Housing cooperatives are more than an economic no-brainer. They offer our a communities a better future.

They give us the opportunity to put power in the people's hands, writes Joe Barson.

December 14, 2018 · 9 min read
Photo by Eric Allix Rogers (Flickr)

Housing cooperatives make economic sense. This benefit of cooperative housing is well documented. The research group Housing Futures, which will publish its recommendations on 8th December at an event in Manchester, emphasise how cooperatives can meet the affordability needs of low-income communities.

However, housing cooperatives also make social sense. While the models create economic savings, they play a role in developing cohesive and stable communities. Housing Futures allude to this on their website, referencing the notion of ‘affordability plus.’ Cooperatives enhance wellbeing, social networks and local democracy which improve the overall quality of residents’ lives.

It’s clear that privately owned homes individualise people and alienate them from the community around them. Co-housing emphasises and creates community bonds by enhancing interdependence.

I have visited some well established coops across the North to get a feel of that less tangible benefit of this model of housing. I wanted to understand how the process of communal living enhances communities and document that positive, social aspect of cooperatives. This communal benefit of cooperative living was best put by one of the founders of LILAC; the cooperative is a ‘stand against corrosive individualism.’ Visiting coops, you are struck by the sense of togetherness that these models seem to have developed.

Meaningful grassroots democracy

One of the central features of housing coops is that, being co-owned by members, everybody has a say in how their home and neighbourhood is managed. All have a channel through which to influence the community around them. The housing coops I visited are fundamentally democratically administered. Importantly, the democracy is meaningful and members can see their views being acknowledged even if they are not implemented.

The actual method of housing democracy varies. Homes for Change have regular member meetings at which decisions are debated and voted upon. I witnessed the members meeting where the distribution of water charges was decided. Every member had the right to listen, speak and finally vote on the distribution of the charges. The changes implemented would result in meaningful change to the billing of water, meaning that residents in some flats would have noticeably lower water charges. This was a far cry from how Housing Associations distribute water charges in tower blocks.

Other coops, such as Shirle Hill in Sheffield and LILAC, operate a consensus model. Decisions are made based on all in the community agreeing to and amending proposed changes. This process takes longer, yet no decision would be implemented without the outright consent of every member of the community. The members of Shirle Hill commented that this forum for decision making meant that the community fought to find solutions that accommodated everyone.

In Homes for Change, two members compared the democratic decision making with the properties they had formerly lived in. In housing association properties, they commented that decisions were often made with minimal consultation. Residents felt detached from the paid employees making decisions about communities which led to processes at times having an antagonistic feel. A member who had formerly lived in a private rented tenancy noted that not only was there not a clear way to raise problems with the landlord, they also felt completely divorced and separated form their neighbours. This set up seemed to individualise households.

The democratic processes endorsed and nurtured by housing cooperatives are central to the communities resident in them. They offer platforms to both affect decisions about the community and for residents to hear and listen to other members. They seem to reinforce in members the notion that they are codependent on each other, that every member has a voice and that all have an interest in the functioning of the community. While there are still disputes within the communities, these processes allow for grievances and problems to be aired freely and fairly.

Allocations and diversity

Allocating housing units is a basic function of any housing project. However, the coops I visited placed the functioning of the community at the centre of these processes. This helps ensure that new members have similar values and also understand how they will fit into the existing community.

Both Shirle Hill and LILAC seek social interactions with perspective new members before offering them a housing unit. Specific activities are arranged in order that the community can get to know possible new members and ensure that they understand the values of cooperative living. This gives the community a further sense of control. A person who the community disapproves of will not be accepted. Again, this ability to select and meet potential neighbours differs drastically to other forms of housing, where allocation processes build in no community aspect.

LILAC and Homes for Change have fairly rigorous allocation processes. LILAC requests that new residents take part in social events prior to taking up a unit. Homes for Change ensure that applicants volunteer their time and attend community meetings giving the community chance to meet and get to know applicants.

The discussion about allocations led to conversations about the diversity of the membership. While members were open about seeking applicants with shared values, the cooperatives also understood the importance of diversity. The discourse around diversity  was more advanced than in other areas of society as cooperative models expose the importance of having members from a wealth of different backgrounds. With all taking part in the community, members could see and understand how different people brought new perspectives, ideas and skills. Diversity is not just a target, as it is for certain businesses, but something that brings depth and understanding that can progress the cooperative.

Shared space

Shared spaces and endeavours in the coop further reinforced the strength of the communities. In the cooperatives I visited, even the architecture was constructed in such a way as to reinforce the idea of community. All were constructed to look inwards, almost built to remind people about the wider community of which they were part. This in itself stands in contrast to the linear streets or vertical and clinical blocks in which many people live.

LILAC had shared community spaces constructed into the development. Shared utility rooms and a shared function room draw people together on a daily basis and facilitate interactions in the community. While people are not expected to be friends, the shared spaces ensure that people interact, reminding each other of the community’s interdependence.

Shirle Hill have also built shared spaces into their model seeking to draw the community together. The members emphasise the importance of regular social functions that should not only be a chance to socialise, but also integrate the cooperative into the wider community.

Aside from the community spaces, LILAC also offered examples of invaluable community endeavours. One example is the equity fund, which the whole cooperative pays into; if a member is left without an income, this fund will be a financial safety net allowing them to remain on the cooperative. Furthermore, LILAC also ensure that all the flats are renovated periodically. This not only ensures that no member will have a visibly worse flat than others but builds into the community a sense of mutual support for each other. No member will be obviously worse off than another; this model has created a micro-welfare state.

Mutual Housing on a bigger scale

Attempts have been made to create cooperative housing models on a larger scale. Rochdale Borough Homes (RBH) who manage the 13,000 former local authority housing units in the authority, has recently become a community benefit society. The model allows both employees and residents to pay to become members and co-owners, giving them the opportunity to elect a representative body that oversees the work of the executive. The most recent information available states that 35% of tenants have become members.

According to one of the architects of the model, encouraging a collaborative relationship between staff and tenants is the core aim of the society. The model should promote the recognition that tenants are best placed to influence the neighbourhoods in which they live. Furthermore, the model is designed to counter consumerist cultures that make tenants passive receivers of services from distant providers.

Discussing this model with one of the initial developers highlighted the problems that creating cooperatives en masse may encounter. He suggested that most communities had for so long been cut out of meaningful decision making that the culture needed to be re-taught. He also highlighted the link between the macro and the micro. While RBH had a representative body working with the executive, actions such as the community funds were indicated as giving tenants a direct influence over their communities, engaging neighbourhoods on a micro-level.

RBH is a step in the right direction, creating channels through which tenants can influence the decisions of those managing their neighbourhoods. However, it will be interesting to see whether such a vast model can develop the same sense of community that the smaller cooperatives have created.

This will be important. The benefits of cooperative living are clear; people feel a sense of ownership and inclusion in their neighbourhood. Speaking with members, it is obvious that they value the sense of inclusion in he strong communities that these models create.  Asking members of Shirle Hill to sum up their experience, none regret the move to co-housing; they acknowledge the struggles they have faced, but the benefits of the community far outweigh the difficulties. This point was echoed in both LILAC and Homes for Change. With such clear benefits, it is time for cooperative housing to receive meaningful political support.

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