Special ’ops

After a long, hard slog, students are close to seeing new co-op housing in Halifax. Jessica Linzey reports.

Sweet home Rachel Derrah of the MSLC at a housing co-op on Gottingen.
photo Julé Malet-Veale

It's been 40 years since a group of married Dalhousie University students founded the Halifax Student Housing Society and built what has been, and still is, the only student housing co-op in town—the 112-unit Peter Green Hall on Wellington Street. But if Bridget McConnell, Jason Pelley and Rachel Derrah have anything to do with it, that's all about to change.

McConnell, Pelley and Derrah are co-founders of the Metro Student Living Co-operative. For the past two years they've been working towards bringing post-secondary students into the provincial co-op movement. It's an effort long overdue. Halifax's large student stock, coupled with poor public transportation infrastructure, has allowed landlords to drive up rental rates virtually unchecked over the past few decades—the result of which is a city-wide rash of high-cost, low-quality student digs. Co-ops—popular throughout Canada and thriving in most university communities—exist to meet the needs of their members. For the MSLC, this means providing Halifax students with quality, affordable, community-based housing alternatives.

"The affordability was just the bonus," says McConnell. "I was more interested in having some control over my living conditions." McConnell has lived in co-op housing since the mid-'90s; a full-time student and a single mother of three, it was the best and most appealing option available to her. Surrounded by stories of student housing woes, McConnell started advertising available co-op units on Dal bulletin boards in 2000—a practice she kept even after she had graduated—all the while encouraging students to look into starting their own housing co-operative. It was through one of these postings that Pelley and Derrah, a fourth-year Community Design student, found McConnell in February 2005.

With start-up grants from the Dalhousie Student Union and the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group they began approaching local housing associations and co-operatives, sitting in on member meetings whenever they had the chance. "It was a good opportunity to see what problems some co-ops face," says Derrah. "We certainly learned what we won't do."

Two years later, the group hosted their first public meeting, and on the strength of a lot of legwork, local support and a good business plan, the MSLC was incorporated in February 2007.

Then came the interesting bit: finding housing.

There are about 60 housing co-operatives in the HRM, but there's been no new co-op housing development in Nova Scotia for more than 10 years. According to McConnell, while Affordable Housing Initiative funds have been contributing to the development of affordable housing in NS, very few provisions have been made for the development of new co-operative housing. "Rachel and I had inquired about the funds early in the year, but were more or less told that if we weren't focused on providing affordable housing for single parents or seniors, then we didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting any funding."

Knowing they were still at least a year away from finding the funds to invest in their own property, the MSLC began looking at alternatives, and soon realized there were empty co-op units available throughout the city. "We started presenting to local housing associations, pushing the principle that co-ops support co-ops," says Derrah. "Some associations weren't keen to let students in, but we were offering to take responsibility for our members. That way there's a lower risk to the co-ops leasing us vacant units."

The unusual pitch worked. And though the MSLC is unable to discuss partnering co-op and unit location specifics until final details have been sorted, should all go as planned, it will have secured co-op housing throughout the city for up to 20 students this September. Derrah is also unwilling to talk about how the province may be involved at this stage, but with or without government support, the interviews with prospective members are due to begin this week. The Metro Student Living Co-operative is on the verge of realizing its vision of housing for students, by students.

A website is on its way, but interested students and potential members can email metrostudentcoop@gmail.com.

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