In 2012, nine small Saint John, New Brunswick, co-ops got together and realized they shared similar goals and values.
They wanted strong governance, engaged community building and acknowledgement of the changing needs of their members. But most importantly, they wanted to plan for their future in a way that would protect the long-term viability of their affordable co-op housing.
CHF Canada and Housing Alternatives organized a meeting in Saint John to help the co-ops explore the benefits that come with economies of scale. And with the approval of members, the co-ops formed a steering committee to consider the possibility of a merger. With support from CHF Canada, the steering committee analyzed each co-op’s finances, identified best practices and developed communication plans to help members make informed decisions.
The steering committee found that merging could mean more opportunities for member engagement and education, financial savings on maintenance and audits, access to a larger variety of units, refinancing opportunities and a stronger voice to government. Eventually, they created a merger plan, again with assistance from Housing Alternatives and CHF Canada. Every step of the way, the co-ops made sure to communicate openly with their members.
In December 2015, eight of the co-ops merged to become the new Unified Saint John Housing Co-operative, consisting of 252 units and over 400 members – one of Canada’s largest housing co-ops. During the first year, CHF Canada closely supported the new board as it moved through the transition. The new board is comprised of one member from each of the original co-ops.
Donna McHugh, a member of the steering committee, says she went into the process opposed, but eventually changed her mind. “Financially, it made a lot of sense,” she says. “Small co-ops are not always able to get capital funding to do major repairs. We got four or five of our big [repair] projects done this fall. I put it to people this way – it’s like being in the Bay of Fundy. Would you rather be in a cruise ship or in a rowboat? It’s pretty rocky and windy out there. Alone, you could drown!”
Unified Saint John members are spreading the word about their achievement – the biggest merger in Canadian co-op housing history. They’ve invited government and housing association representatives to discuss how they’ve protected affordable housing in Saint John. And they shared their story at CHF Canada’s Annual Meeting so others who may be struggling can see a positive model of change.
So, what happens when co-ops work together? They fulfill the sixth international co-operative principle – co-operation among co-operatives – and that makes the whole movement stronger.