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Derek Andrews stands on the rooftop of the Four Sisters Housing Co-op in Vancouver.

Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

When the federal budget is unveiled Tuesday, Derek Andrews will be watching for something specific: a plan to maintain or replace rental subsidies for co-op housing.

For him and thousands of other Canadians who live in co-ops, such a plan could mean the difference between peace of mind and anxiety – and, in the most dire scenarios, the difference between shelter and the street.

As a long-time resident of Vancouver's Four Sisters Housing Co-operative, Mr. Andrews has benefited from a federal program that helps his co-op, and thousands of others across the country, subsidize residents who otherwise would not be able to afford monthly housing charges. But the 35-year operating agreements that provided for that subsidy are set to expire – raising questions about how the loss of that money will affect low-income tenants and hopes that Ottawa will step in with something to replace it.

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"It would mean the place they live – and often, people have lived in their homes for a very long time – might become unaffordable for them," Mr. Andrews said in a recent interview.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau flagged co-op subsidies in his November mandate letter to Families, Children and Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, raising hopes among co-op and housing advocates that the issue would be addressed. Housing-related hopes are riding on Liberal campaign promises to "renew federal leadership" in the sector and to spend $60-billion on infrastructure over the next decade.

Federal budget brief

Operating agreements between co-op providers and the federal government have already begun to expire and "even now the amount that's available to existing providers who are still getting [federal] assistance is hardly enough," Nicholas Gazzard, executive director of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada, said in a recent interview.

About a third of residents at Burnaby's Whattlekainum Co-op are subsidized through the federal program, said 14-year resident Deanna Overland.

"Unfortunately, the people who require subsidy right now really, really need it – they're on disability or they're elderly," Ms. Overland said. "They can't just go out and make more money."

Whattlekainum's operating agreement ends in August, 2018. Currently, the 103-unit co-op gets an annual subsidy of $132,000 – a "drop in the bucket" compared with annual operating costs, but enough to help subsidize residents who need it, she added.

About 21,000 low-income households in Canada get rental assistance through federal operating agreement funding. The co-op federation would like Ottawa to create a new rent supplement program that would be managed by the provinces and territories.

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Now that federal, provincial and municipal governments all have affordable housing on their agenda, a co-ordinated approach could help dollars go further, said Thom Armstrong, executive director of the Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C.

In B.C., for example, the Vancouver Community Land Trust Foundation – formed in 2014 – is working on 385 units of housing on four sites through a deal that involves city land, non-profit operators and financial backing from Vancity Credit Union.

Two of the sites would have been difficult or impossible to develop under a conventional one-off development model because of awkward slopes or other issues, Mr. Armstrong said. But another riverfront property will generate higher returns and, in effect, subsidize development of other properties.

"The beauty of the land trust is that it gets all four of them [the sites] and treats them as a portfolio ... You can use the surpluses on one site to balance out what would be a deficit on the other – and you can hit a very aggressive affordability target," Mr. Armstrong said.

The riverfront units will be capped at 90 per cent of market rental rates. The balance of the units will be leased for an average of 75 per cent of market rates – with at least 20 per cent of units available to people in the "lowest-income quintile."

That includes people who are on social assistance. Details are still being worked out as to how many units will be available at social assistance rates, Mr. Armstrong said, but "the goal is to make that as big a number as we can."

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Under the model, the city provided 99-year leases on four city-owned sites. Co-op and non-profit groups will build and operate the properties. The land remains a community asset and the housing units can't be flipped.

Mr. Armstrong, too, will be watching the federal budget for news on co-op subsidies, saying it is essential to protect low-income families who currently benefit from the program.

"The province made a big announcement last month – they're going to put millions of dollars up to create 2,000 new affordable homes over the next five years," Mr. Armstrong said, referring to a February announcement from the province of $355-million over the next five years.

"And that's great – but if, at the same time, we lose 4,000 because nobody has replaced those federal subsidies, you're 2,000 [units] in the hole."

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