Monday, December 05, 2016
Karen Cooper’s interest in affordable housing was sparked as a 16-year-old hired as a summer recreation programmer for the Sandyhill neighbourhood in Ottawa. “I was really struck by how kids would come without lunch and how the conditions that they lived in were so different than mine,” says the new Executive Director of the Phoenix Society.
“It just didn’t seem right that people didn’t have adequate housing,” she says. Noticing that the kids appeared to be so stigmatized that some were reluctant to come to the program, she’d swing by their apartments each morning and ‘collect’ the kids on the way to work. “I always brought plenty of extra lunch, too,” she says. “I knew then that I wanted to work in a profession where I could contribute to ensuring good places for people to live.”
Now the Phoenix Society is the beneficiary of Cooper’s “can do” attitude. She became the group’s second Executive Director, on Oct. 17, 2016, as co-founders Michael and Ann Wilson move to retirement.
Cooper began her professional career by earning a Bachelor of Environmental Studies — with honours in urban and regional planning — from the University of Waterloo. Her first job was for the Township of Cumberland, Ont., as a planner. There, her responsibility was to develop the community’s first ever seniors municipal non-profit housing project, including a resident-led design process and innovative solar heating.
Later she worked for a wide range of municipalities including Ottawa, Burlington and Nepean and obtained a Masters of Science in Planning from the University of Toronto. Working at the City of Toronto, she was city’s project manager for the redevelopment of Regent Park, secured funding for 1,900 new units of affordable housing and set up the city’s affordable housing office.
BC Housing then offered her the Director of Program Implementation position and responsibility for the $250 million Housing Endowment Fund. This fund, intended to support innovative housing for British Columbians in need, led to her move to the West Coast in 2008.
While at BC Housing, working with the non-profit sector, she met the Phoenix Society’s Michael Wilson. “I was struck by how he sees possibilities for people, instead of seeing them as victims,” Cooper says. When in 2016, the Executive Director position became available she was swayed by the massive opportunity.
“This job represents everything I have wanted to do – to help deliver a meaningful and sustainable response to the problems of housing and homelessness in the community,” she says. She lists the aspects of Phoenix that she values: “It has deep respect for the people it serves. It gets results. People’s lives are improved - they obtain education, employment, housing and contribute to their community. It’s an organization that treats its staff well. It is committed to social innovation, developing partnerships and building community capacity. It has a stellar board that’s committed to growing the legacy of the founders and making a better world.”