The Ontario Non-profit Housing Association is an odd organisation. It brings together government housing providers, large non-profits and small non-profits to share ideas, expertise and experience. It is not political in the partisan sense or the movement sense, but it by its existence it serves as a strong statement that there is a large body of people in Ontario who strongly and passionately support the ideal of safe, affordable housing for all.
In some ways ONPHA is more grassroots and inclusive than the co-operative housing movement. Here tenants of community housing, directors of small rural housing providers and senior staff of major urban NGOs can be found. There are people with current experience of deep poverty and substandard housing and people who have come from backgrounds of priviledge who seek to do something positive in the world. Because of who lives in social housing in urban areas participants do come from a more diverse background in terms of religion, place of origin, ethnic background and cultural roots that one usually sees at a co-op housing gathering. This is exciting in many ways, not the least of which is having assumptions of who lives in social housing challenged.
It other ways it is less grass roots. The entire business meeting—from election of officers to dealing with resolutions to hearing from a politician to approving of the audit is a one and one-half hour session on Sunday morning. The connection between governance and direct membership involvement is very weak. And yet (and with ONPHA there is always a yet) there does seem to be a constant flow of ideas and information to the board and staff of ONPHA—transformation by osmosis rather than arising from public and spirited debate.
There are always a wide range of workshops at ONPHA, more than most conferences I attend. From courses on elevator safety and maintenance to using small claims courts to examining relevant legislation to social enterprise in rural areas to senior’s fitness to social housing as a career, I was impressed at the diversity of courses which helps encourage greater and broader participation in the ONPHA world.
I feel less at home in the ONPHA world than the co-op world. In co-ops, even in non-profit housing co-operatives, one deals ultimately with idealist owners. Members of housing co-ops are owners of the company which provides the housing they live in. Those involved with non-profits are either users or providers—no matter how idealistic or personally connected the person is the level of commitment and responsibility is not of the same nature in non-profit housing that it is in co-operative housing. I serve on the board of a non-profit (St. Clare’s Multifaith Housing Society) that I am proud to serve on. But it has not, and could not, become part of my self-identify that being a part of the co-op housing movement has. St. Clare’s provides very necessary affordable housing, but it is done for others, bringing together skills and funding from different sources. Don Area Co-op, where I live, provides necessary housing for others and for myself, and we share our resources to do so. The worlds are similar; the impact on society is different.