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Can coop solve housing problem of members?

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For many people, bouncing between shoddy, overpriced house-shares is a fact of life. But there is a ready-made answer: the humble housing co-op

Before Sophie Slater lived in a housing co-operative, her homes, across south London, were precarious. There was the illegal house share in New Cross where she slept under a dodgy boiler for six months. (Eventually the gas man snitched and they had to move out, which was probably for the best, on account of the potential for carbon monoxide poisoning.) There was the flat on the Old Kent Road where she paid £300 to sleep in the living room and her friend, who had the bedroom, paid £600. The worst thing about that flat was that Slater slept by the kitchen bin. She moved to a flat in Peckham, where she spent more than half her salary on rent and bills. Nine months later, the landlord decided he wanted to sell. After she moved out, he charged her £500, claiming she had stained a carpet.

It’s a familiar story, and illustrates the shocking excesses of Britain’s housing crisis. For many low-income and middle-income workers, bouncing between shoddy, overpriced house-shares is a fact of life. After leaving the Peckham flat, Slater – who is 27 and runs the feminist fashion brand Birdsong – was at the end of her tether. Then, there was an unexpected glimmer of hope: a school friend mentioned there might be a space available in a housing co-operative.

Founded in 1973, Sanford is the oldest purpose-built housing co-op in London. Its 125 members live in 14 houses and flats set along a narrow street in New Cross. When I visit on a chilly evening, the development is very quiet, other than the muted babble of TV sets. Passing an outdoor workshop and racks of bicycles, I meet Slater at the entrance to her eight-person house. A spacious living room features gleaming parquet floorboards, reclaimed from a nearby church. We make our way up a staircase hung with fresh laundry to Slater’s bedroom. She beams as she shows me around the space, which is lined with books and houseplants.

Slater pays £65 a week in rent for her room, a third of what she would pay in the private sector. But Sanford’s affordability isn’t its only appeal. When you become a member, you’re allowed to stay as long as you want; for the first time in Slater’s adult life, her housing is secure. She seems slightly abashed by her good fortune. “It’s so good here,” she says in a near-whisper. “I just wish there was more space.”

Housing co-ops are not a new phenomenon. In the UK, they emerged out of the squatting scene of the 70s and 80s. Squatters were given licences to live in short-life houses – typically, low-quality housing stock – in exchange for maintaining the properties. Some of those co-ops still exist, having been given permanent licences by local councils; others were subsumed into housing associations.

Helima Zindani.
Helima Zindani: ‘My co-op home is an oasis.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Although they take different forms, most housing co-ops consist of buildings lived in by an association of members. These members pay a below-market rent, which goes towards upkeep, and properties are managed by members on an unpaid basis. If a window needs to be fixed or a boiler serviced, residents will arrange for a tradesperson to visit the property, and pay for it out of the communal repair fund.

Members of housing co-ops do not usually own equity in their homes; the properties are owned by the legal entity that is the co-operative itself, rather than individual members. However, in some co-ops, members have pooled finances. Lancaster Cohousing, on the banks of the river Lune, is one such example. Its members own equity in their homes, which they can sell if they choose to move on. However, this is the exception: most new housing co-ops are developed through a mixture of loan funding from financial institutions, grant funding from the government and local authorities, and lending from other housing co-operatives. For example, the forthcoming Bunker housing co-op in Brighton has been made possible by assistance from the local council, as well as unsecured peer-to-peer lending from other housing co-ops.

Within co-ops, rules vary: some don’t take couples; some welcome families. Members of a housing co-op often hear about it through word of mouth; few advertise, as they don’t have the space and already have long waiting lists. As a result, many members end up there through happy accident and connections, rather than through responding to an advert. Although co-ops offer secure housing to their members for as long as they choose to live there, when members leave, the property reverts to the co-operative, which will then allocate the property to someone on its waiting list.

Becoming a member of a housing co-op can be life-changing. Private rents have risen faster than wages in England since 2011, according to data from the housing charity Shelter. London is at the heart of the housing crisis: in some boroughs, average rents have jumped 42%, while wages have increased by 2% in the same period. One in seven UK tenants pays more than half their monthly income in rent. Those unable to stump up the deposits needed to secure private rentals (the average deposit in England and Wales is £1,041, rising to £1,750 in London, according to the Tenancy Deposit Scheme) end up living in cramped and substandard housing let illegally by unscrupulous landlords.

Housing co-ops offer affordability and safety. “It’s an oasis,” says 50-year-old Helima Zindiani. She has lived in 20/20, a housing co-operative in Balsall Heath, Birmingham, since 1997. When she moved in, she was a single mother of three children, struggling to make ends meet. For her three-bedroom house, she pays £89 a week.

For 30-year-old Kevin Percival, being a member of St Marks, a short-life housing co-op in London, is the only reason he is able to support himself as a freelance photographer. St Marks members occupy vacant properties around the capital while they await refurbishment. “I wouldn’t have moved to London without the co-op at the time,” he says. “I just wasn’t earning enough, basically.”

Why do housing co-ops feature on so few people’s radars? In part, they have an image problem. Say “community living” and you conjure visions of lentils, incense-burning and acoustic guitars. But that’s not the case. Although Slater lives with seven people, this isn’t the norm. In most housing co-ops, residents are given their own, self-contained unit. Percival is living in a one-bedroom flat in Kensington, west London, for which he pays £400 a month, a sum that wouldn’t cover rental of a car-parking space in the affluent area.

Kevin Percival: ‘I wouldn’t have moved to London without the co-op.’
Kevin Percival: ‘I wouldn’t have moved to London without the co-op.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

One reason co-operatives aren’t more prevalent in the UK is the historically paternalistic attitude towards housing provision. We’re used to expecting landlords – whether private or local authority – to be responsible for the upkeep of the properties we live in. Housing co-ops require a shift in how you conceptualise your role as a tenant. “There are some cultural changes that need to happen in terms of developing the perceptions of people who might live in community-led housing,” says Nic Bliss of the Confederation of Co-operative Housing. He talks of the “challenge in gearing people up to take responsibility for their own homes”.

Housing co-op life isn’t for everyone: there’s a time commitment, with members expected to muck in with upkeep. Slater jokes she only got accepted into Sanford because she “really loves admin”, while Zindiani tells me voluntary participation saves 20/20 £40,000 a year in running costs. “It’s almost like having a part-time job on top of whatever else you’re doing,” says Percival. Decisions need to be made communally, which can take time. Slater’s building has mice, which means someone has to put forward a motion to get pest control in; then the members debate it.

But if you’re willing to invest the time, housing co-ops can bring greater benefits than just affordable rent. “There’s such a good sense of community here,” Slater says. “There’s always someone to chat to,” Percival says. Zindiani credits 20/20 with giving her formative career skills. She has assumed different roles within the co-op’s management committee: complaints officer, repairs officer, payments officer. Eventually, she became chair. “Those roles gave me the confidence and ability to go out there and get more meaningful jobs.”

There are, of course, drawbacks, too. “I’ve been really lucky with my house, but I’ve heard other people’s houses aren’t as harmonious,” says Slater. As housing co-ops tend to admit members who have connections to existing residents, cliques can form. In Switzerland, where housing co-ops are well-established, this has sometimes led to problems. “You have co-operatives of people who might have been young and poor,” says Jean-David Gerber of the University of Bern, an expert in housing co-operatives. “They get old and they also get richer, and now they live in a small club … They don’t want to have foreigners, they don’t want to have young people, they don’t want families, because they can choose who is part of the club.”

Housing co-ops aren’t a simple answer to the housing crisis. “Land availability is a real problem,” says Bliss. “Although we would like to see larger community-led schemes develop, the reality is that it isn’t always easy.” Finding pockets of usable land to develop a new scheme requires adroitness and imagination. Bliss mentions one initiative in an old Pirelli factory in Newport, Wales. Martyn Holmes, 47, is currently developing the Bunker housing co-operative on an infill site – undeveloped land in an urban area – made available by Brighton council. When we speak, he is on the building site.

“We’re all low-income, zero-equity families, who are a mixture of self-employed and freelance people, who are essentially building our own social housing,” Holmes says. His family had been living in the private rental sector and struggling with the costs. After befriending his next-door neighbours, a family in a similar situation, they decided to “try and find our own solution to our housing crisis”. The first site will be completed in September, housing Holmes and his neighbours in two three-bedroom houses, towards which each household will contribute £1,000 a month. A second development of 10 units will be completed by January 2021.


Holmes, who is studying for a PhD, describes the experience of developing Bunker as “empowering”. He says he has lived in 25 houses since leaving home at 16. “It just creates a really precarious existence … you’re living hand-to-mouth, and the landlord could turn around at any minute and go: ‘Right, you’ve got two months to get out.’” He’s ebullient when we speak over the phone, and says he knows he’s building beautiful housing. “It’s going to be ours … it’s our little place, our paradise. We’re safe and secure for as long as we want it, and when we leave, someone else will have it.”

Martyn Holmes: ‘It’s going to be ours ... our paradise.’
Martyn Holmes: ‘It’s going to be ours … our paradise.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

In many ways, there has never been a better time to try to develop community-led housing. “This is absolutely the moment,” says Beth Boorman of the National Community Land Trust Network, highlighting the £163m set aside by the government to support community-led efforts. “The Community Housing Fund is the biggest investment the sector has seen in over 30 years, and we’re extremely grateful for that.” But although there is buy-in now at a government level, the powers that be haven’t always been so supportive.

In the 1990s and 2000s, some London councils decided to take back short-life housing stock that had been turned over to co-ops. Whereas once it made financial sense to have young people living in these buildings and taking care of them for free, councils began eyeing up land that had become extremely valuable.

“Councils decided to take back these short-life co-operatives, and evict the co-operators, some of whom did get rehoused into council properties,” says Paul Watt of Birkbeck, University of London. “The argument from the councils was that it was short-life housing, although the co-operators argued, quite rightly in my view, that 10 years, or often longer, is not short-life. I’ve interviewed people who have been in properties for 20 or 30 years, and that’s not short-life by any definition. So the residents feel there’s a sense of natural justice that’s not being met, especially because they put their labour and resources into looking after the councils’ properties over many years.”

Lambeth, in south London, once had a thriving network of short-life housing co-ops, but 60-year-old Trace Newton is the last remaining member of Lillieshall Road housing co-op, where she has lived since 1978. She tells me that, when she moved into the co-operative as basically a “homeless kid”, the houses were near-derelict. Newton and her fellow residents pulled together to fix up the homes. “There was no water in some houses, electricity was off, some houses didn’t have gas.” She says Lambeth council had initially promised residents they would be able to make the co-operative permanent, but relations became fraught from 1997 onwards, when the council began reclaiming short-life housing co-ops, selling them, and rehousing residents in the borough’s over-subscribed social-housing provision.

One by one, Lillieshall’s residents moved out. Newton, who has heart and kidney problems due to high blood pressure, soldiers on. She tells me her condition has been exacerbated by the “nightmare” of resisting Lambeth council’s efforts to evict her. The council says it has attempted to rehome Newton in a secure council tenancy, that short-life housing was always intended to revert to the council eventually, and that the sale of these buildings funds local services. But Newton tells me the only home she has been offered was unsuitable for her disability. In the meantime, every knock on the door brings a lurching sense of dread: since 2015, Newton has lived under a possession order, meaning she may be evicted at any time. “For the first couple of years, you’re waiting for people to kick the door in and come and evict you,” she says. “Then you realise it won’t be people, it’s letters. I do find it very difficult.”

The story of housing co-ops in the UK includes the winners, such as Holmes, proudly surveying his creation, but also people such as Newton, too scared to answer the front door. And they only offer a partial solution to the housing crisis. Even if we redevelop infill sites, we don’t have the space to build all the housing co-ops we need in urban centres. Besides, home ownership remains Britain’s true religion. It would take decades to create the revolution of consciousness that would encourage Brits to think of housing in community, rather than individualistic terms.

Until that shift takes place, housing co-ops will remain one of the best-kept secrets in the UK – and a lifeline for those with the grit, resilience and energy to create their own solution to the housing crisis. “We’re not people who want something for nothing,” says Holmes. “It’s the opposite of that. We’re people who want to do something for ourselves.”

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