What are my rights?
Co-ops typically attract people who want to live in a mixed-income environment where they have a voice and a vote in how things are run. As an alternative to renting or owning in a strata, co-ops offer more community-centered living. But being a co-op member also comes with responsibilities. Let’s dive in.
What you should know
“I was looking forward to moving into a co-op. I’d been living in rental housing for years, and the landlord was always so restrictive about what I could or couldn’t do in the unit. I’d heard co-op living was more easygoing. But there were still many rules and regulations to understand when I moved in. It felt like homework!”
– Jake, Vancouver
A co-op membership isn't the same as owning a home; it's more like being the shareholder in a corporation that owns the home as part of its assets. The Cooperative Association Act provides a specific framework for how co-ops are set up. It’s then up to each co-op to create its own rules on key issues like:
Who’s qualified to be a member?
Can my partner be a joint member? What are their rights?
What fees do we have to pay for the services we get?
Are there volunteer time commitments?
Can I transfer my membership interest to a family member or friend? Can I sell it? Or leave it to them in my will? (Unlike a strata, this is not an automatic right)
What rules do we have for the co-op board, which provides oversight?
What do we do about our finances? If we end up with extra money one year, will the members get a payout?
What are the conditions and procedures for withdrawing or ending membership?
Co-ops aren’t just restricted to housing. A co-op might be an association tied to a specific purpose, like a marina where members share access to watercraft. The difference is important, since different rules under the Cooperative Association Act apply to housing co-ops.
For day-to-day doings, the elected board of the co-op will create general policies known as “house rules.” These will cover things like parking, pets, general maintenance, and other smaller administrative issues. House rules are looser than the main rules mentioned above. They can be changed any time by the co-op board, who then notify the members.
Residents of co-ops work together to manage things, often through committees. Your membership may require that you join a committee. You’ll learn all about this when you apply for membership to a co-op.
This process usually involves applying in writing and being interviewed by the co-op board. If there’s space for you, and you’re approved, you’ll find out more about membership and its rights and obligations in the occupancy agreement. This you’ll be asked to review and sign before you move in.
It’s worth taking time to learn your co-op’s membership structure. This will give you a sense of your rights and responsibilities. Unlike in strata housing, where each unit typically gets one vote, in a co-op there can be a variety of membership arrangements. I could be one vote per unit. But it could also be that:
it’s one vote per adult in a unit (usually that’s anyone over 16, but your co-op rules may be different), or
membership is shared among occupants — in which case the co-op rules must clearly say who gets to vote, and what happens if one person sharing the joint membership leaves.
Co-op members get to vote on key issues. They may also have distinct rights around leaving or eviction. (For example, if spouses break up and one leaves the co-op, can one of them stay on as a member?)
Co-op living often means below-market monthly fees in prime areas of big cities. Getting into a great co-op can set you up with affordable and community-oriented housing for life. But in addition to paying monthly fees (rent, effectively), many co-ops require members to be involved with operations. Engagement is the name of the game. You may have to sit on a committee that deals with, say, recycling issues. It’ll mean attending ongoing meetings and being assigned tasks.
Then again, some co-ops demand less. You may only have to pay your monthly housing charge on time and keep your nose clean. Best to review the co-op’s rules and your occupancy agreement before signing, to get fully aligned on expectations.
A co-op is run by a group of members who get elected as directors each year. Many co-ops have "staggered terms" — this means that only some of the seats are up for election each year. This ensures there’s always a mix of new blood and experience. At least a few board members will be familiar with outstanding issues and projects.
The board meets periodically to review the business at hand and to make sure things are on track. They pass a yearly budget, making sure to set aside the right amount for repairs, upgrades and any big future projects. They also deal with member complaints and follow up on members who are late on their housing charge. They may also set up sub-committees to review specific issues in depth.
In larger co-ops, the board will typically hire a management company to take care of the day-to-day. In this case, you’ll often have a primary point of contact. This is someone you can email or call about issues in the building. This person will weigh the urgency of your request and bump it to the co-op board as needed.
Take action to prevent problems
“When several senior co-op board members left over the last few years, I felt it was a good time to jump in. We’ve made lots of progress on how our little community is run. It breathed new life into the building.”
– Angela, Burnaby
Each year, seats on the co-op board come up for re-election. Being on the board is the best way to be involved in community decisions. But it’s a commitment. Board members need to attend meetings. More than that, they need to read the agenda in advance and come ready to contribute.
Board members weigh in on small issues — like upgrades to signage—and on bigger ones, like reviewing quotes from engineering companies or proposing changes to co-op rules.
Conflict is inevitable whenever people live in a community. Co-ops tend to have their own internal procedures to solve disputes between members and between the co-op board and members. Review a copy of these policies before proceeding with a formal complaint — there may be different paths to take depending on the issue.
Don’t presume that the most effective first step is a written complaint to the board. Many issues can be resolved through respectful discussion between members. If that doesn’t work, members can seek help through arbitration or mediation, or through the courts. Check out our page on co-op disputes for more details.