The OWN Co-op – the place that Bea Levis calls home and a model of inner city affordable housing â€“ owes its existence partly to good timing.
â€śIt was the last housing project to be built before the Harris government cancelled Ontarioâ€™s affordable housing funding,â€ť says Erin Harris, a retired nurse who volunteers with the Older Womenâ€™s Network, the non-profit advocacy group that was behind the novel housing initiative. â€śThe shovel was in the ground, so we got in under the wire.â€ť
Completed in 1997, the OWN Housing Coop, located near the St. Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto, is home to a mixed-income population of 167 – mostly midlife or older women and men, along with some families and young people. Reflecting a commitment to affordable housing, about 75% of residents benefit from subsidized rent, with the remaining occupants paying market rates. It now operates separately from the Network, and is governed under the Co-operative Corporations Act.
The Older Womenâ€™s Network itself predates the co-op, founded in 1986 by a forward-looking group of Toronto women that included such noted activists as June Callwood and Doris Anderson. â€śOur mission is to achieve a society where older women can live in security and dignity â€“ where they can age in place of choice and participate in decisions affecting their livesâ€ť says Erin, who points to poverty as the key problem facing older Canadians. â€śThe standard Canada pension does not provide enough to live on. If thatâ€™s all youâ€™ve got, then youâ€™re living under the poverty line.â€ť
In recent years OWN has focussed its lobbying efforts on the fight for affordable housing and adequate pensions, and Bea Levis, a retired high school teacher whoâ€™s been living at the co-op for three years, remains actively involved in this struggle. In addition to her co-op duties, Beaâ€™s a founding member of the Ontario Coalition of Senior Citizens’ Organizations; the current vice-chair of Care Watch, an agency promoting home care; and is active on the Aging at Home Steering Committee with Torontoâ€™s Local Health Integration Network.
â€śI have great respect for a woman like Bea,â€ť says Erin. â€śShe is the embodiment of feminism – of being able to take social justice to social action, of having a plan of how she wants to age, and actually orchestrating and living it. Sheâ€™s a role model for women as they age.â€ť
Philip Lewis, writer-researcher
NB: Thanks to Eleanor Batchelder for corrections