This woman saves $3,000 a month on rent living in a Vancouver co-op

“Nowadays, getting a spot in a Vancouver co-op is like winning the lottery”

Ali Amad
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(Photograph by Duncan Wildwood)

Brie Koniczek has lived at Four Sisters for over 20 years. (Photography by Duncan Wildwood)

In the mid-’90s, when Brie Koniczek was 18, she moved from Victoria to Vancouver for a change of scenery. She and a roommate settled in a three-bedroom loft above a pub in West Point Grey—a fairly expensive neighbourhood. Other tenants came and went; Koniczek and her roommate often split the $1,700 rent when they didn’t have a third tenant to chip in.

In 2002, when Koniczek enrolled in an arts program at Langara College, she wasn’t able to afford her share of rent anymore, so she and her roommate went hunting for a cheaper two-bedroom apartment. A friend of a friend lived in a housing co-op called Four Sisters in the downtown neighbourhood of Gastown, and there happened to be an opening. “I didn’t know what a housing co-op was at the time. I imagined a group of hippies living together,” says Koniczek.

Here’s how it actually works. At Four Sisters, residents or members collectively own shares in the co-op and pay “housing charges”—rent, essentially—for their units. Collectively, these charges cover the building’s expenses, which might include utility costs or the building’s mortgage or lease payments. Despite those expenses, housing charges are often significantly cheaper than market rent in the same neighbourhood. Some co-ops own the land that they’re on, while others, like Four Sisters and many other Vancouver co-ops, lease the land from the city. Residents are also involved in building upkeep: they volunteer for maintenance tasks, called roster duties, which include handling garbage and cleaning entrances and hallways. A board at Four Sisters handles all governance-related matters, such as managing the budget and approving new members; residents can also volunteer as a board director for a term of four years.

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In 2002, Koniczek filled out an application and moved in with her roommate shortly after. The co-op consisted of three buildings joined by a central courtyard. One of the buildings had a rooftop deck with a barbecue and a breathtaking view of the North Shore. Koniczek’s two-bedroom suite was much smaller than the old loft she shared with her roommate, but they were paying considerably less than market rent each month. Their roster duty was initially limited to vacuuming the hallway on their floor, but Koniczek quickly became more involved, joining the board within a year. She eventually transferred into film school at her college—a move she couldn’t have made if she was paying market rent. She eventually found work as a senior arts administrator for the Vancouver International Film Festival.

In 2008, she married Lawrence Leong, and in 2010, the couple moved into a bigger three-bedroom in the co-op. Their son, Nico, was born in 2012, and they’ve lived there ever since. The couple currently pays $1,400 a month in rent. A comparable apartment nearby would run them at least $4,500 a month—almost triple what they pay.

Koniczek and Leong use the money they save on rent to enroll Nico in all sorts of extracurricular activities, like performance art and swimming classes. Leong is Chinese, so she says it was important for them that Nico connected with his heritage by taking martial arts classes and attending Chinese language classes on Saturdays. That financial wiggle room also allows them to contribute to RRSPs and an RESP for Nico’s education. 

Over the years, more families have joined the community at Four Sisters. Every Halloween, residents transform the co-op into one big haunted house where kids trick-or-treat and show off their costumes. There are also seniors living in Four Sisters, who appreciate having neighbours who will visit and check in on them. This community was especially important during the pandemic, when neighbours safely socialized on the rooftop patio. “At a time filled with so much fear and uncertainty, it was a saving grace,” says Koniczek.

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More than 20 years after Koniczek first moved in, Four Sisters is largely unchanged, but the Vancouver housing market has completely transformed. The main appeal of a co-op used to be its sense of community, but as the city becomes more expensive, affordability is now its main draw.

“Getting a spot in a Vancouver co-op is like winning the lottery,” she says. Four Sisters only takes applications twice a year—in January and July—and receives about 50 to 70 applications each window. After applicants pass a pre-interview, they’re added to a wait list, which is currently 200 applicants long. The longest wait lists are for the co-op’s bachelor and one-bedroom apartments, which cost $710 and $932 a month respectively.

“We need more co-ops in Vancouver and in Canada,” says Koniczek. “It’s an easy way to create affordable housing, and if they’re supported at the government level, co-ops are self-sustainable. Rather than building social housing that lumps poor people together, co-ops allow people from all walks of life to interact and create their own unique community.”

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