2016…Coming of Age for Cohousing

We already know that, this year, we will experience some of the biggest changes in housing policy that we have seen in a generation.

Will these changes affect us trying to develop our cohousing projects, or how we might use cohousing principles in places where we already live? Is the government likely to achieve its own very focussed objectives of achieving a step change in the supply of new homes, and reversing the decline in home ownership? As someone who has been working in housing since 1970, I have quite a lot to say on this subject. Happily, you will be spared: I have just one thing to say…

We, the cohousing movement, are people with a strong moral imagination. We have very clear ideas about how we, personally, want to live, and how that translates into the kind of homes and neighbourhoods we want and need to live in. We also have a vision of the kind of society that we would like to live in. By committing many years of our lives to developing a cohousing project, we are, whether we acknowledge it or not, making an important life choice to achieve what we cannot find through current public policy or the operation of housing and land markets…or at least, not the kind of markets that have developed over the last 30 years.

Conventional markets are unlikely ever to create the conditions in which cohousing is easy to do. Yet, we have already shown that we can do it, and that the appetite for cohousing is growing. Also, it’s not just ‘us’, the people who have already foundcohousing. For a number of years, I’ve taught mid-career professionals…architects, engineers, landscape designers, surveyors, project managers…on an integrated design of the built environment master’s degree. Their design challenge is to imagine their neighbourhood in the city of the future and how they would live in a post-2050 world, when we will have reached that 80% reduction in CO2 emissions. Over five years, and with more than a hundred students from all over the world, some of them pretty hard-boiled commercial people, every single one has imagined that we will have to be living in settlements that are dependent on more localised cooperative economies, high levels of inter-personal collaboration and the genuine sharing of resources.

2016 could be the year when we take the challenge of how we need to live to a much wider audience, and ask them to respond to us and the way that we define the solutions for living into the future. For those of us who contributed to the thrilling crowd-sourced manifesto, at the recent UKCN Conference, we placed new emphasis on:

  • Genuine affordability for everyone
  • Support for rental as well as ownership forms of tenure
  • Joint working with other community housing organisations

There are three major opportunities for these values to be advanced this year:

  • The Nationwide Foundation and Building and Social Housing Foundation are supporting a programme of work to bring together community housing bodies into a broader alliance that could be a more effective voice of the demand side in housing policy. Housing policy is made by government with the supply side, so it’s not surprising that we go on getting what we always got!
  • Big Lottery’s Accelerating Ideas programme will support our work focussing on cohousing for older people and introducing cohousing to where you live now. It will help us prepare for securing longer term funding from other funders.
  • The UK Housing Evidence Centre has been proposed as an independent source of information on housing, supported by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, whose idea it was, and now the Economic and Social Research Council, who also support research on cohousing. At a recent exploratory meeting with possible stakeholders, there was a surprising degree of convergence on the need for the gathering of evidence and its subsequent use to be democratised with more effective public control and involvement.

So my ‘one thing’ is…? In 2016, there will be a vacuum. Few of the old certainties about housing will survive. Just as in the early 1970s, problems need redefining and new solutions designed. It was an exciting time, with the housing association movement in its infancy. They did not wait to be given permission by government to start work; they just got on with the job they could see needed doing, and which no one else would or could do. Some years later, government policy began to be reformed around what housing associations were already doing.

We need to take our chance, and occupy the vacuum in 2016.

Stephen Hill, Director UKCN

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