Four Sisters Housing Co-operative: Farewell to Section 95

21 September 2022

A refuge for activists who strive for social justice in the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side 

A roof garden with a heart-lifting view that looks to the ocean and the loom of mountains 

Affordable housing in expensive Vancouver 

Bosky pocket-garden terraces and a meeting room with a full-sized mural 

And the last housing co-operative to transition out of the Section 95 federal co-operative housing program. 

Launched in the golden age of co-op housing development, the Section 95 Program was named for the paragraphs of the National Housing Act that brought it into being. Development under this program began in 1979 and continued until 1994 when it was allowed to lapse. By that time, about 39,000 units had been developed across Canada in housing cooperatives whose operating agreements the federal government continued to honour. 

The S95 program advanced start-up funds, which were eventually rolled into each co-op’s 35-year mortgage. The program also provided mortgage insurance for up to 100 per cent of the initial housing cost. A shrinking operating subsidy was balanced by a growing rental-assistance pool that allowed cooperatives to house people of low, modest and moderate income. The S95 Program is widely considered to have been the most successful of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s affordable-housing programs. 

Securing project approval just before the program expired, Four Sisters’ 153 units were not completed and occupied until 1987. Unlike many Canadian housing co-ops, this co-operative is fully urban in character and appropriately named for Vancouver’s four sister cities. The co-operative comprises three elevator buildings known to members as the high-rise, the low-rise and the reno. (Once a warehouse, the oldest part of this heritage structure dates from 1898.)  

Although the new buildings are architecturally unadventurous apart from a glass-roofed atrium, they include such features as balconies, a gym, a roof garden, a meeting room with a mural and a common room and kitchen. Its well-treed central courtyard and playground form a safe oasis in a tightly packed urban environment that has deteriorated sharply over the years. Four Sisters is remarkable for its vital community life enriched by the diverse contributions of several generations. The co-operative provides an affordable base for members who do more than their share for the struggling souls a few blocks away. 

Over the past few years, the co-op’s experienced and effective board and management company have been overseeing the extensive remedial work required for its aging properties. Unfortunately, the process has stalled. The City of Vancouver owns the co-operative’s land lease, which comes due in five years. Because its future is insecure until the lease has been renewed, the co-op is unable to borrow enough to complete its capital projects, which have become much more expensive over the past five years as the lease negotiations dragged on.  

Although the future of Four Sisters Housing Co-operative will remain uncertain until a new lease has been signed, in May 2022 the co-operative secured the housing of 45 lower-income households for at least the next five years by joining CMHC’s Rental Assistance Program (FCHI-2). As compared with Section 95, the newer program gives co-operatives more freedom to operate as they think best, while ensuring that they can remain mixed-income communities.  

With one problem solved for the time being, the co-operative is looking ahead hopefully. Four Sisters is confident that the City of Vancouver will do the right thing by renewing their land lease on affordable terms. This will enable the co-op to apply for a loan from CMHC’s National Housing Co-Investment Fund for the most urgent capital work and will preserve a community of responsible citizens dedicated to making a positive contribution to their community and to society as a whole. 

Tip of the Month

Capital Plans and Contributions

Comparing 2007 and 2020, we saw the median annual contributions per unit almost triple ($1,026 per unit to $3,052).