Ruth Hayward and Jenny Pickerill
Community-led housing groups can be brilliant partners for housing associations in developing new homes. They bring with them a ready group of tenants, a variety of skills and a keenness to develop new forms of housing, but they tend to lack the expertise of finding sites and the investment capital that housing associations often have. The number of community-led house building projects in Britain is slowly increasing with the most recent completion of LILAC (in Leeds) and Lancaster Co-Housing (in Lancaster).
Our research, conducted over the last two years with community-led housing groups some of whom were working with Housing Associations and many who were keen to do so in the future, has identified a number of opportunities for such collaborations. As a result we wanted to pose ten friendly questions to Housing Associations about how they understand and approach working with community-led housing groups.
- Why work with co-housing groups and housing co-ops?
Co-housing groups and housing co-ops bring a great deal to housing projects – an established group of tenants, new models of housing, huge volunteer capacity, access to grants, mixed ownership models and boundless enthusiasm. Housing associations offer these groups’ site finding, investment capital, experience in navigating planning and, often, contracted builders. For these community-led groups, working with a housing association can enable their housing project to include affordable housing through, for example, accessing Homes and Communities Agency funding to build a mixed tenancy community. For housing associations such an alliance enables involvement in new housing types, such as senior co-housing, which are potentially far more appropriate and sought after than current sheltered housing models.
- What do you think co-housing groups and housing co-ops are like?
While some of these housing groups might at first glance appear to be stereotypical environmental activists, they are rarely so easy to pigeonhole. Community-led housing groups often include numerous professionals or retired professionals with broad skill sets and community activists with relevant experience in making change happen. Although at first they will not know housing policy language it won’t take them long to learn it. In the best practice examples housing associations had used this activist ability to lobby for planning permission, generate PR and gain neighbourhood support.
- What criteria do you have for which groups and tenants you work with?
The criteria of who can live in the final housing development needs to be explicitly stated for all concerned. There appeared at times to be a miscommunication between housing associations and community-led groups about what these criteria really meant for, for example, family members of elderly relatives who wanted to live together.
- At what stage do you start working with community-led groups?
Housing associations are exceptionally skilled at finding suitable building sites. Many groups we spoke with talked of wasting significant time searching for sites and being impressed and grateful at the speed and ease at which a housing association located and purchased a site. Once community groups have established membership, determined their vision and decided on their site criteria they are in a good position to work with housing associations. At this stage their expectations are still being developed, so they are able to modify and evolve their plans with the housing association
- What structures of liaison and communicating are used to work with co-housing groups and housing co-ops?
Communication worked well with community-led housing groups when the housing association staff member tasked with liaison worked with the project through the whole process, was relatively senior, and was able to identify what decisions the community groups could influence and which it could not. Poor communication appeared to happen when housing associations allocated increasingly junior staff to be the point of contact as the project progressed.
- How does the project management approach take account of timeframes and workloads?
Community-led housing groups are willing to invest significant time and energy into their housing project, but this time and energy is not limitless. Goodwill was undermined in some collaborations we researched by assumptions that community groups would do much of the work but then not be consulted about timeframes. The pace of the development needs to be mutually agreed and housing associations need to be very clear about their expectations.
- How are key principles agreed?
All housing projects have some key principles whether that be affordability, reducing ecological impact, or ensuring local participation. These fundamental principles are best agreed very early on between housing associations and community groups, along with early discussion about how these principles will be achieved. It is especially important to mutually agree the detail of these principles because often concepts such as ecological housing can have multiple meanings.
- Are you prepared to let groups take responsibility for the majority of decisions?
In the most successful collaborations community-led groups retained some autonomy to create their housing project in a way that fulfilled their values and aspirations. Those who worked with housing associations often felt that they lost control of the project, as they were not consulted about numerous decisions.
- How do you keep to budget?
For community-led housing groups one of the biggest risks in working with housing associations is the lack of control over budgets. Community groups experienced costs going up without prior agreement or explanation and it was unclear who had overall financial responsibility. There is a need to clarify early on who is responsible for what costs such as site purchase, planning fee, site security, legal fees etc. and to stay within agreed budgets. Staying within agreed budgets is important as it is often the community groups’ money that is being spent, as once they have moved in they will pay off the money paid up front by the housing association, and unexpected significant costs can cause problems for the group.
- How does co-housing and co-operative housing fit the values of your organisation?
There are significant overlaps in the aims of many housing associations and community-led housing groups in seeking to build affordable ecological housing for local residents, particularly through a process of inclusion and participation. Housing associations can significantly benefit from working with already formed community groups who bring enthusiasm, skills, and finance to a project. With honest dialogue about shared values, aims and responsibilities, such a collaboration can reduce the workload of housing associations, produce innovative appropriate housing and secure neighbourhood support.
Ruth Hayward is a housing activist based in Newcastle Upon Tyne and Jenny Pickerill is a Professor of Environmental Geography at the University of Sheffield.