Bringing thoughts on co-op housing from the other side of the world

We’ve received a guest blog from Leonie Ramondt, who is the Royal Society of the Arts Cymru / Wales Fellowship Councillor and leads on their Wellbeing Project here in Wales. In this post, Leonie draws upon her experience of co-op housing in Australia, with hopes for her new home in Swansea. She also looks into links between the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act and co-op housing.

“Having participated in last November’s 25th anniversary celebration of Pinakarri housing co-op in Fremantle, West Australia, the joys of housing community life remain uppermost in my mind. The event brought together neighbours and friends along with the local community to share food, music, face painting, dancing, play and several comedy skits.

Pinakarri community is interesting because it mixes equity and non-equity membership. A group of folks came together to build an urban community with the vision of learning to love completely and live lightly on the planet, and together they built a home for a young woman with profound disability. Four out of twelve of the houses were designed by their owners and built by a local builder. The other eight are government funded low-income rental properties designed collaboratively with Richard Hammond, a Perth architect who specialises in cohousing. The co-ops founding members were clear that they wanted to create a safe space for kids to grow up, the equity members bought the block adjoining the government funded block. The bulk of the land forms shared communal spaces while each house has a small individual garden.

As a founding member (albeit mostly absent), I’ve seen the community mature and the communal spaces flourish. However, my experience with Pinakarri has made me a staunch advocate for equity membership co-ops as the non-equity or low-income members who have given so much time to the community are caught in a poverty trap. They have very few options for finding similar quality housing outside the community while the equity members have prospered financially.

Moving to Swansea I find myself exploring Mount Pleasant, marvelling not only at the wonderful big houses and their affordability but also at the diversity of people – mostly artists, refugees, migrants, social activists, families, students and residents of housing associations.

Having seen the huge amount of time it generally takes a housing co-op to get off the ground, often between five and ten years, I believe that there must be far more agile ways of doing things. We have hundreds of years of experience in the sector to draw on.

Collaboration is co-operation in action and is arguably a form of literacy that most of us have to learn over time. How are decisions made? How are projects and finances best managed collaboratively? However, guidelines or lessons for effective collaboration can be learned from sister co-ops charged with the role of mentorship.

I’m often struck by how difficult it is now for the next generation to get a foot on the property ladder while at the same time, the ageing population faces increasing isolation as friends and families move away or die. And of course, us baby boomers are leaving a legacy of asset stripping on a global scale.

The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act is about improving the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being in Wales now, and for the next generations. The Act has placed a duty on public bodies to think more about the long-term; to work better with people, communities and each other; to prevent problems and to take a more joined up approach. To ensure that we are all working towards the same goal, the Act has developed seven well-being goals; a prosperous, resilient, healthier, globally responsible, more equal Wales with cohesive communities and a vibrant culture.

These goals compliment the seven co-operative principles developed by the International Co-Operative Alliance, which all co-operatives should adhere to. They both emphasize the importance of developing attractive, viable, healthy and sustainable communities, that maintain, even enhance the natural environment. A democratic and fair society with an economy that generates wealth, without discrimination. A society that enables people to fulfil their potential no matter their background or circumstances. A society that provides employment opportunities and education and training for a skilled workforce. A co-operative society that highlights the importance of social and cultural wellbeing. Therefore, do we need to tackle our problems in a more co-operative way? Here are some thoughts exploring ways we might contribute to the wellbeing of future generations, building synergies in a small, co-operative way (and build synergies too).

Can we develop an ethical investment co-op that provides a framework for older people to easily invest funds to support younger people to get on the property ladder? Preferably via a simple and clear “let to buy” contract. This allows a person to buy, for example, a third share in a property at a rate equivalent to a rental amount plus interest to the investor of say 5%. After five years, the younger person can sell their share of the property to someone else at market price with the other co-owners having first right of refusal. This allows the younger person to progress into the property market and family life with an appropriate deposit. During the five years, the three young co-owners would be jointly responsible for renovating their home and increasing its value, presumably with communal spaces optimised for conviviality.

Now also consider for a moment, the Makeover phenomena – where a designer works alongside tradespeople and with a modest budget transforms a space into something really delightful. Sweat equity can and should be part of the mix. There are plenty of architecture and design graduates who would love the opportunity to get on the property ladder as part of a team buying a house together. There are also numbers of retiring tradespeople willing to mentor younger people to make smart decisions and work effectively and affordably.

With the fabulous houses and diverse community in Mount Pleasant and throughout Swansea, wouldn’t it be fabulous to provide an alternative to the HMO (homes in multiple occupation) or three flat model? Potentially we can build a real sense of belonging through accessible ownership that benefits the whole community.

Please comment if you interested in exploring or constructively challenging these ideas so that we might be agile responding in these times of great change.


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