Allan Shepherd FRSA has seen first hand the positive impacts of community-led housing and the role of the co-operative behind it. He explores the softer benefits of these approaches to individuals and communities and argues that post-Covid-19, they should play a bigger role in creating strong communities.
I work as a Community Housing Enabler for the Wales Co-operative Centre, an organisation whose role is to strengthen the fabric of society to withstand uncertain times, to empower people with knowledge, skills and ambition. My job is to help communities create new homes. Normally, I do this by travelling to small community centres in the far-flung reaches of Powys, getting muddy feet on building sites, meeting people face-to-face. This has all gone. I feel like HG Wells’ time traveller, lost in a future world discovered by accident, with no idea if there is any way back.
Like many, within days I have had to learn how to give exceptional webinars and create learning environments that relate well through mediums I have only passing familiarity with. My car, until now an essential tool of the job, has been repurposed as a community response vehicle to help deliver food and prescriptions.
But I am one of the lucky ones. There are many people suffering, living with great uncertainty, losing their lives or loved ones, losing the livelihoods that they have built up with care, love and creativity. I am not on the frontline and have not been furloughed, let go, laid off, evicted or bankrupted. Last week my Italian housemate lost his grandmother. I do not yet know how it feels not to be able to travel to be with my family in the event of such a loss. My fiftieth birthday party was an intimate affair, but that’s small potatoes.
I took this job because community-led housing changed my life; giving me community, friendship, resilience, economic stability and access to the kind of house and garden I would never have been able to afford as a tenant or mortgage holder. It is the best place that I have lived in and has given me a route forward that I did not know existed.
During this crisis, it has so far protected me from the worst I might expect if I was a tenant of a private landlord living on my own. As a member of a housing co-operative I have a level of security in my tenure that many renters do not. A landlord is not going to change the locks when I am out because we, the members of the co-op, are the landlords. At the start of this crisis, all eleven of us, spread over two houses, quickly offered each other help and got involved in a much wider community response.
Thanks to numerous critical acts of civil leadership across all parts of our community, our town and all the villages around are in a strong place to withstand whatever is coming. Locally, a ‘no one gets left behind’ mentality has emerged and to the best of our capabilities is being delivered upon. Machynlleth has been colour zoned with teams working in each zone providing help where it is needed. Each household in every zone has received a bilingual leaflet with important information to help them survive lockdown, including delivery details from local shops and hotlines to call. There are different local groups making textile masks, scrubs, plastic visors and growing food. Another organises a full diary of online wellbeing workshops. The list lengthens with each passing day.
As we look to the future and the lessons learnt from Covid-19, we need to look at the role played by organisations like the Wales Co-operative Centre. Last year it invited 50 people living in community-led housing projects to share their story with them. Many had experienced increased wellbeing, better health, less loneliness and isolation, greater economic stability. A pattern emerged of people enjoying a range of ‘soft benefits’ in addition to the hard benefit of having a roof over their heads, something that in the UK tends to be provided either at a market rate by private developers or at a social rent by local authorities and housing associations.
Not many of these organisations are encouraged or legislated to provide the soft benefits associated with democratic, self-organised community-led housing schemes. Large-scale housebuilders have an organising model that does not easily lend itself to creating community, yet they build the majority of new housing in the UK. Less than 1 percent of all homes in Wales are created by the communities that live in them. In the UK the Confederation of Co-operative Housing estimates its 180 members have 196,000 homes. There are 27.8 million households in the UK.
Things are very different in other countries. According to Profiles of a Movement: Co-operative Housing around the World (2012) a third of the population of Egypt lives in a housing co-op, 65 percent of the population of Estonia, 6 percent of Germans, 461,000 Austrians, 11 million Poles, 1.5 million Swedes, 1.5 million Spanish families, 2 million Turkish people, 615,000 Italians, 841,000 Norwegians and 600,000 Portuguese. As these figures suggest in the UK, it is unusual in the UK to be part of a housing co-op, or to be involved in creating a cohousing scheme or renovating empty homes as a community. It is typical for people to think that social living is what they do somewhere else; in the UK what we do is social housing, which means something very different. This needs to change.
The convulsion created by Covid-19 has toppled our understanding of what normality is. During the second world war policymakers planned how they could refashion society once the war was won. If we act wisely, the future can deliver something different for us too. Less time spent away from our families, stronger communities, a healthier planet, increased emphasis on values that strengthen society. We have everything to work for – and this work should include scaling up provision of co-operative housing models, learning from what is already in the UK, as well as further afield.
We have had very difficult times in our household. Community-led housing schemes are not rosy utopias. Why would they be? We all come to them with our hang-ups, histories and maybe one or two horror stories to contend with. But I know that the worst of all these times do not come close to undermining the value I have had from being part of a team who consider their housing needs together and work out a way of delivering them. And whenever we emerge as a household blinking into the fresh sunlight of the post-Covid-19 world I will know that I couldn’t have spent these days with a better group of people. And there is so much value to be had in that.
Allan Shepherd worked as an editor, publisher and author at the Centre for Alternative Technology for 20 years before taking his present job as a community housing enabler at the Wales Co-operative Centre. His work has been published by Harper Collins, the Guardian, academic journal Oral History and other magazines and newspapers. For more information, visit wales.coop/homes or cymru.coop/homes or email firstname.lastname@example.org