Amy Hall from the BHCLT team was in London on Wednesday 19 September for an event on community-led housing in the capital, hosted by Impact Hub Islington.
The housing system in the UK is broken and community-led housing could provide part of the solution. This was the starting point for the ‘How could we make community-led cohousing the next big thing in London?’ event, outlined by facilitator Joost Beunderman, Director of Impact Hub Islington.
“Pumping more money into a broken system is not going to get us the change we really need,” he pointed out.
Alex Whitcroft, a Director at KIN, was the main speaker for the evening. KIN are architects, ethical developers, and community enablers for sustainable and community-led housing. He is also a co-founder of community housing group Cohousing London seeking to build inclusive affordable homes across London.
Alex highlighted, as well as there being a massive housing shortage, the built environment has a big impact on the environment. “We are a big part of the problem that the world is facing,” he said.
Failures of the state and the private sector have led us to a housing crisis in the UK and London is one of the most extreme examples of this. “Over the last 50 years or so the state has essentially phased itself out of building homes,” Alex explained. The private sector has not expanded to fill the gap left by the lack of social housing as it’s not in its interest and this has led to a massive spike in house prices.
How can cities respond? Alex presented community-led development as something that has the potential to deliver homes at scale and out compete the private sector. He gave a range of examples from Germany, Denmark and other places where community-led housing is a bigger, but also some examples from here in the UK.
Alex outlined some of the key principles for community-led housing and how projects have put these into practice. These included Heart of Hastings and LILAC cohousing project in Leeds.
Two of the biggest things are inclusivity and affordability – it could be easy for some cohousing communities to become like gated communities but there are many projects going against that. One example of a group Alex said was working hard on this was Brixton Green in London. He pointed out the importance of intergenerational projects, leading to more social sustainability and making communities more likely to survive as residents’ lives change.
The difficulty for Alex is that people often say they want diversity but that’s just step one: “You can have a whole bunch of people who are very diverse in a room, but if they don’t actually talk to each other at meetings, or some go away from every other meeting feel very disfranchised about their voice not being heard you haven’t got an inclusive space – you haven’t got a space that feels safe for all sorts of people.”
People who historically in society feel disenfranchised and disempowered need to feel like they have power and ownership over the group and to feel safe, but it’s something that can’t be forced onto people – there needs to be space allowed for it to happen. Alex emphasised that it’s important to make sure this work is done early on before the culture of a group becomes cemented – easy to do, no matter how well intentioned people are.
What makes community-led housing?
For Alex, environmental sustainability is vital. “I believe if we put the people that live in the homes in charge of the decisions about their performance, and those are the people who then pay the bills, they are going to pay a lot more attention to whether those homes are built right and whether what we’re targeting with those homes is low energy, is ecological,” he explained.
This all sounds great but how can we grow community-led housing? For Alex it’s important that it becomes a more diverse sector that’s accessible and appealing, so people can see themselves doing it. Places where people can go for advice, support and events (like BHCLT!) are part of that. His other ideas include speeding up the process of housing projects going from ideas to moving in, making things simpler to avoid burnout or people moving to a cheaper city as they have run out of time to find an affordable place to live.
How to access affordable land and property was another big topic of discussion. We heard how London Community Land Trust is campaigning to get sites at below market rates form councils and using grants and money from supporters to pass savings on to buyers. People will then buy houses at a rate linked to local income and when they come to sell again also do so at an assessed level linked to local income – not the market rate.
We also heard how social housing tenants on some London estates are organising to develop their own projects using disused land such as garage sites.
Watch a recording of the event made by Impact Hub (you may need to rotate it):
So, if you want to live in community-led housing, you’ll probably have to start from scratch it will take five years, and you probably won’t get a house at the end of it, right? This question came as a challenge from the audience.
The feeling in the room seemed to be that things were changing, with around 15 new community-led housing groups in London having a reasonable chance of success, even if things are moving slower than we would like. Established co-operatives were also recommended as somewhere people could potentially move into straight away. There are around 18 of these in Brighton & Hove, some of which have been going for decades.
Another tip was joining your local Community Land Trust and the groundswell of action and demand for more genuinely affordable, community-led housing.
We are on the cusp of change but it needs to be accelerated, and supported, to make our cities a place where people can actually live and thrive.