Creatively tackling urban and rural housing shortages in Wales – part 2

From Rachel Marshall, Business and Enterprise Manager, DTA Wales

Locality is a national network that helps people to set up locally owned and led organisations, exchanging ideas on community asset ownership, community enterprise and other similar issues. Locality has joined forces with the Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF) to spotlight new community-led housing developments by running a series of ‘See for Yourself’ events. This has included recent visits to housing co-operative schemes in Wales, including Loftus Garden Village in Newport, and Ty Cyfle in Pontypool.

In this second of a two-part blog post, I will focus on the visit to Ty Cyfle. You can also look back on yesterday’s post that looked at the visit to Loftus Garden Village.

BSHF is currently supporting the growth of community-led housing through an intensive programme of promotional and collaborative activity. This activity is being supported by the Nationwide Foundation as part of their Alternative Housing Models funding programme and the ‘See for Yourself’ event, and also the Wales Co-operative Centre Co-operative Housing support programme.

Last month, their event focused on creatively tackling urban and rural housing shortages in Wales – including an insight into the Welsh Government’s work on developing co-operative housing.

Tŷ Cyfle in Pontypool is a housing co-op for young people aged 16 – 18. Loftus in Newport offers 19 cooperative homes with a shared space and garden.

After a good hour on site at Loftus, asking lots of questions (such as could the level of community involvement through the co-operative be retrofitted in other estates across Wales?) we left Newport and the group made their way on the coach north into the village of Garndiffaith, in Torfaen County Borough, to visit Ty Cyfle, owned by DTA Wales Member Bron Afon Community Housing.  Ty Cyfle provides eight one-bedroom starter homes for young people aged 16-24 who are in or aspire to be in education, employment, training or volunteering.

Run on co-operative principles by Afon Youth, where the Management Committee (made up of local people and tenants) police anti-social behaviour and low level issues in the flats, the project came about when the housing association’s Own 2 Feet Living Service worked with the local young people on a homelessness awareness project.  This led to better understanding locally and when a derelict community centre at Ty Rosser Gwyn became available, the young people asked for these to be renovated into homes, in order to help provide a solution to the problem, and take the awareness raising a step further.  At the same time, the housing association was experiencing a high number of failures among its tenancies for young people in the first 12 months.  By working with the Afon Youth group, they determined what they were giving people was just a shell.  But what they really needed was support in the early stages to help understand what independent living would involve, to support their chaotic lives, and to build up their confidence over time.

We heard how the youth forum took their time to determine what the solution might be, over a 12-18 month period, looking at best practice such as container city in London first before deciding for themselves that they needed to develop a project which provided help between a hostel and total independent living.  There wasn’t much suitable, affordable housing around for young people.  It must be sustainable and youth led. The Own 2 Feet Living Service project was merged with the housing.  Young people helped during the renovations, developing skills and taking part in a range of pre-employment and employment programmes run by Bron Afon, gaining qualifications in team work and developing customer service skills and confidence. Ty Cyfle has been open for almost 2 years – since November 2014.

However despite the Youth Forum’s involvement, the development was not an easy process in the local community.  The project started out in a cloud of mistrust and speculation, after Bron Afon boarded up the site to undertake site investigation works in the first instance to determine if the building could be used for housing or would be better off being demolished.  Many local people got the wrong end of the stick about what the building was going to be used for.  Suzy Sorbey from the Youth Team at Bron Afon explained how this was the project’s biggest mistake.

Suzy’s enthusiasm, and that of her colleagues Sam and Rachel from the Employability Teams was infectious when talking about the development of the project from its early days.  They are clearly proud of what they have done in the community and the difference that Ty Cyfle has made to the lives of families and young people in the community.  Once word got out what the building would really be used for, the community and contractors got on board with in kind donations of time and fixtures and fittings for the accommodation.

Downstairs we had a tour of the community hub space: 2 meeting and training rooms which are used both formally and informally for training, get-togethers and local groups to meet, as well as a chill out space for one to one activities and drop ins, and so young people can get some headspace if they need it.  A well equipped kitchen where activities such as Cooking on a Budget programmes are rolled out locally, where young people are helped to shop and batch cook meals for themselves.

We met Cameron, Charlotte and Sian – some of the young people involved in the project.  Cameron has lived at Ty Cyfle for just over a year. Even a few months ago, he said he would not have had the confidence to talk to our group but he was happy answering questions, showing people around, and explaining how energy saving sockets work, which are distributed as part of the pre-employability scheme.

With the forthcoming 2 year anniversary a new challenge is how to move the young people on.  Originally tenancies were limited to 2 years.  Currently 2 of the original tenants are still living in Ty Cyfle.  Bron Afon is currently working on a range of other 1 bed properties which the young people could move onto.  Welfare reforms also pose potential big risks to local young people.  Bron Afon clearly see employability as a route out of poverty, and is investing in a range of new initiatives alongside accommodation to support local young people.

The group left Ty Cyfle feeling positive and upbeat about the quality of support offered by Bron Afon’s team and the difference they will continue to make.

The high level of co-operation, support and partnership between and among the communities and their lead housing associations in both projects was evident.  There is much learning here for other communities across the UK looking to address the challenges of housing shortages in their areas in a creative, co-operative and community led way.

Personally I was thrilled that so many people over the border came and could see the value in the work that is going on here to develop a variety of housing co-operatives.  Not just because it was a Welsh Government target, but because of the impact these two housing co-operatives are having in changing people’s lives, developing new organisational cultures in traditional housing organisations, as well as meeting a need for affordable housing in Wales.

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