Q & A with CURA Community Partner: the Atkinson Housing Co-operative

Interview with Associate Professor Jorge Sousa, Department of Educational Policy Studies, University of Alberta, on the Atkinson Housing Co-operative case study

1.Please describe the portion of your organisation that is involved with the CURA.

The Atkinson Housing Co-operative is located in downtown Toronto and was originally called the Alexandra Park Housing Project. Since 1969, there has been a strong active tradition in the form of a residents’ association in Alexandra Park. In the 1990s residents mobilized to deal with growing drug use and other social problems. They wanted greater community-based control in order to develop and implement local solutions that could improve the health of their community. In a referendum in 1996, 72 per cent voted to convert their project to a co-operative. After much community development and tireless negotiations the conversion occurred in 2003, which is arguably the result of a 12 year effort that relied on the commitment and expertise of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto.

The Atkinson Housing Co-operative has functioned well over the last 9 years, and coming up to the 10th year anniversary they have much to celebrate. The property has not fallen apart. There is an engaged membership, and a board of directors that are elected annually. The property management and the Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto have been pivotal to supporting the co-operative, but the final responsibility rests with the members.

The members of the co-operative have become very active in maintaining representation in a variety of efforts and pressures from external groups. While the co-operative may not actually see the outside influence as a challenge, they needed to lobby actively to ensure that their interests are addressed as the looming revitalization plans become a reality. The revitalization will mean new houses for the members, since the property is over 40 years old and appears to be quite institutional in its look.

2.What motivated you to become involved with this project?

The main motivating factor to be involved in this project was my desire to continue monitoring the development of the Atkinson Co-operative. I completed my doctoral dissertation of the conversion process, and as a former resident, the place continues to be very meaningful to me. There is still so much to be learned from the Atkinson Housing Co-operative. The conversion process provided important information with respect to how it transition towards community-based control, however, there is a need to continue monitoring the co-operative in order to share with other communities not only the process of converting, but what to expect once they have control over the decision-making processes.

3.How do you see Atkinson Housing Co-op benefiting from the research?

The community will not directly benefit from the research. The biggest challenge for this case study has been to find a contact person to help coordinate activities. The original person had to leave the project for very legitimate reasons, which left a significant gap in conducting this research. In spite of that challenge some terrific information has been collected, which I hope will eventually benefit the community. However, I could honestly say that the co-operative has benefited from the resources that came from participating in the research. For instance, we have established a three year plan for board training and the board room now has the appropriate technology that allows them to conduct meetings effectively and professionally.

4.How do you see the larger social economy benefiting from the research?

I have collected a lot of information from the co-operative. Over the summer I spent much time reflecting on how to make sense of the information in the context of the Social Economy. One time in July, I was listening to the CBC and there was a discussion on various economics concepts. One that stuck out for me was the notion of Moral Hazard, which is commonly used by insurance companies to decide the level of risk associated with a particular client. I started to consider how this concept actually fits within the discourse of public policy and the social economy. It is commonly understood that public and social policies associated with the social economy is driven by a mindset that is based on the Chicago School of economics, also referred to as neo classical economics. It has been a struggle for both practitioners and academics to strengthen the social economy because of this mindset. For that reason it is important to identify those aspects of the mindset that are obstacles, and to challenge them through research grounded in evidence.

In the case of public housing, to understand the impact of the Atkinson Housing Co-operative one needs to go back to the original intent of building public housing, which was to provide housing that was modest in quality and transitional in function. Residents were seen as individuals in need of assistance rather than members of a community. However, as with many public housing projects, the residents built a home with strong social networks. For Atkinson, the members have always had a strong sense of community, and community-based control was the rational outcome. The co-operative is functioning very well, and many of the ongoing challenges are really no different than what is found in other housing communities, regardless of the form of tenure. The Atkinson example demonstrates a successful transition away from government control, which is something that can be relevant and applied across the different sectors that form the social economy.

5.Where are you in the research process?

Research of this nature is never ending. One merely pauses to catch one’s breath and reflect on some occurrence. I am still conducting interviews, and have different conversations with people when I am back in Toronto. I am quite encouraged at what has gone on at Atkinson, as that will benefit communities of different forms for years to come. That being said, the case study is being written up and I am looking forward to formally sharing what has been collected to date.