Original article: The Journal 22 May 2019, by Tom O’Donnell
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”.
(Jane Jacobs, from The Death and Life of Great American Cities)
What has housing to do with meaningful democracy, civic participation, social equality, diverse and fulfilling ways of life? Or, with inclusivity, health, community, ecologies or sustainable land use?
The importance and connection of housing to these general themes is usually highlighted when things go wrong. In a housing crisis, inequality, social alienation and exclusion and their broader consequences for democracy are brought to the fore.
Given its importance in society, it is strange that housing is usually discussed in terms of ‘units’ and ‘delivery’ or ‘provision’. ‘Land’ is employed as a completely neutral term, independent of place. This use of language is revealing and tells us that the supply of housing is generally understood as an instrumentalised mass phenomenon and a top-down process where the users are passive agents.
However, as increasingly complex ways of life, life-styles and changing demographics begin to define the ‘norm’, and as we become subject to fluctuating social and environmental pressures, it is more and more obvious that different approaches to housing are needed and that it is unrealistic to expect present top-down and market-led structures to meet these needs.
On this basis, and in the present climate, we might view the emergence of ’co-living’ developments with some suspicion. On the face of it, ’co-living’ appears to be merely a commercial repackaging of familiar types: shared apartment living or, at its most extreme, the hostel for single, transient accommodation.
The use of the prefix ‘co-‘ is quite misleading, however. ‘Co-living’ plays on the similar sounding ‘Cohousing’ and in its commercial branding seems to infer some sense of ‘community’ is included in the package.
As Cohousing is slowly becoming generally recognised in Ireland, it is important to make a distinction between it and –at worst–attempts to monetise human relationships or exploit people’s difficulties.
In Cohousing, the prefix ‘co-‘ refers to collaborative and cooperative approaches to housing as well as to the imparted sense of ‘with’, of community or communal life and the real value of neighbours.
A Cohousing project might therefore contain relatively conventional private accommodation with shared or communal facilities and spaces. Equally, it might contain smaller than usual private apartments with extremely generous shared living and outdoor areas. This latter arrangement is sometimes called a ‘cluster apartment’ and may have influenced the development of the ‘co-living’ model.
However, the ‘cluster apartment’ offers significant differences to “co-living’. Firstly, neighbours have got to know each other over years of planning; it is a stable community of different people.
Secondly, theirs is a choice of a way of living and their homes are secure and affordable. The cluster arrangement is frequently used for multi-generational and inclusive living where singles, young families and older people as well as people with disabilities share meals and living areas when they desire. (see here)
An important and empowering aspect of Cohousing is self-organisation: projects arise from the particular needs and desires of the people who come together to form that group. Some groups favour a low level of communal life, others a higher level.
In any case, it is they themselves who decide on their priorities, work out decisions, find land, engage architects and other professionals, and finally build and subsequently manage their own housing.
As Cohousing projects are built by people for themselves, there is no developer profit to be paid, nor is there a predetermined ‘life-style’ to buy into.
Often groups also wish to maintain affordability in perpetuity, and will decide against benefitting from rising prices. Other groups decide otherwise. Affordability and usability can be increased by including an element of self-build or employing principles of flexible or deferred planning where decisions can be made at a later date, allowing spaces to be finished to a basic level and adjusted or changed later.
This adaptability can be further used when thinking how housing needs change over the course of a life, so that old age might be part-financed by designing-in the possibility to easily subdivide living spaces in the future to provide a basic income. (see here)
Cohousing has also been developed for single-generational use. A project in London called New Ground was developed by women of retirement age as an alternative to living alone. (see here)
A major hurdle for affordable Cohousing and Community-Led Housing is the availability of land. Increasingly in Europe and the UK, the Community Land Trust (CLT) is being used to guarantee affordable housing permanently. Any kind of land can be put into trust, but one can imagine small, awkward sites put into trust might immediately enable small Cohousing groups to develop model approaches for the Irish situation.
The CLT is a community body which holds the ownership of the land and leases it in perpetuity to what is built on it, usually community-led housing (urban and rural development and renewal can also be structured this way). This arrangement holds the land and housing in an ownership lock and prohibits both the housing and the land from being resold on the open market in the future. (see here and here)
The long-term leasing of land to Cohousing groups by the state or other institutions has similar potential to effect long-term affordable housing.
SOA researches and promotes collaborative and cooperative approaches to housing including Community Land Trusts. In order to enable these approaches, we are arguing for a cooperative approach to housing and urban development where top-down and ground-up initiatives can work together to allow people to address their own needs affordably and sustainably. This would reflect a trend across Europe and the UK for a “new municipalism” that prioritises democracy, participation and community-led initiatives and values land as a community asset rather than a commodity or source of income.
In reality this can mean central or local government developing structures for Cohousing groups to finance projects, such as a sustainable investment fund and allowing Credit Unions to lend.
This can mean developing policies and masterplanning for Community Land Trusts/ Land-leases and, furthermore, processes by which groups and municipalities can work together to develop projects.
Or this can mean recognising Cohousing and self-organised initiatives including self-build and developing policies to inform and support people who wish to address their own housing needs.
In order to inform policy and bring these ideas to a wider public we are organising a major event in June called Cohousing Here, which will take place in Dublin Castle on the 14th and TU Dublin on the 15th. We have invited speakers from rom Germany, Belgium, Spain, Holland, Italy, the UK and Ireland who will approach themes of collaboration, participation and social agency in cohousing. Information is available on our website at soa.ie.
SOA also runs a quarterly Cohousing ‘Cafe’. This is an informal networking and information event for Cohousing groups and anyone interested in the idea. It is a platform for groups to introduce themselves, there are workshops and an exhibition of European examples of Cohousing.