#TogetherStronger – Housing, Development and Communities – The value of Cooperative Housing
I’ve written this article in response to Mark Smith’s (Wales Co-operative Centre) blog ‘Network proves that houses become homes in Co-op’ . Far from being a blatant attempt to gate-crash what is now a widely known hashtag (in Wales anyway), this article aims to show that unity is required on many fronts to face the various challenges and potential rewards posed by the Co-operative Housing model.
I too was in attendance at the Wales Co-operative Network event in November of 2017 in Carmarthenshire, the first in my new role of Community Asset Team Manager in Coastal Housing Group.
The meeting was attended by a small amount of officers like myself who work in various roles in Housing and the third sector across Wales. More interestingly, the majority of the attendees were community members who were in attendance either to speak about their own communities or hear from others in attendance and take their own ideas back to their own organisations, or both.
Anyone who sits in endless meetings will know how refreshing it is to be a part of a discussion where people speak from the heart rather than a spreadsheet or Key Performance Indicators (no offence to any Finance people reading).
Heart of ‘Old Oak’
The event was a fascinating insight into one particular co-operative in Carmarthenshire called ‘Old Oak Housing Co-operative’
‘Old Oak’ was formed in 2014, PRIOR to the development being built. Through regular housing management sessions, training opportunities with their landlord (Pobl) and the Wales Co-operative Centre, they have fostered a democratic spirit and elected a Board for the co-operative, who oversee any decisions and agree on expenditure.
The attendees were a truly inspirational group of people who were clearly passionate about their community and their homes. They held an extremely mature and respectful relationship with their landlord and were solution-focused in their outlook to any issues they may be presented with.
Open Up Your Door
Following a quick visit to a vinyl shop in Carmarthen – the wonderfully named ‘Tangled Parrot’ – I drove back home pondering the various considerations I had and how these could be progressed within Coastal:
- How do we start a conversation that dovetails the role of Housing Management with Development in Coastal so as to engineer a similar scenario whereby residents are able to take steps to be a part of a community long before they move into a scheme?
- How do we achieve an aim of growing our co-operatives by being passive and responding to demand?
- Could we promote the co-operative model far more and give people an informed choice?
The ‘Design for life’ approach to new build – wider doors, adjustable ceilings, etc – inevitably leads to a place where people can potentially stay in their homes, longer into their lives. This enhanced period of independent living results in communities being less transient and more stable. A stable community can engineer a much more positive relationship with the landlord(s) that own housing stock there. A better relationship with the landlord potentially leads to properties being treated much more favourably by those who inhabit them, resulting in greater budgets due to decreases in expenditure bringing properties back to a lettable standard, with lower rent arrears and far less ASB than a community which is ever-changing and therefore resource intensive.
Housing win. Development win.
Welcome though the announcement was, It is worth mentioning that even where some landlords have got this right and have spent so much time responding to predicted legislative changes, their hard work has been rendered futile overnight – i.e a Co-operative in Rhyl which is building all 1-bed properties, in response to the LHA requirements.
Co-operative Housing and Asset Based Community Development
Co-operative Housing sits atop 6 founding principles
- Self – help
- Self – responsibility
There is much to be held in parallel with the principles of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD). As outlined by Nurture Development, ‘ABCD’ emphasises the ‘community’ in driving forward the needs of the community. Not institutions. And starts with the very things that exist to make that community unique, and not it’s deficiencies that make it needy. Its passions, its talents, its assets.
When there is so much that is ‘strong’ in co-operative housing communities, why does the funding landscape require us to highlight what is ‘wrong’ to such a dangerous level that it can often rip away belief and make active citizenship retreat?
How do we know it works?
Resilience in cooperative communities is apparent from the get go. From my earliest conversations in Coastal, I have heard stories of the tenants of our cooperatives helping each other on various activities (maintenance, filling in Housing benefit forms, etc). One group bought a mower and a strimmer to save money on their service charges. Why not? This was also evident from ‘Old Oak’. There is distinctive maturity in a relationship that tenants know landlords are there to ‘do with’ or do by’ but not ‘do for’.
Agreeing a set of community principles long before the ribbon has been cut on the development is a credible aspiration and a proven valued commodity by landlord and co-operative alike. To see wider integration, from communities not only identifying gaps in provision, but responding to that gap themselves.
Cormac Russell mentions that ‘the challenge for institutions along the way is to work out how we let go of our power, power that wasn’t ours in the first place and move from a ‘leader’ to ‘enabler’.
This sits perfectly with the Wales Co-operative Centre’s vision that “co-operative housing can provide an innovative, affordable and alternative model for home ownership in Wales”
What more can we do?
There is absolutely more work to be done in Coastal, with giving our existing Co-operatives an increased identity, such a section of the website, access to training, etc
Whilst co-operatives can often be a major challenge for the working practices of organisations, very barely will the sky fall down, and at the edge of our comfort zones is where most learning is done. Tenants hear time and time again that they have to be adaptable to change (LHA, Universal Credit, etc). What about us? Shouldn’t associations and institutions lead by example?
If we start these relationships from a position of trust we reach new heights in the maturity of the dialogue between housing management and the tenant base, which can lead to communities pulling on staff only when they need to and being largely self-reliant. One resident of Old Oak stated in the meeting that as a result of living in a cooperative, “I’m not lonely anymore”. Surely that is what we are aiming for?
This firmly underpins the Asset Based relationships we are now trying to foster in Coastal Housing and leaves an exciting 2018 ahead for us, where we will all surely face challenges. Challenges that, if overcome, would leave us with a far greater comfort zone, stronger housing cooperatives and sustainable communities.
I’ll settle for that.