Since its founding nearly 60 years ago, Waterloo Cooperative Residence Incorporated, more commonly known as WCRI, has continued growing and establishing its reputation as a unique provider amongst students, not just of housing, but of community — and it shows no sign of slowing down.
The co-operative now houses just over 1,300 students from UW, Wilfrid Laurier University, and Conestoga College. Erin Larmondin, WCRI’s cooperative development manager, discussed its most recent expansions, those being the construction of the Fenwick apartments completed in 2019, and the September acquisition of seven properties located on the intersection of Columbia Street and Spruce Street, formerly under Schembri Property Management.
Larmondin said that while WCRI doesn’t necessarily aim to house “millions of students,” “[their] goal is to provide affordable and accessible housing to as many students as [they] possibly can.”
Larmondin highlighted that WCRI houses more than just students, explaining that in the early days of the pandemic, they rented one of their properties, the Hammar Dorms, to the Region of Waterloo in collaboration with the Working Centre to ensure those experiencing homelessness had access to housing. WCRI then sold the building to the region, which Larmondin explained gave WCRI options.
“We’re a co-op that is not scared of change, we’re not scared of growth, and we benefit from the more members that we have. And we were really fortunate that at the time of looking to sell, that there were also a few buildings that were looking to come on the market and were going to be available for purchase,” she said.
Larmondin highlighted the conversion of the buildings from being for-profit housing to non-profit housing, which she said was rare in the housing sector. “[F]or us to be able now in 2023, [to] come out of the pandemic … expand what our housing looks like, take back housing, put it back into the voices of the members and give them the freedom to choose, I think is a huge feat not only for the students but also for cooperative housing and nonprofit housing [as] an entirety.”
“[I]t’s really inspiring to see people who are passionate about housing and Waterloo and passionate about making tangible change come together in a setting like this where they feel comfortable enough to express what their needs are in terms of housing,” Larmondin said.
WCRI residents certainly attested to that. Halle Horn, an environmental science student who resides in WCRI, explained the impact of the community at WCRI. “[W]hen we face rent increases … we feel protected because it’s not like it’s going to line someone else’s pockets. It’s going back into the cooperative,” she said.
Horn is also on the Inter Cooperative Council (ICC), which provides support for WCRI members and helps introduce them to the WCRI office. Horn explained that she joined the council because she wanted to help WCRI create the community it’s known for, especially for those far from home.
“[I]t can be scary sometimes. So for us to create a safe space and create opportunities for them to make friends and community and in some cases, a family. … I find that really meaningful and I want to be a part of that,” Horn said.
Karmraj Sisodiya, a recent graduate in public studies, also praised the WCRI’s unique ability to foster community amongst international students in particular, something he felt was lacking at other institutions like UW.
“The community I’m finding here, it was very hard to find on campus,” he said, describing how in talking with other international students at WCRI, he had to refer them to resources on campus like the International Peer Community because they were unaware of their existence.
Sisodiya also spoke of how welcoming the co-operative model felt in general due to the membership being made up of students and recent graduates. “I felt like even though I was a new member … I still had a voice,” he said.
Horn explained that despite the housing crisis caused in part by pandemic-induced low occupancy leading landlords to sell property, WCRI has “just kept chugging along,” one example of this being the maintenance of its social events.
According to Horn, the ICC has set the goal of hosting at least one event each month, which can vary from trivia nights to karaoke nights to cardmaking in an effort to “[bring] out all sorts of people who are just interested in trying out different things.”
“It’s members who also have the best interests of members in mind. We’re not in it to … just swindle you out of your rent check and raise the price when we don’t need to,” Horn said.
Regarding the WCRI’s future, Larmondin acknowledged the intense demand for spots in the WCRI, both due to its lower cost in comparison to market value for student housing in Waterloo and due to its reputation for fostering community, but stated that growth also depends on what its members want.
“[W]e’re always open to growing, we’re always open to redevelopment and to purchasing … [but] we’re always looking for that right fit, we’re not just going to purchase something because we want to, it has to make sense for our current and future members as well,” she said.