Co-operative Capital: The Governance Capacity of Cooperative and Community-led Housing (2015-2017)

Problem Background and Relevance

In the wake of an economic crisis and the search for innovative solutions to provide affordable housing, cooperative and community-led housing initiatives have gained increasing attention across Europe. The social nature of their governance is seen as an advantage over other forms of housing provision when it comes to strengthening social networks, collective identity and resident participation in the neighbourhood. Nevertheless, the real potential of cooperative and community-led organisations for community empowerment is not always well understood or evidenced. Furthermore, research debates on these housing models and their wider role for society are only weakly connected within Europe. Thus, contextualised research approaches are needed to deliver a realistic picture of the capacity of cooperative and community-led housing organisations to empower residents.

Objectives

This Marie Curie Fellowship project is a comparative study between community-led housing sectors in England and Austria and analyses the governance capacity of different organisational forms to empower residents in their neighbourhoods and in the wider institutional environment. Community-led housing refers to a variety of locally-based organisational and governance models, such as Housing Cooperatives, Community Land Trusts, Self-help Housing, Community Self-build and Cohousing. These different community-led fields – although not always explicitly linked to the co-operative housing tradition – to a certain degree, exhibit co-operative principles in their governance, such as self-help, democratic member or resident control, and co-ownership. On a broader scale, the research intends to deepen the inter-European dialogue and inform international debates on the new role of cooperative models in economy and society.

Methodological Steps

  • Developing an analytical framework to study the emergence and evolution of cooperative and community-led housing fields in England and Austria.
  • Developing an analytical framework to study social capital building in cooperative and community-led housing.
  • Assessing and comparing the contributions of different organisational and territorial models to social capital building through…
  • qualitative case studies of innovative community-led housing projects and a
  • quantitative comparative study between the housing sectors in England and Austria

Project Partners

The international part of the study is carried out in cooperation with the Institute for Innovation Management (IFI) at Johannes Kepler University Linz (JKU) in Austria and receives co-funding from an APART-fellowship of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW).

More general information on the Marie Curie Fellowship scheme

Project Updates and Outputs

How to stimulate social innovation in housing? Sharing experiences between Austria and the UK

Richard presenting at 22nd Annual CCH ConferenceImage: Richard presenting at the 22nd Annual Conference of the Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH)

The UK is currently facing a ‘housing crisis’ which has led to the emergence of a ‘generation rent’, whilst narrowing the focus of housing provision onto options for home ownership. As the erosion of social housing provision continues, new options are being considered by housing providers and policy makers to find solutions to develop affordable housing models that people need and desire.

In this uncertain environment, I had the opportunity to present results from my on-going Marie Curie Fellowship project at recent research, policy and practice events in England in order to stimulate knowledge transfer with Austria on innovative housing practices.

In my plenary speech at the 22nd Annual Conference of the Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH) in Loughborough in May, I reported on small and large-scale co-operative housing models which have recently emerged within the framework of social housing in Austria and which put a strong emphasis on new forms of resident participation and collaboration.

Audience at ICC Social Housing ConferenceImage: Audience at the 'Future of Social Housing Conference' at the ICC, Birmingham

In two other conference presentations at the University of Bristol in April and the ICC Birmingham in June, I discussed the role of local authorities as external enablers of new forms of co-operative and community-led housing in Austria. In this respect, my presentations particularly highlighted Vienna’s approach to developer competitions (Bauträgerwettbewerbe) as a good practice example of a policy instrument that aims at enabling social innovation in housing and could be replicated in other European contexts.

You find conference details and presentation slides here:

The barriers and prospects for community-led housing: Reviewing two recent studies

LILAC cohousing scheme in LeedsImage: LILAC cohousing scheme in Leeds

In recent years, England has witnessed a small-scale re-emergence of community-led housing initiatives as a response to the lack of affordable homes and spaces for self-determination in mainstream housing. Furthermore, changes in the policy environment for housing and planning – following the Localism Act 2011 and its related governance reforms – have created new opportunities to promote and establish more community-led forms of housing.

Not surprisingly, the phenomenon of community-led housing has also started to receive more attention in the academic literature while at the same time, housing practitioners have begun to commission their own evidence-based research to develop a better understanding for this emerging sector.

Adding to those already existing studies on community-led housing, two research reports have recently been published. The first study was undertaken by the left-wing think tank Smith Institute and funded by the Nationwide Foundation.

Lancaster cohousing projectImage: Lancaster cohousing project

Based on best practice case studies and stakeholder interviews, the study looks at the viability of different community-led housing models and their growth potential. Overall, the report paints a rather positive picture of previous achievements in the community-led sector – at least at the local project level. According to the study authors, the current attractiveness of the sector refers to its innovative and affordable responses to local housing need.

Moreover, projects consider environmental sustainability, the concerns of local residents, and can also have wider neighbourhood benefits, such as training and job creation for local people and strengthening community cohesion. However, when it comes to the prospects for growth of the sector, the authors identify serious challenges ahead. Given its relatively small size (around 173,000 homes and still mainly co-operatives), public awareness of community-led housing needs to be increased about its core principles and potential benefits. Thus, the authors recommend setting up a strong national support network with a sector-wide communications and PR strategy. Furthermore, the report highlights the crucial role of government funding and support as well as partnerships with housing associations to mainstream community-led housing models. In this respect, the Smith Institute’s report recommends existing grant schemes (such as the Empty Homes Community Grants Programme) to be renewed, and more seed-corn funding schemes and low-interest loan funding to help expanding community-led housing.

The urgent need for external facilitation and support is in line with the results of our own William Plowden Fellowship report on the prospects for community-led housing in England, which was published as a HCRG Working Paper last year. It also discusses the foundation of the Mutual Housing Group (MHG) as an attempt to create a new umbrella over rather diverse sub-sectors to meet resource needs of individual initiatives as well as promote and communicate interests jointly. Although the MHG has so far remained a rather loose group of actors, the recent project-based engagement of the Building & Social Housing Foundation (BSHF) – with the aim to facilitate the growth of community-led housing – has created a new momentum towards establishing a sector-wide brand and communications strategy.

An interesting finding of the Smith Institute’s report is that sector representatives value the organisational diversity within the community-led housing movement as well as its focus on “scaling out”, i.e. an expansion through new small-scale local groups rather than growth of existing organisation (“scaling up”). The Plowden Fellowship report helps to put these particular features of the English sector into an international perspective. Such a comparative approach suggests that scaling up strategies, driven by strong external (government) facilitation and central umbrella bodies, can indeed hollow out the core principles of co-operative and community-led housing sectors.

Pragmatic partnerships between citizens and the state to achieve the common good

The second report briefly reviewed here is by Stephen Hill who has been working in housing development and neighbourhood regeneration since the early 1970’s. Stephen has a longstanding interest in community-led housing and is a board member of the National CLT (Community Land Trust) Network and the UK Cohousing Network. In his recently published Churchill Fellowship report, he provides an in-depth analysis of the relationship between citizens and the state based on field observations of community land trusts and other forms of “citizen inspired housing” in North American cities.

Within community-led forms of housing, the report highlights the important role of CLTs, as their agenda focuses on housing needs that meet the concern of local communities, but at the same time also addressing the underlying issue of land market speculation with concrete actions. According to the author, such agency of community-led organisations can effectively complement state agency, when the latter is not able (or not willing) to initiate land reforms aiming at a better balance of public and private interests.

For his fellowship study, Stephen interviewed over 60 representatives of community organisations, politicians and public officials in different North American cities in 2014. In the same year, he already gave a presentation in our HCR seminar series where he spoke about his study visits to community land trusts in the US. Against the backdrop of these empirical insights, the Churchill Fellowship report reflects on the current situation of citizen participation in political life in the UK. His analysis leads Stephen to recommendations for institutional reforms (“the ‘people’s land’ campaign”) which should guarantee that housing and land markets in this country serve the common good.

The report, for instance, suggests initiating community-based “commissions” and “local panels” that would strengthen the public interest perspective in land-use and planning processes for major development projects. Another recommendation refers to “public interest sounding boards” which should increase public accountability of professional institutions in the field of planning and housing. According to the author, these institutional reforms help to re-establish trust among citizens in public authorities and professionals to represent their interests.

From an international perspective, Stephen’s comparative approach between the US and the UK – including recommendations for policy transfer – makes sense, given similarities of the institutional and political environment as well as the nature of social movements between both countries. The CLT model, for instance, was originated in the US. From the report it appears that the author is particularly impressed by the more pragmatic and less ideological attitude of public authorities in US case studies which enables productive partnerships with community organisations for local housing development.

Stephen’s reflections on the relationship between citizens and the state are relevant to my own Marie Curie Fellowship research on the role of “linking social capital” in community-led housing in England and Austria. This vertical type of social capital refers to ties between residents or local community members and “powerful” resource holders, such as public authorities, large housing associations, or private investors. The recommendations in Stephen’s fellowship report on implementing “public interest panels” and “sounding boards” make me wonder about accountability practices in major urban housing development in other European contexts. In Vienna, for instance, we still find a rather top-down policy approach to facilitating collaborative housing projects through favourable strategic land-use planning and developer competitions. In this process, interdisciplinary expert panels evaluate the “social sustainability” of housing projects that apply for public funding. However, the actual level of resident participation still depends on the individual housing provider. Nevertheless, the introduction of social sustainability criteria in housing developer competitions puts increasing pressure on larger non-profit developers to explicitly consider participatory approaches and community building in subsidised housing schemes.

Further information:
Heywood, A. (2016). Local housing, community living: prospects for scaling up and scaling out community-led housing. London: The Smith Institute.

Hill, S (2015). Property, Justice and Reason - Reconnecting the Citizen and State
through Community Land Trusts and land reform in nine narratives. Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

Lang R., Mullins D. (2015). Bringing real localism into practice through co-operative housing governance. The role and prospects for community-led housing in England. Housing and Communities Research Group WP1-2015. University of Birmingham.

ISA Conference 'Housing in an unequal world' in Chicago

Richard presented the paper “Community-led housing in England - The emergence of a field?” at the conference “Housing in an Unequal World”, which took place in Chicago, IL, USA, from September 17 to 19, 2015. This international conference was organised by the Research Committee on Housing and Built Environment (RC43) within the International Sociological Association (ISA). It brought together academics from around the world to discuss housing policy in both developed and developing countries. The paper, co-authored by David Mullins, builds on empirical findings of Richard’s Marie Curie project on co-operative and community-led housing in England and insights from institutional theories of fields.

Fieldwork on collaborative housing in Vienna

As part of my Marie Curie Fellowship Project, I spent a week with fieldwork activities in Vienna, Austria, in October 2015. David Mullins and I visited the urban development areas of Sonnwendviertel and Seestadt Aspern where some pioneer community-led housing schemes have recently been finalised as part of a large-scale social housing programme. The goal of this stage of field research was to develop a better empirical understanding for different types of recent community-led housing activity in Austria and to explore its linkages to the housing policy context.

The project “so.vie.so” (an acronym for “Sonnwendviertel Solidarity”) close to the Hauptbahnhof was completed in December 2013. It was one of the first projects to be finalised within the creation of an entirely new neighbourhood, mainly consisting of subsidised housing schemes (5.000 units for about 13.000 residents) but also including commercial and shopping areas as well as schools and nurseries.

The Passivhaus certified scheme “so.vie.so” consists of 111 subsidised rented apartments, communal facilities of different size, shared greenspace with the neighbouring housing schemes as well as premises. This project represents an emerging type of top-down collaborative housing in the non-profit sector where a larger developer – in this case a housing co-operative – provides participation opportunities for future residents that go well mainstream non-profit housing management. Thus, potential residents engage in an externally facilitated process which kicks off as early as 2-3 years before the actual completion of the scheme.

The collaborative housing project, SoviesoImage: The collaborative housing project “so.vie.so”

In an interview and guided tour with Christian Richter who lives with his young family in an upper floor apartment, we learned more about the resident participation process. The idea of this professional “community coaching” is to sharpen residents’ awareness for their immediate social environment at regular meetings and workshops where they get to know their neighbours’ needs and interests. Therefore, they might want to engage in mutual help activities (e.g. for reconciliation of work and family life), and in working groups on particular topics, such as (roof-top) gardening, handicraft work, nursery or fitness classes. In a democratic process, popular group activities are permanently assigned to a particular community room within the estate and residents are encouraged to take over self-responsibility for managing resident groups as well as designing and using communal space.

Another important aspect of this form of moderated community building is the allocation of flats which was carried out as a negotiation process by the residents themselves, e.g. supported by scoring tools to prioritise individual and community interests, and to make these transparent.

David and I had the opportunity to see another interesting case of collaborative housing in a different location in Vienna. We were invited by Petra Hendrich to visit the Baugruppen project "Seestern Aspern" later that week. This intergenerational project consists of 27 apartments, different communal areas, including a large community kitchen and a coworking-space on the ground floor. Tenants moved into their apartments in August 2015.

As an external consultant, Petra was responsible for facilitation and moderation of the planning and community building for this Baugruppe. She took us on an extended tour around the house and explained in great detail the planning and project development process for the Baugruppe and how it is embedded in the creation of an entirely new neighbourhood.

Petra and Richard at Baugruppe 'Seastern Aspern'Image:  Petra and Richard at Baugruppe “Seestern Aspern”

Seestadt Aspern is actually one of the largest urban development areas presently in Europe. Over a period of 20 years, 10.500 homes for about 20.000 residents will be realised mainly by large non-profit providers. Here, the city administration has for the first time made available building plots directly to Baugruppen which resulted in the development of six pilot projects. During our visit, it turned out that the professional facilitation approach to community building in “Seestern Aspern” was similar to the top-down project “so.vie.so”. However, in Baugruppen like “Seestern Aspern”, the residents themselves define most of the project and lead the development process.

The case comparison suggests that top-down collaborative projects like “so.vie.so” rather focus on the participation of most residents in a pre-designed structure. However, these residents are still mainly focused on their individual housing needs. In contrast, Baugruppen, such as “Seestern Aspern”, are usually initiated by an established community of interest who approaches a professional non-profit developer or the municipality with the idea for a community-led housing project. Within the field of collaborative housing, Baugruppen in Vienna can thus be described as real community-led approaches which are driven by the idea of self-determination of residents.

To further explore the linkages between collaborative projects and the housing policy context, we interviewed Dieter Groschopf, the deputy director of Wohnfonds Wien, the local government body overseeing subsidised housing construction in Vienna. He highlighted that only a wide-ranging strategic approach of the city administration has enabled the realisation of both top-down collaborative housing and Baugruppen projects to be carried out within the framework of social housing. Key to this is Vienna’s strategic land-use planning which, in recent years, has focused on accessing and developing inner-city locations for new social housing, such as the area south of the new Hauptbahnhof, through mutually beneficial deals with the Austrian Federal Railways.

Furthermore, beneficial for collaborative housing projects has been the introduction of social sustainability criteria in housing developer competitions in Vienna since 2005, in order to strengthen its over-all contribution to the goal of inclusive urban development. This has put pressure on larger non-profit developers to explicitly consider participatory approaches and community building in subsidised housing schemes. This has further opened up new spaces for collaborative approaches to inclusive neighbourhood development and even for partnerships with community groups, such as Baugruppen. At the same, the quality of housing management has improved with specialised external consultancies entering this field, supporting non-profit developers with their expertise in community building and resident participation.

In line with the transdisciplinary approach of the Marie Curie Project, the week of field research in Vienna ended with a research workshop hosted by wohnbund:consult, the consultancy which delivered the external project support and facilitation for “so.vie.so”. The workshop brought together a group of housing researchers, architects, planners and consultants who are actively enganged in the collaborative housing field in Austria. It served as a useful platform to discuss the research design and preliminary hypotheses.

Research workshop on collaborative housing in ViennaImage: Research workshop on collaborative housing in Vienna

These preliminary findings of the Marie Curie Project suggest that both the city administration and external housing consultants in Vienna see great potential in top-down approaches for collaborative housing, exemplified by the case of “so.vie.so”. Professional community building and external facilitation of resident participation in large-scale non-profit housing is less resource intensive than providing support for smaller scale Baugruppen projects which, for instance, require a much closer cooperation between residents, architects, planners and consultants. Nevertheless, the latter can be regarded as important pilot projects for social innovations in housing. However, with projects like “so.vie.so”, it might be possible to reach out to more residents with key values of co-operative housing, such as solidarity, self-responsibility and democracy.

Plowden Fellowship Report on community-led housing published

Estates of Redditch Co-operative HomesImage: Estates of Redditch Cooperative Homes

The basis for Richard's current Marie Curie project was actually established in a pilot study on community-led housing during a William Plowden Fellowship at Birmingham in 2013. Its final project report has now been published and is available as a download here. The Plowden report develops a first typology of English community-led housing models, outlining their main characteristics and highlighting key differences. It also features a set of innovative community-led case studies from the West Midlands.

Invited talk at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge

On April 27, Richard delivered an invited talk at the Lord Ashcroft International Business School at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. Following an introduction by Professor Simon Down, Deputy Dean for Research and Enterprise, the talk featured some of the key findings of his comparative research on the challenges of co-operative and community-led housing models in England and Austria. Since 2013, this research has received funding from a Plowden and Marie Curie fellowship in England, while the Austrian part of the study has been funded by a post-doc fellowship of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The talk at Cambridge sparked interesting discussions and produced valuable feedback among an interdisciplinary academic audience. It also highlighted the relevance of our group’s research agenda on community-led housing for various academic fields such as welfare and employment politics, rural development or environmental sustainability.

Reflections on a study trip to Berlin's 'cohousing scene'

Co-housing next to formalised squatting scheme in inner BerlinImage: Cohousing next to formalised squatting scheme in inner Berlin

In the first week of March 2015, an international group of academics – among them David Mullins and myself – went to Berlin to visit some characteristic “cohousing projects”. The idea of this exciting study trip was to develop a better understanding of the foundations of the urban cohousing movement and its embeddedness in Berlin’s urban planning and social housing system. The study tour should lead to the identification of elements which could be transferred to the English housing context and to boost the cohousing scene in this country.

The tour was well organised by Thomas Knorr-Siedow and his team from Urban Plus, an urban development agency focusing on fostering social innovations in participatory urban governance, social housing and inclusion strategies for the city. Thomas was an excellent guide for us and can almost be described as a living memory of the cohousing movement in Berlin. Over the last two decades, he has consulted many cohousing projects including transitions of illegal squats into legal participatory housing models called Baugruppen.

One of the main reasons for the development of today’s lively cohousing scene in Berlin definitely lies in the unique opportunity structures which have been created by the fall of Wall and its consequences for the housing market in East Berlin. Of course, even before the 1990s, West Berlin used to be an attractive location for all kinds of people interested in alternative housing models. However, with the events unfolding at the end of 1989, the Eastern part of the city literally turned into a huge experimental laboratory for community-based and participatory housing, given the large number of abandoned and empty homes as well as easy and cheap access to land. Nevertheless, what we have seen and heard during our study trip largely suggests that the heydays of the participatory housing movement in Berlin are slowly but surely coming to an end. House prices all over the city have begun to rise steadily over the last years and thus it becomes more and more difficult to find empty spots to build new cohousing even in peripheral locations of the city. During one of our project visits, Martina, an intern at Urban Plus, told me that young people who are interested in alternative housing models would now increasingly head further south to Leipzig where it is still possible to buy empty properties for “a couple of Euro” and subsequently turn them into community-based housing.

Nevertheless, East Berlin remains an excellent showcase for different cohousing models – some of them already mainstreamed – although, it turned out that putting the label “cohousing” on the whole participatory and community-led movement in Berlin would be a bit misleading. A good share of the projects we got to know came closer to the cooperative housing tradition or have even adopted the legal form of a cooperative. In this respect, it was fascinating to see the fruitful coexistence of projects developed by larger, professional cooperative bodies and smaller, community-based cooperatives, often comprising only a single house (e.g. within the development Stadtquartier Friesenstrasse), as well as the emergence of new community-led housing movements which show strong similarities to the traditional cooperative principles of self-help, solidarity and self-management, such as the models of Mietshäuser Syndikat (Tenant Syndicat) and some of the Baugruppen (Self-build Groups).

Among other good practice examples, it is worth mentioning the project “Coop Housing at River Spreefeld” which is a rather large new community-led development (7400 sqm, 64 flats with communal spaces), situated in a very central location at the south bank of the river Spree. The four multi-storey blocks have been jointly developed and administered upon the experiences gained from many previous self-made projects. Given the rising costs of land and strong competition of private developers, one of the founders told us, that a “landmark” community project like this, so close to the centre of Berlin would not be possible anymore.

Another interesting project we had the chance to see is called WilMa19, situated in the district of Lichtenberg, and developed by the national umbrella body Mietshäuser Syndikat. The latter can be regarded as a form of secondary cooperative which supports about a hundred individual community-led housing projects for low-income groups across the city based on solidarity- and self-help contributions by its members. What I found remarkable about WilMa19 was the self-help contribution made by future residents during the refurbishment process which has transformed a concrete-panel building - originally part of the Stasi headquarters complex – into good quality community housing. Besides its distinct cooperative nature, the Mietshäuser Syndikat also shows similarities to the English community land trust movement with its broader aims of turning building land into community ownership with an asset lock on resale, thus counteracting increasing private land speculation.

Co-housing scheme near Tempelhof, BerlinImage: Cohousing scheme near Tempelhof, Berlin

Against this background, it is worth noting that the current social democratic led government of Berlin is not particularly happy about the activities of Mietshäuser Syndikat in bringing back into use run-down, empty properties and thus creating new social housing. As Thomas told us, the official reason for not supporting WilMa19 was that it did not meet some quality standards of social housing redevelopment set by the city administration. This is even more surprising as the local government had to realise the urgent need for new social housing in the city. By the way, large parts of the city’s own social housing stock were quickly privatised during the 1990s in the hope of balancing the city budget. However, this privatisation has not had any effect on the budget.

Finally, I would like to turn your attention to a detailed blog post on our Berlin study trip co-authored by Kath Scanlon (LSE) and David Mullins. It has just gone up on the ESRC Cohousing Seminar series website and can be found here.

Visits to HACT community-led housing events

Panel discussion at the community-led housing event in HullImage: Panel discussion at the community-led housing event, Hull

The Marie Curie project kicked off in January and February 2015 with visits to community-led housing events organised by HACT in London, York, and Hull. This helped in getting a better understanding of the progress which has been made in the development of community-led housing models since the 2011 Localism Act and the introduction of related localism reforms in housing and planning. Furthermore, the HACT events turned out to be a great opportunity for establishing links to potential case organisations in the field for the next research stages.

Interestingly, the key results of my Plowden Fellowship study from 2013 have largely been echoed by the initial view in re-engaging with the English community-led housing scene at the HACT events in London, York and Hull in 2015. Successful community-led housing projects rely on strategic, experienced partners from the housing associations’ sector as well as on a certain degree of external facilitation through public support programmes (e.g. small-scale funding). Nevertheless, fundamental challenges arise in such partnership arrangements between community-based organisations and government bodies or larger third sector providers. This is due to different organisational logics or the complexity of understanding funding mechanisms in housing.

Furthermore, the apparent spatial differences in effective external support for community-led housing suggest that the Marie Curie research project needs to put an emphasis on the configuration of local and regional institutional environments to understand success and failure of community-led housing models.

 

More Information

For further information on the project, please contact Dr Richard Lang r.lang@bham.ac.uk

Staff profile for Dr Richard Lang

More about the Housing and Communities Research Group