‘New Ground’ Older Women’s Cohousing Community (OWCH) High Barnet

Who are we?

We are OWCH, proud to be the UK’s first senior cohousing community and confident we shall not be the last. We are women over fifty (current age range from 51 to 87), and we started moving in to our newly built home in ‘New Ground’ Cohousing at the end of November 2016.  We came together to be friendly, mutually supportive neighbours and have put a lot of time into sharing values and ideas while preparing for a life alongside each other.

Now our aim is to encourage other senior groups to follow our example. We also want to get policy makers, planners, housing associations etc. to recognise the social and economic benefits of this way of life for older people and to respond positively to the huge demand that exists for senior cohousing. Above all, we feel they need to update their attitudes to older people’s autonomy.  When we started our group, the concept of cohousing was poorly recognised and we have ourselves contributed much to raising its profile.  However, the cultural and institutional blockages at local authority level and in the housing sector that impeded us for so long, are still in need of radical transformation if other groups are to prosper. We are confident our success will help with that.

Structures

A fully mutual company, we manage our community through regular group meetings, along with a small elected management committee. In addition, we have set up a number of small service teams to take care of the building, our garden, our communal life and outward-facing activities like membership and communications.

There are 25 flats in ‘New Ground’, 11 x 1 bedroom, 11 x two and 3 x three. Two thirds of are leasehold and the remainder are for social rental.    Housing for Women, a small housing association, is the landlord for these 8 units. A local property management company acts as our managing agent for insurance, repairs, emergencies and servicing the lift and other equipment.

We aim to maintain a small group of non-resident members who join us for events and activities and who can fill vacancies as they arise. We already enjoy a good measure of diversity but it is our aim to broaden this in our future recruitment, and to maintain a balanced age-profile if possible.

Finance & Construction

When we started, we didn’t have a clue about raising capital, and, as an older and relatively low income group, were not in a good position to borrow.  A basic OWCH ideal from our inception was a commitment to include women who lack equity and therefore need a rent they can afford. This led us in the direction of several housing associations, and one, Hanover, found us a site in 2010 and kindly forward-funded the scheme for us. On completion they sold the property to 17 OWCH buyers and to Housing for Women.

We participated in designing our user-friendly building with Pollard Thomas Edwards architects. We have also been represented on the project team – and then on the site team once construction began.  At the beginning, this was a frustrating exercise in powerlessness. The learning curve has been quite steep both for ourselves, getting to grips with technical details, and our development partners, who were not used to having to liaise with their end-users. The completion of the building was much delayed, but OWCH has been careful that our participation should not contribute to this.

Inclusiveness

With housing grant more or less disappearing over recent years, we feared we could not realise our goal of including social renters, but this part of our plan was rescued by the generosity of the Tudor Trust, who gave a substantial capital grant against which other capital costs could be borrowed. This has been a great advantage for OWCH, but it does mean that our funding source is not exactly replicable by other cohousing groups.

Planning feasibility issues have meant that the local authority does not have the right to nominate social rental tenants to our scheme. Eligible women are allocated flats through the OWCH membership process, along lines agreed with the Trust and Housing for Women. Sadly this means is that we have not, in Barnet, managed to set a precedent for other groups in educating a local authority to agree the flexibility of approach required for a cohousing group to flourish – but we have never had confidence that this would work in our area anyway. Maybe it takes a successful cohousing community for a local authority’s dominant culture to begin to change and for it to realise that the imposition of strangers on a cohousing community is damaging to its ethos. There are ways to meet local authority priorities and satisfy the needs of a community like ours for members who share our core values.

Similarly, any lease that becomes available will only be sold to a woman who has already become a member of OWCH, and demonstrated to its members that she is keen to participate fully in the life of the community.

From virtual community to the real thing

It is early days yet, but we are happily settling in to our new, beautiful building and are overjoyed to find ourselves living out what we have talked about for so long. We do quite a lot together. A group like OWCH, all singles except for one couple, could be said to represent a comparatively ‘tight’ form of cohousing, compared with clusters of family units who may not wish to be so inter-dependent.

OWCH had developed a great sense of solidarity before moving in, meeting for a day a month, with a shared meal, running workshops, taking trips, and so on. The mutual support that we have fostered has already come into play in many small ways. Already, one member, who became ill for a short period early on, has been cared for in all manner of ways by kindly neighbours.

Realistically, however, it will take time to settle properly.  The move itself has been stressful, given the age profile of OWCH and the fact that many of us had sold our homes in early 2016, against the unreliable promises of the construction firm, and so had been virtually homeless for months. This has taken its toll, but, at the time of writing, in a glorious Spring, when the garden is beginning to look promising, all is well.

What are we learning? We have not before had to test boundaries between private and communal space, personal and group expectations, different habits and ways of living. However, one of the fundamental features of cohousing – that design fosters informal and spontaneous contact – is certainly shaping the day-to-day togetherness of our group, leading to casual conversations, nipping down to the shops together, spur-of-the moment visits to local cafes and so on.  Our communal kitchen is well used for weekly meals.  An emailed invitation to see a local film generally finds a bunch of takers. An OWCH film group has sprung up already, and it’s a fair bet that, come July, there will be a small crowd of us following Wimbledon together in the common room. Both individually and as a group, we are also looking forward to becoming rooted in the local community.

The challenge will be to sustain the values and sharing ethos of our group over time, as vacancies occur and new people join us. This is a challenge faced by all groups, but we are planning to revisit our core values together at regular intervals. In our conversations with the Tudor Trust, we have undertaken to promote the cohousing model for other older people, and in our first months have been fairly inundated with requests from women and from the media. We are ready to share what we can and this in itself will be a constant source of renewal.