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Built around 1910, Heidi Woodley's two-bedroom rental is one of eight small cottages on three lots at 6575 Nelson Ave.

Heidi Woodley

Heidi Woodley had mentioned to her landlord that she’d like to purchase her rental cottage, if only she had a way to do it. But when he put it on the market in April, she didn’t initially have a plan.

“It was mostly developers [who] were coming through, and it was pretty awful for weeks and weeks, having a parade of people who we just knew wouldn’t be keeping the cottages or keeping it in any way decent housing for regular people,” says Ms. Woodley, a single mom of two young boys.

Built around 1910, her two-bedroom rental is one of eight small cottages on three lots at 6575 Nelson Ave.

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Located in Horseshoe Bay, these brightly coloured craftsman style cottages are on the side of a hill overlooking the ocean and around a 20-minute drive from downtown Vancouver. Connected by pathways, they are about 400 to 700 square feet in size, and each has a veranda and garden. The landlord has owned the properties for 28 years and added landscaping, new windows and skylights.

To purchase her cottage and stay in the community, Ms. Woodley formed the Horseshoe Bay Cottagers’ Collective with other tenants and a few like-minded people who want to co-own a small housing community with outdoor space. They are a neighbourhood that will have potlucks and shared amenities, she says, but they are not a commune.

With a realtor who helps set up co-ownership structures, they devised a proposal to make an offer on the $3.8-million listing, which the owner accepted. The offer is subject to several conditions, including financing. But if all works out, those conditions would be removed on Aug. 10 and the deal would close in October — and the owners would be their own landlords.

To make it work, they need a few more buyers. As of last week, they were still working out the financing and legal aspects, and creating a list of initial contributors. They are also aiming to keep the purchase cost affordable, comparable to a condo in the region.

“The value of the investment from a hard-nosed just-money perspective — let’s say the Vancouver perspective — will always be just in the land. It’s three lots in West Vancouver with water and mountain views in a spectacular village situated midway between downtown and Whistler,” Ms. Woodley says.

“That’s the value of the land. And layered on top for me and the members of the collective is something [we] can’t put a price on, which is an intentional community that we see being able to accommodate a lot of people’s different needs over time. [Plus] all the stability and value that come with being able to put roots down and contribute to a community. It’s the old-fashioned village.”

For those who want the security of ownership, the co-ownership model is one of the few ways of finding affordable housing in the Lower Mainland without having to move into a high-rise building or basement suite.

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Co-ownership involves a group of people on title, with a shared mortgage for which they are all responsible. The model has been around for several years, but it is gaining traction as an affordable alternative to conventional ownership.

Typically, family members or friends own a percentage of the property, depending on their financial contribution and the space they require. Co-owners become tenants in common, which means they each have ownership of a percentage of the title and exclusive use of a certain area of the property. A lawyer will usually draw up an agreement that sets out rights, obligations, and what would happen should one party exit from the deal. All co-owners are responsible for the mortgage debt, but they have separate accounts that they set up and pay into.

Jim Bardal, owner of the cottages, is delighted that his tenants have formed the Cottagers’ Collective. In fact, he had a hand in making it happen.

He had told listing agents Robert and Susie Alexander that a couple of his tenants wanted to figure out how to buy the property, and the Alexanders connected them with a realtor who specializes in co-ownership, Noam Dolgin. Mr. Dolgin is one of the founders of CoHo BC, a network to connect those people who are interested in collaborative home ownership.

Mr. Dolgin says it usually takes a couple of years to form a community and then figure out the financing. The collective is trying to do the process within six weeks.

“So it’s a bit of an octopus with a thousand arms, doing all the information sessions and trying to find the right interest, with the right timing and the right budget, and communal needs and aspirations,” he said. “We are still actively looking for partners and we are more than halfway there in terms of our funding and our numbers. But we need a few more to make it work.

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“If we can pull this off, it will be amazing.”

Mr. Bardal said he’d received verbal offers that were higher than the tenants’ offer, but he wasn’t interested.

“Some of them didn’t even bother looking [inside the cottages]. I said, ‘no way,’ ” he says, adding that he’s more interested in preserving the community. He knows the property is worth more than $4-million and its value will only continue to go up.

Mr. Bardal retired from CP Rail 12 years ago and has owned several rental properties over the years. Now, he would like to travel more and spend more time with family.

“It will make me happy, if this works,” he says

“I’ve really enjoyed the property. I’ve met really interesting people over the years … I’ve run into old-timers who told me they raised four kids in one of the cottages. They are the last historic cottages in West Vancouver.”

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Richard Bell turned his own Cambie single-family home into a family compound that serves four generations of his family, including his mother, his daughters and his grandchildren.

Richard Bell

Richard Bell is another person interested in the co-ownership model.

Founding partner of Bell Alliance, the largest real estate law firm in Vancouver, Mr. Bell also sits on the board of Small Housing BC because he is keen on the creation of affordable housing. He says his firm always has a co-ownership agreement on the go, and he also sees a few realtors buying and selling co-ownership properties these days.

And Mr. Bell is particularly knowledgeable on the topic because he turned his own Cambie single-family home into a family compound that serves four generations of his family, including his mother, his daughters and his grandchildren.

He gifted each of his daughters 20-per-cent interest in the property, and then everybody obtained a mortgage for their share of construction costs for their units. The main house is a duplex for his mother, himself, as well as one of his daughters and her family. The coach house is where his other daughter and a renter live.

The arrangement has so far served the family well, he says. “Of course Dad does, in the agreement, have the option to buy them out,” he adds, laughing.

Mr. Bell says that municipalities should make it a lot easier for homeowners to add soft density, such as allowing them to stratify units, in order to help more people get into the market.

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“If you continue to take baby steps, you’ll never deal with unaffordability. That’s the problem. Everyone has been doing baby steps, but we are even less affordable than we used to be.”

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