Jess Steele examines the possibilities (and pitfalls) of co-living from a community perspective, drawing on her experience in helping to lead a Community Land Trust in Hastings. Her essay underscores the importance of building community capacity, of embedding co-living schemes within the wider neighbourhoods that they are part of, and of recognising homes not only as shelter, but as ways of belonging to and participating in a place. Echoing the later essay by Jonathan Schifferes and Atif Shafique, her essay hints at the need to reconceptualise what we mean by concepts such as ‘equity’ and ‘wealth’.
By Jess Steele, OBE is founder and director of Jericho Road Solutions
“The welfare of the people is the ultimate law” Cicero (BC 106–43)
I came to ‘housing’ late, after 25 years of involvement in social enterprise, neighbourhood development and community-led regeneration. Perhaps that’s why I cannot see it in a silo. Cicero’s principle reminds us to start with the people and their lives rather than with housing units and spreadsheets. We need to see housing as a platform for creating a cohesive and connected society of empowered citizens and vibrant neighbourhoods, rather than as a production line.
Co-living, and community-led housing more generally, promote this broader vision of a home. If connected to a wider infrastructure of civic participation, community enterprise and the sharing economy, it can offer a powerful base for pursuing a range of outcomes amid spiralling social and economic challenges.
‘Habitat’ solutions to societal problems
We know that loneliness is a killer. We know that self-efficacy (the sense of agency, the perceived ability to make a difference or achieve an outcome) has a direct impact on the successful ‘performance’ of life and citizenship. We know that work is set to change dramatically but can guess that organisational and resource-harnessing skills will always be in demand. We know that the answer to climate challenge will be in cultural and behavioural changes to the way we live. We know that in future individuals, families and communities will have to do more for themselves and each other in order to tackle the ‘wicked’ problems society faces.
A housing solution that does not address these way-we-live issues may ‘deliver’ thousands of residential boxes but will make little impact on the welfare of the people, now or in the future. Instead we need to recognise people as producers as well as consumers of their own homes and neighbourhoods, just as they are (or could be) producer-consumers (agents) of their own lives.
In the last few decades we have witnessed the commodification of housing, in which housing-as-investment has created a serious scarcity of homes-for-living-in.
The politics and economics of housing makes social and policy innovation challenging, but nevertheless we must get on with finding new and equitable ways to meet the needs of people right now and in the future and, perhaps even more transformatively, changing how we talk about and experience ‘housing’. Drawing on Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel prize-winning work and on the centuries-long history of ‘community business,’ (Wyler, 2017), we need to build the neighbourhood resource through the process of collective effort known as ‘commoning’. These neighbourhoods must be socio-physical habitats that promote and reward the behaviours we know will best help tackle society’s fundamental problems — inequality and exclusion, isolation and ill-health, and the terrible waste of human, land and natural assets.
The Heart of Hastings
In Hastings we are groping our way to a holistic understanding that we call Living Homes, through action in two neighbourhoods. White Rock and Ore Valley are the two poorest places in Hastings but they are very different from each other. In White Rock the Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust (CLT) is using social lending and the innovative Investors Collective to buy property into long-term community freehold to mitigate the wave of gentrification and displacement. In Ore Valley the same organisation is supporting an ambitious community-build project to create 75 eco-homes using modern methods of construction and offering a mix of tenures and prices to meet a range of needs.
The term ‘affordable housing’ has been degraded by a technocratic approach that now includes ‘affordable rent’ homes priced at 80 percent of market value. Many commentators challenge this notion but it was codified in the National Planning Policy Framework (2012). In London it is ludicrous; in Hastings unhelpful. Fairly obviously, genuine affordability must be based on income: something is affordable if you have enough money to pay for it and still live on what’s left. In the Ore Valley project there are three elements to affordability:
1. As with all Community Land Trusts there is a separation of land and buildings so that the land, and any uplift in its value, is retained forever by the community.
2. As a charitable community benefit society, the CLT is both ‘asset-locked’ and ‘mission-locked’ — it will always retain and deploy its assets to promote Living Homes that meet local needs, and will never lose through Right to Buy assets that have been socially-subsidised with grant aid and sweat equity. Even the leasehold properties are covenanted to protect affordability in perpetuity, or reinvest some of the uplift in new CLT homes.
3. If affordability is based on income we have to ask ‘whose income?’ Mixed communities policy has been described by some as ‘gentrification by stealth’, diluting rather than tackling poverty, displacing existing residents and reallocating land for higher returns. However, on a new-build site locked behind hoardings for 40 years, there is merit in attracting a mix of people with different incomes, most of whom are in housing need in the sense that they cannot otherwise find suitable homes that they can afford. In Ore Valley there will be six different options to meet a range of needs, all with the same standards, quality and management.
Homes for living and life
A Living Home is not just a shelter you can afford. It is a way of belonging to and participating in a place. In Hastings the CLT is drawing on the experience of Rock House as a kind of laboratory. This nine-storey 1969 office block has been transformed into a mixed use, creative, collaborative space with six Living Rents flats and around 20 different sizes and types of capped-rent workspaces. The selection criteria are: need, local connection, enthusiasm and contribution. The building is ‘community self-managed’ by its tenants and users. These aspects are core to the CLT’s approach, not just for ethical and practical reasons but because they establish new kinds of social environment in which it is ‘normal’ to know your neighbours and to contribute to the social, physical and cultural management and upkeep of your neighbourhood.
People need work as well as homes. At Rock House residential and commercial tenants socialise and collaborate together. In Ore Valley the CLT is taking the link to work much further by using the Organisation Workshop (OW) approach to create lasting jobs and enterprises from the build process itself.
The OW is a ‘large-scale capacitation’ model, invented in Brazil and used all over the developing world for the past 50 years. It was piloted in the UK in 2015 by Marsh Farm Outreach in Luton. The theory is simple: the poor need to be able to organise to create wealth and keep it local. A group of around 100 ‘excluded’ people is handed the land and the means of production (equipment, materials, access to expertise). The only thing missing is organisation which they must create themselves. As they do so, they not only transform the land, creating assets for themselves and their community, but the individuals themselves are positively changed as they grow friendships, networks and enterprises.
In Hastings we will use the 12-week intensive OW to kick-start the build process and support participants to form their own builders’ enterprise. This enterprise will be paid to build out the rest of the site (supported by the architect and specialist sub-contractors) and will then continue to supply components and pod-houses from the on-site factory to development sites across the south- east of England. Alongside the builders themselves, we expect to see community businesses in catering, childcare, facilities management, ecology, and other aspects that emerge in the commoning process.
The crux of the dilemma is that neighbourhood improvement (which we surely all want) sparks gentrification (which ‘un-homes’ existing communities). What if there was a way for communities to ‘self-renovate’ their places while taking explicit action to avoid displacement? This is the driver behind Heart of Hastings projects and is also to be seen in other bright spots across the country, most famously in Granby, Liverpool. There, around 2013, residents who had been neglected and threatened with demolition for decades, chose to shift their approach from heroic but defensive campaigning to begin darning the fabric of their own neighbourhood. They cleared rubbish, planted in the streets, painted the tinned-up houses, held a table sale. From those proactive and possessive beginnings came the Granby 4 Streets Community Land Trust: 11 renovated houses for rent and covenanted sale, a Winter Garden made from two terraced houses that were too far gone for residential use, a successful monthly market, and the Granby Workshop with Assemble who won the Turner Prize for the project.
Lessons and implications for co-living
Co-housing has historically been associated with ‘intentional communities’ — like-minded, self-selected and highly-driven groups of individuals that lead the development, management and governance of co-housing units. Research suggests that these communities are often homogeneous in terms of social class and ethnicity, tending to be disproportionately white and middle class. They tend to have existing financial equity, social capital, access to expertise and a strong sense of personal and collective efficacy. The concept of Living Homes starts from the position that these critical elements can be built from scratch, and nourished over time, repositioning co-living communities as diverse, outward-looking and embedded within a wider civic and community infrastructure.
There is a risk that co-living communities can become insular and disconnected from the broader neighbourhood, becoming virtually indistinguishable from gated communities. However, if they are developed and built through a sharing economy in which access, participation and peer-to-peer exchange is prized over private ownership, co-living can both nurture a community of residents and catalyse a community of place.
Co-living communities could also become key contributors to neighbourhood improvement, as part of or even host to an ecosystem of community groups, co-operatives, makerspaces, live-work collectives, start-ups and social impact labs. Rather than needing to find small, homogeneous and highly-committed groups of individuals, co-living advocates could deploy effective approaches to civic empowerment and community development — such as the Organisation Workshop model — to help build a sense of community as well as the capacity, norms and behaviours needed for co-living residents to become active participants of their place. In this way they can bring together and foster ties between a diverse range of prospective residents (and their neighbours), from keyworkers and low-income families to recent migrants and artists.
Some policymakers remain sceptical about the ‘scalability’ of community-led housing and question whether it offers a ‘mainstream’ solution to the housing crisis. But with planning, policy and financial support there is no reason why alternative, community-based housing options cannot become a more prominent part of a mixed housing economy that goes beyond shelter to respond to major societal and economic trends that are driving demand for greater sharing, collaboration and proximity. Rather than being niche, co-living communities that are part of a broad civic infrastructure have the potential to serve major policy goals for local and national decision-makers. This includes affordability and access to housing, but also tackling social isolation, improving sustainability, promoting community cohesion and supporting local economic development and active citizenship.
Any developers steering the growth of co-living need to strike a balance between commercial and social goals. Community-led initiatives tend to have a social purpose at their heart, and involve end-to-end resident and citizen engagement (including through the building and development phase), rather than simply renting to passive consumers. Co-living developers would benefit from exploring community-based governance models and collaborative opportunities with co-operatives, CLTs and housing associations.
There is a lot of debate about how best to scale or ‘mainstream’ community based housing models. But rather than looking for single imposable solutions, we can link up together at grassroots to build scale rhizomatically like roots or fungus, infiltrating the ever-widening cracks in the dominant ownership models. It is exciting to watch the dynamic inventiveness of urban community land trusts in the UK at the moment — each grappling for answers, absorbing and leap-frogging each other’s innovations.
Co-living propositions must take account of the entire process of creating and sustaining nurturing neighbourhoods where people know their neighbours and expect to collaborate to build and manage their social and physical environment. It should not be the preserve of those with economic wealth, high incomes or professional skills; indeed the DIY Regen approach being pioneered in Hastings could be of greatest value to those who currently have the least equity in all senses. For all these reasons, and by prioritising horizontal co-dependency and the power of the collective, rather than vertical dependency on the powers of state and market, the concept and practice of Living Homes could be said to tick all the boxes while thinking outside of them.
- Read about more from the RSA on co-living: The rise and fall (and rise?) of communal living by Nicholas Boys Smith
- Download the RSA Co-living and the common good report (.pdf)
- Follow the RSA on Twitter @theRSAorg