Sean Campbell (MES ’16, PhD in progress) is best described as restless in his work to create a more liveable community for people in Waterloo region. He has devoted his studies, teaching, professional career and his heart and soul to making positive change.

“I’m a lifelong Waterloo region resident,” Campbell said. “It’s a great place to live and it’s been exciting to see all the changes happening in our community, welcoming more folks to town and seeing our region grow.”

But as Campbell points out, even with so much growth and change, more people are struggling to make ends meet.

“It’s not working right for everybody,” Campbell continues. “What we’re seeing in our community is a rapid increase in the cost to rent or own a home. And there’s a real lack of housing that’s affordable for someone who’s working a minimum wage to living-wage job. Everyday working people are increasingly being priced out.”

“There's a real lack of housing.”

Sean Campbell (MES ’16, PhD in progress)

Sean Campbell

A passion for change

Campbell’s solution to the housing crunch? It’s a social enterprise called Union Co-operative, which is working to buy residential and commercial properties in Waterloo region for permanent rental affordability through community ownership. The initiative has a lot of moving pieces and partnerships, and it’s also the centrepiece of Campbell’s current PhD research with the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development (SEED).

“We think Union Co-operative is the first of its kind in Canada, using a co-operative to raise funds from community members, charitable foundations and institutional partners to address the affordable housing crisis,” Campbell said. “The way it works is that community members — folks like you and I who care about affordability and local ownership — can become members of the co-operative and invest. That’s how we form the down payment to purchase our properties.”

Union Co-operative is hosted as a startup out of the Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement at Conrad Grebel University College, an affiliated institution of the University of Waterloo. The project is supported by governments, local businesses, philanthropists and by everyday people living in Waterloo region.

Along with investing in Union Co-operative, those involved also get a say in the way the organization functions. In this sense, a co-operative is something of a hybrid of a not-for-profit and a shareholder company, with democratic control. Union Co-operative currently has more than 220 members and continues to grow as people look to have a positive impact in their community and support their neighbours. 

Along with people who may invest in the co-operative, tenants who rent the properties can also be members. They can run for the board and participate in decisions that impact the home they live in.

Union Co-operative purchased its first property for $16.5 million in October 2022, a multi-level apartment complex with 58 two-bedroom units. 

“It’s on Lancaster Street, right at the border of Kitchener and Waterloo,” Campbell said. “It’s a great example of what is sometimes called naturally occurring affordable housing. It wasn’t designed to be affordable housing, but it’s an older property, built in the 1970s. And rather than granite top and stainless steel, it has long-term tenants and low rents.”

“These are the types of properties that are increasingly targeted by big profit-maximizing investors, because they can quickly slap on a fresh coat of paint and increase the rents.”

Lancaster Properties

Business for social good

Social enterprises like Union Co-operative are part of a wave of entrepreneurship setting out to address the triple-bottom line of people, planet and profit. Whereas many traditional companies are fundamentally responsible only to their shareholders and to generating profit, social enterprises see factors of social purpose, sustainability, equity and inclusion as equally important metrics of success.

As for what’s next, Campbell said Union Co-operative is looking to both expand and to serve as a model for how social enterprise can address important societal issues. Campbell and the team are adding more apartment units to their property on Lancaster Street and are hoping to support other communities in Ontario to create their own versions of Union Co-operative.

Most recently, Union Co-operative has joined the planning committee for a new initiative called BUILD NOW: Waterloo Region – an ambitious housing project that will provide 10,000 missing middle homes across the region. The project is a collaborative, community-focused effort with Habitat for Humanity Waterloo Region, the Grand Valley Construction Association, and local developers. 

Campbell explained that the initiative – launched in July – is creating 7,000 “half priced” homes for purchase, along with 3,000 new rental apartments, the latter of which will be owned by local housing providers, including Union Co-operative.