can really mitigate those harms. For example by having excellent air purification built-in for situations like we’re experiencing right now,” or including a rooftop garden and solar panels for food and energy independence.

“We just have to keep trying. We don’t have any problems that can’t be solved. There’s a lot of very terrifying situations on the horizon, but we just have to manage it,” Pruden says, “and so here we are, managing it.”

“I will say, as soon as we catch our breath after this building, we plan to start working on the next,” says Pruden. 

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