A years-long dream of co-operative living in Wolseley officially became reality on Friday with the formal launch of the Old Grace Housing Co-operative at 200 Arlington St., on the site of the former Grace Hospital.
The co-op’s roughly 100 residents range in age from newborn to octogenarian, and include five new immigrant families.
Residents started moving into the building during the spring of 2018, as well as into four three-bedroom townhouse units on neighbouring Evanson Street. Thirty-four of the units, including the townhouses, are government-subsidized affordable housing.
Alicia Johnston moved into Old Grace from suburban St. Norbert around a year ago.
"I wanted to get into the city more, and I’d heard about this from a few people, and it just really piqued my interest given the philosophies behind it," she said, standing in the kitchen of her tidy, sunny second-floor unit.
"The sustainability, the greenness of the building, the people looking after each other and just that sense of community... Those were the things that drew me."
Old Grace is equipped with amenities, including a common area, library, reading nooks, community patio, gardens and guest rooms for visitors. There’s an exercise room and shared laundry for those who don’t have washing machines in their suites.
The parking lot includes spaces for Peg City Car Co-op vehicles.
Co-op resident Kim McCallum highlighted the building’s environmentally friendly credentials, including a chimney-like structure designed as a habitat for chimney swifts, which she said once lived on the site of the old Grace Hospital.
"Hopefully, we’ll get some roosting in there," she said. "Now we’ve got pigeons, and doesn’t everybody."
The co-op is fully wheelchair-accessible, with seven units specially designed for accessible living. For people living with disabilities like co-op resident Carlos Sosa, it’s "a real, clear step forward for inclusion."
"It’s quite critical that when we think about affordable housing, that we think not just about one group of people but a variety of groups from different income classes, racialized communities, people living with disabilities, women, LGBTTQ+, people from a variety of communities living together," Sosa said.
Winnipeg Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette spoke about the importance of economic diversity during his address to the co-op crowd on Friday.
"It’s important to ensure that we can actually rub shoulders together, that doctors and lawyers can live with teachers, but also those who are most at disadvantage," he said.
Manitoba has at least 42 housing co-ops, said Frank Wheeler, president of the the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada and a resident of the Village Canadien Co-operative in St. Vital.
"It’s democratic, it’s a way for people to get involved and have ownership in their house. And there’s no landlord to answer to, it’s your home, there’s some ownership there."
Wheeler said the launch of Old Grace bucks the trend in co-op development in Manitoba and across Canada in general, which he said has largely stalled in the past two decades.
Keeping co-ops such as Old Grace accessible to low-income residents requires more support from all levels of government, Wheeler said.
He explained that operating agreements with federal and provincial governments usually end when the original mortgages have been paid off. Then, co-op members often have to choose between subsidizing their low-income units or making repairs.
"We’ve made some great progress. The federally administered co-ops have been supported, but the ones that have been downloaded to the provinces are not quite getting that support, so we’ve seen members having to leave their homes in co-ops because they’re not getting the affordable income support from the government," said Wheeler.
Solomon Israel is the full-time cannabis reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press and its national cannabis news website, TheLeafNews.com. He covers the social, legal, medical and scientific aspects of marijuana legalization in Manitoba and the rest of Canada.
Updated on Monday, June 17, 2019 at 5:46 AM CDT: Adds photos