Continuing housing co-operatives emerged during the 1960s as an innovative way to meeting housing needs and foster community development. Many Canadians, especially families with children, could no longer afford home ownership and faced difficulty finding good-quality rental housing. The term "continuing" co-operative refers to co-ops in which members jointly own the entire project but make no individual financial investment.
In the mid-1960s the first continuing co-op, the 200-unit Willow Park Housing Co-operative in Winnipeg, served as a demonstration that this new housing tenure was not only practical but also socially desirable. A sense of community was fostered by the co-operative form of ownership and management. To promote co-op housing, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Co-operative Union of Canada and the Canadian Union of Students established the Co-operative Housing Foundation of Canada in 1968. Now called the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada (CHF), with a national office in Ottawa and many regional and local affiliated federations, CHF represents the co-operative housing movement throughout the country.
After a review of housing and urban development policy in 1969, the federal government agreed that socially mixed housing co-operatives were an improved alternative to providing assisted housing. In 1973 the National Housing Act was amended to create a national co-op housing program. Since then, about 2000 housing co-ops have been built, providing self-managed affordable housing for over 80 000 households.
Groups who wish to build a co-op are assisted by a national network of nonprofit co-op housing development organizations, known as resource groups. The construction of a housing co-op involves not only building the housing but also building a new community capable of self-managing all aspects of the co-op. Housing co-ops combine features of owning and renting while having a different form of tenure from both. Residents co-own the buildings and pay a monthly housing charge for the use of their unit. As with home ownership, co-op members have security of tenure and make all decisions regarding their housing. As with renting, members make no down payment and do not sell their unit if they move out. The co-op is jointly owned on a nonprofit basis, with each member having one vote. What also differentiates co-ops from other kinds of housing is the quality and degree of member participation. Open and fully democratic participation in the management of the co-op is more than a right, it is an expectation built into the occupancy agreement.
The co-op housing program, like housing policy in general, has changed a number of times over the decades. In the early 1990s, as a budget restraint measure, the federal government ceased financing new social housing projects. A number of provinces have funded non-profit and co-operative housing independent of the federal government.
The first kinds of housing co-operatives in Canada were building co-ops and student co-ops. The former are temporary rather than continuing co-ops, through which members secure individual home ownership by helping build one another's houses. Over 20 000 houses have been co-operatively built since a group of miners in Tompkinsville, Cape Breton, built the first 11 houses in 1938.
Student co-ops emerged in the 1930s. The first was in 1934 at the University of Toronto. Student housing co-ops began to appear in larger numbers on or near university campuses after 1964, when NHA funding was made available. In the mid-1990s there were 1800 student co-op housing units in Canada.