Have you got an insecure tenancy and sky-high rent? Maybe your monthly mortgage payment keeps you awake at night. Or perhaps you’re in a flatshare with people who dismantle their Honda on the kitchen floor and have trouble with complex greetings like “good morning”.
If any of that rings true, why not try living in – or setting up – a housing co-operative? It’s not utopia and it can be hard work, but there are plenty of advantages. A common message is: “in a housing co-op the tenants are also the landlord.” To learn more, we joined a tour of some of Brighton’s new and well established housing co-ops organised by Brighton & Hove Community Land Trust, Co-operative Housing in Brighton & Hove and Mutual Aid in Sussex.
There were two tours, each with 15-20 people between the ages of 20 and 70. Some of us wanted to know more about developing a housing co-operative, while others were interested in self-building or finding out how co-ops could help people on low incomes. We did this by talking to the experts: people who are currently living in, or designing, their co-operative home.
The tours took place on the hottest Saturday of 2019. There were a few quirks. Our rendezvous point was the well disguised Bus Stop ‘S’ at the Old Steine. From there we got on a Brighton Lemon Bus that actually looked like a purple Melton Mowbray coach. So what? Our bubbly bunch of knowledgeable co-operators was about to start on a magical co-operative mystery tour.
Our first stop was Bunker co-op, formed in 2015 by people on low incomes. Their brochure states their aim as: “a self-build housing co-op, building high quality homes for low income people”. They identified a site, a few miles from Hanover, and started the financial and legal processes. Funding for clearing the site and building the houses came from an Eco Building Society mortgage, peer-to-peer lending and a grant from the Brighton Community Land Trust. The foundations have already been laid for the two and three bedroom houses – all designed with high insulation for low running costs. As one resident-in-waiting told us: “it’s going to be our little paradise”. The architects and other advisors have initially donated their time and will reclaim their costs gradually. Many of the co-op members are helping with the construction work and people learn those skills as they go along. Building relations with people in the neighbourhood are also a priority.
Bug co-op was our second stop. This co-operative was set up over 10 years ago. As one resident explained, “it’s an alternative way to live”. They are a registered mutual society and they all own a nominal share. No one profits from the house. What are the advantages? “There’s a sense of community, there are cheaper rents and secure tenancies… we are custodians of the building.” No one can cash in the asset. Selecting new people to join the housing co-op is an important process. If no one is suitable they will wait. Any new tenant will initially have a six-month probationary period as a co-op member. “You are your own landlord – you all decide together on the level of rent and repairs… to suit your lifestyles.” What are the tough parts? Occasionally a member may not pay their rent. In that case they will try to understand the circumstances, send a reminder or provide mediation. Eventually, if the issue can not be resolved, notice to leave would be served.
The next stop was Out of Town co-op which, looks like many houses near the edge of town. Most rooms have a view of tree and hills. “I really value that,” one person remarked, “especially after living in a basement flat in Kemptown!” There is a garden with space for an open fire outdoors. Above all, security of tenure was highly valued. People do need to learn and practice working together co-operatively. “Open communication is a vital skill and there are monthly meetings to discuss what time people have available to do repairs or improvements to the house.” People can make an application to join the co-op when there are vacancies. The process includes a questionnaire about a person’s experience of community living, and what they can contribute. They then attend three co-operative meetings to see if there is a mutual fit.
For the final stop, our purple coach headed for the hills to reach South Downs Eco co-op. This was started in 2012 by people rooted in climate change camps and community land trusts. The house, perched on the edge of the South Downs, has distant sea views. Think rural! It needs a fence to stop the deer munching through the vegetable plot and it can be hard to get a reliable internet link. The building and land is now registered as a Community Benefit Society. There are four residents living there who are renovating the building and planting on the plot. It is an outward-looking group of co-operators and is developing links with community development projects in Hangleton and Knoll, Brighton and Hove Food Partnership and groups involved in permaculture systems. There are regular ‘help out’ Saturdays where volunteers can be involved in gardening or construction. South Downs Eco co-op combines co-operative living with social projects: it is intended that the space will be used for wider community and ecological projects.
If you want to find out out more about community-led housing, or lend your time or money, join Brighton & Hove Community Land Trust – or visit Co-operative Housing in Brighton & Hove for info on individual co-ops. And there’s always the tour next year!
Photos by Amy Saunders, MAIS and South Downs Eco Co-operative