The Cohousing 'Fix' - RSA

The Cohousing 'Fix'

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  • Picture of Jeanne Booth FRSA
    Jeanne Booth FRSA
    Educator, event & exhibition organiser. Chair of RSA East Midlands (2014-6)
  • Public Services & Communities
  • Communities
  • Housing
  • Fellowship

Could intergenerational cohousing, clusters of homes with shared resources, provide innovative solutions to pressing housing challenges? Supported by the RSA, Nottingham Civic Exchange and THiNK in NG, Nottingham Cohousing brought together a roomful of people including community workers, architects, developers, finance experts, FRSA and potential cohousing residents to see if it might. We had shamelessly borrowed the format from the BBC Radio 4 programme 'The Fix', presented by Matthew Taylor, and asked our 'bright minds' to come up with ways cohousing might be financed, designed and governed to fix housing issues for people at different stages of their lives.

I had started thinking about intergenerational cohousing over eighteen months before, sparked by a housing event organised by Lunar21, Derby's independent Think Tank led by Graham Bennett FRSA. There I presented three pieces of a housing puzzle and asked whether we might find new ways of putting these pieces together to provide answers to the housing and other needs of different generations.

I had observed my contemporaries, the tail-end of baby-boomers, with equity in their homes, purchasing buy-to-lets or renting out their parents' homes when they went into care or passed away. They often did this reluctantly because they couldn't think of a better way of safeguarding money they might need to help their kids, fund active retirement lives or pay for their own later care. At the same time, I saw younger people struggling to compete with these people to buy homes advertised by estate agents as 'ideal for first-time buyers or buy to let'. Not only did they need to be able to save enough for a deposit after paying rent, but with increasing numbers self-employed they are unable to evidence the steady incomes needed for mortgages. The third piece in my puzzle was the increasing numbers of over 80s, most of whom would rather live and die supported in their own homes than in care homes. 

Might it be possible to pool the equity over 70% of baby-boomers have, to develop homes better designed for active over-60s, provide affordable homes on different tenures for younger people and provide revenue to pay for home care services when needed? And potentially money is not the only resource that might be pooled. Skills, time and kindness are resources members of every generation might contribute, sometimes giving and sometimes receiving, but always helping to provide purpose and protection from loneliness and poor mental health.

But we didn't describe any of this thinking to the 'bright minds' assembled in February. Instead we presented them with three people – our living case studies.  

• R – approaching retirement and thinking about a different home for the active third stage of his life. Despite substantial equity in his current family home, he could see few attractive alternatives to homogeneous retirement complexes.
• B – mum to a toddler and hoping, with dad S, to grow their family. Both parents self-employed and paying a substantial proportion of their joint income to a private landlord. Neither able to save for a deposit or provide three years sufficient trading income for a mortgage lender.
• C – single and a freelancer, working from home. She had some money to put down on a home but was seeking a community she could become part of. 

What all three had in common was that they wanted to live in a diverse community and not just with people like themselves. So, splitting our 'bright minds' into mixed groups, we asked them to think creatively about the needs, means and desires of people at different stages of life, backgrounds and income levels, and resolve how a cohousing development could address these and work together as a whole – financially, architecturally and as a supportive community. Further excitement was added, as just a few days before the event Nottingham Cohousing was told a potentially suitable plot of land was to be sold for development by the City Council. This wasn't just a creative theoretical exercise – we needed workable ideas!

A packed audience and an expert panel, including the city councillor holding the housing portfolio, Nottingham Building Society, and an award-winning architect, heard presentations of exciting ideas in the evening. These included ways of using share issues; building sustainable homes adaptable for different life stages and arranged to facilitate community interaction; partnering with others; generating revenue and pooling different kinds of resources within and beyond the resident community. Some of the ideas that emerged, the connections made and people involved have contributed to our recent submission of an Expression of Interest to develop the aforementioned land which includes homes, a library, community gardens, business, coworking and retail units.

Interest in cohousing is growing and the UK Cohousing Network reports there are over 60 projects in the pipeline with 20 already built. The government is to make £60million a year available for community-led housing for the next three years. But there are many challenges, as the recent RSA report Co-living and the Common Good suggests. A key challenge is the one we chose to tackle as a potential asset right from the outset – providing homes for a diverse community, and making it work for individuals as well as for the whole. Cohousing schemes often start and are easier (but still challenging) when people with shared interests and resources come together, such as older people, single women or friends and family developing homes and small communities together. Can you make homes available to people on different incomes and on different tenures – buy, rent, rent to buy – and keep them affordable in perpetuity? Our ambition is to come up with a model that works and is replicable. At the time of writing Nottingham Cohousing is in the process of setting up a Community Land Trust and Community Benefit Society and mobilising support for our first development. With a lot of help from our friends and 'bright minds' – we're working on a fix.

To watch a video of our event, follow this link.

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  • Co-housing is a model with many forms also across Europe and I have lived in a number of co-housing settings in Denmark, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. From 1999 to 2005 I served as ‘bestuurslid’ management member at Centraal Wonen Het Hallehuis in Amersfoort, the Netherlands. This co-housing was purpose built shared accommodation funded and managed by a soacial housing association called SCW. The premises comprised six living groups, each with six or seven households; most of the time I lived and worked there our population oscillated somewhere between 42 and 50 residents. Residents included families, single parent households, older people and and a very large proportion of singletons. Most residents were employed but a small and significant proportion were self employed, artisans, artists, singers, actors, writers and poets. My abiding memory is of the various collaborations and cultural expressions which came into being. All children were treated as if they were our children. Communal meals, festivals and work groups were also a regular feature. The Netherlands has more than one well established communal living umbrella groups and we affiliated to Stichting Centraal Wonen as well as to a wider European membership group. Rents were set by negotiation and service charges were managed by a resident’s committee. Intentional communities are not entirely unknown in the U.K. and anyone intending to research their own route into co-housing or communal living should look at Diggers and Dreamers who host a website and also have produced publications. They have list of groups wanting new members and a list of individuals wanting to set up an intentional communities. To the best of my knowledge a movement analogous to the more formal Dutch co-housing movement supported and funded by housing associations have struggled to gain traction in the UK. However, I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering if this is might be an idea whose time has come at long last. 

  • Inspiring to learn more about your initiative Jeanne and the outcomes of setting your network a creative and challenging task. Interestingly, here in Swansea we've been grappling with the same and similar issues in our Intergenerational co-housing initiative. Our group includes FRSA's, a restoration engineer, an architect with experience of community led participative design, a property developer, community activists, representatives from two large housing associations and a staff member from the Wales Cooperative centre. We also have support from a range of local FRSA advisors including a planning specialist and a restoration architect.  We are exploring ideas exactly around the issues and models you mention including innovative ways to consult with our local community. Your article is timely, I'll circulate the link to the group.  I'd also love an opportunity to link up and share findings and strategies. I expect there is also an appetite in other places to join in the conversation. Perhaps we could organise something online eg a zoom presentation with break out groups? 

  • Cohousing is a model that works and it is replicable. Why would you try to reinvent the wheel or come up with another model that "works"? Our firm, McCamant & Durrett Architects, has worked with groups in the U.S.A. and Canada, and has consulted with several in the U.K. and other parts of the world. One thing that we see is that those who follow the Cohousing Design Process (described in "Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities" by Katie McCamant and Chuck Durrett) have more success in creating a cohousing community, and they do so on time and on budget. The process addresses income variations and most groups figure it out because they work with a cohousing professional who understands the different strategies that work within the cohousing model.