First impressions in co-op housing will stay with me

I often find it difficult to explain to people what I do. I work in housing but I don’t allocate tenants new homes, don’t collect rent, and don’t manage people’s tenancies. Explaining that I work in co-operative housing encourages even more blank faces and endless questions…

– What is co-operative housing?
– Is that eco-friendly housing?
– Are tenants capable of managing their own homes?
– How do you develop a housing co-op?

Trying to explain what co-operative housing is in a few sentences can be tricky. There is no one method to developing a housing co-operative; it’s not a one size fits all approach. Co-operative housing is about communities having democratic control over decision-making about their homes, neighbourhoods and communities. It is about being flexible and innovative in the ways we meet the housing needs and the aspirations of local communities, in ways that are right for each community.

My first three months at the Wales Co-operative Centre has mainly consisted of travelling to existing and future co-operative housing schemes, getting to know the teams and housing models involved. From cold church halls in Newport to sunny evenings in woodland near Abergele, I have seen more of Wales than ever before. The enthusiasm and passion within the co-op housing movement is what makes it all worthwhile. And though I thought I would be educating clients about co-operative housing, it is actually me who is learning from them.

Prior to working for a Registered Social Landlord (RSL), I had no real housing knowledge or experience, only what little I had learnt at university while doing an MSc in regeneration. But what the last two years of working with communities living in social housing schemes have taught me, is that a lot of people are struggling to get by and are facing huge pressures and difficulties on a day to day basis.

Hardly a day goes by without a news item, blog, or tweet mentioning the housing crisis that the UK is currently facing; and with Brexit, the introduction of Universal Credit, rising levels of homelessness and a lack of affordable housing, the situation is only going to get worse. RSLs and local authorities are now in a race to build 20,000 affordable homes by 2020. But doesn’t this time of dire uncertainty call for something a bit more innovative than just building housing estates? We need to think more holistically about the challenges we face as a society and I believe co-operative housing schemes could be part of the answer.

At our recent South-East Wales co-operative housing network event in Newport, the benefits for developing a co-operative housing scheme were clear. Most RSLs claim to put residents at the heart of their service, but co-operative housing truly does. Tenants have a say in how their housing is run and are therefore more content with the service. Tenants and staff are upskilled during the development and running of the scheme, and often you find tenants moving into better employment because of their increased confidence.

Co-operative housing schemes can also reduce management costs, because often the tenants are in control of management issues. The three housing schemes present at the meeting were all reporting zero rent arrears, some in traditionally challenging areas, which an RSL or LA (local authority) would struggle to match.

So while some may perceive co-op housing schemes as more difficult, because they take longer than ‘standard’ development, need extra resources and involving the community can often be complicated; I say that co-op housing is an affordable alternative model with long term sustainability and good social values.

We in the Co-Operative Housing Project team at the Wales Co-Operative Centre can also go further to alleviate those concerns. We can offer support and advice to any new or existing organisation wishing to develop co-operative housing. We can provide access to expertise and advice about co-operative housing and we can provide skills and development training for members of a co-operative.

Developing a co-operative housing scheme isn’t always plain sailing; it requires commitment and dedication from all parties involved. But we can attend those late night community meetings, be at the end of an email or phone for enquiries and help to resolve any issues that may arise. We are passionate about co-operative housing and want to help people thrive in their new homes. As one of our RSL co-operators put it at our recent network event; the short term pain really is worth the long term gain.

Come along to our half-day workshop in Cardiff, on Tuesday 10th October, to find out all about co-operative housing and how it can help organisations to provide an alternative model for home ownership in Wales.

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