Waterloo Region is one of the top 10 fastest-growing communities in Canada, with our population now surpassing 624,000 residents. That growth comes with costs – most noticeably a lack of affordable housing options.

Tackling the issue of affordable housing is the goal of Union Co-operative, a new local initiative working on a unique approach to creating affordable housing. While non-profit housing co-ops have a long tradition in Canada, Union Co-operative is creating permanent affordable housing by purchasing a property that will offer affordable housing units. Unlike traditional non-profit co-ops, members of the co-operative can invest up to $10,000 and receive dividends from those investments. 

Executive Director Sean Campbell said while there's no shortage of passionate people and great ideas in Waterloo Region, it's challenging to find the capital required to deal with significant systemic issues such as affordable housing.

“How does a small non-profit or charity really make advances in affordable housing? I had the opportunity to look across Canada and in the U.S. to see what communities are doing to deal with these bigger issues. I kept seeing co-ops come up as one potential tool,” he said.

One example Campbell gave was the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative in Oakland, CA.

“Community members who invest in the co-op are pooling those funds together in order to form the down payment they need to buy existing buildings and hold on to it permanently for affordability and community control. That's exactly what we want to do here in Waterloo Region,” Campbell said.

Renewable energy co-ops in Ontario inspired the difference in approach for Union Co-operative. Campbell said renewable energy co-ops have raised tens of millions of dollars for solar and wind projects – generating energy and providing investment opportunities for their members.

“We've never seen that model applied to housing. With Union Co-operative, anyone who lives, works or has a connection to the region can become a member of the co-op and invest in preference shares within the co-op,” he said.

The preference shares are how the co-op capitalizes the co-operative's down payment. They'll then secure a traditional mortgage from a lender. Union Co-operative takes a page from conventional non-profit co-ops by ensuring both members and residents of the project have seats on the property's management board. 

“We think they have the most to gain or lose from the successful management of the property,” Campbell said.

The co-operative has two membership types – community and tenant members. Community members are the investors in the project, and tenant members are the residents of the project. 

Sam Trieu, an Event Marketing Manager at Axonify, became a member of Union Co-operative after hearing Campbell pitch the concept at a local sustainability tech peer group.

“The grassroots approach and social impact of holding space for vulnerable populations in a long-term, tangible way — literally preserving neighbourhood apartment blocks for residents — is easy to throw support behind. I just like that this is a resident-driven and heartfelt solution of investing in KW with visible dividends,” Trieu said.

Campbell hopes that the continued growth and success of local tech companies can inspire more members to give back.

“Community members are fortunate enough to be in a spot where we can choose to invest locally for impact. We still expect to get our money back and a return as well, but we're really here to create a more inclusive and engaging community,” Campbell said.

While Waterloo Region is home to multiple non-profit co-operative housing projects, Campbell said there hasn't been a new project started since the recession of the 1990s. Then in 2000, the province downloaded housing funding responsibility to the regional level.

“Our community has grown substantially since then. We need new tools for bringing in new capital. We can learn a lot from what's working well in the private sector and say how do we take that same approach of bringing in private capital, but in this case, community capital. We're making our community a more affordable spot to live,” he said.

Visit unionsd.coop to learn more about the project and how you can invest in creating more affordable housing in Waterloo Region.