A journey through Northern Irish Co-ops…
1 What is a co-housing scheme?
Co-housing schemes create intentional communities / neighbourhoods, comprising private homes (mixed tenure houses and/or apartments) clustered around a shared space that typically feature a common house, which may include a large kitchen and dining area, laundry and recreational spaces. Shared outdoor space may include walkways and gardens, as well as parking behind the houses. Neighbours also share resources like tools and lawnmowers. The residents, as well as designing the scheme, collaboratively plan and manage community activities and shared spaces once it’s built. Community activities may feature shared meals on a regular basis, meetings, and workdays for example to maintain the shared outdoor spaces. Neighbours gather for parties, games, movies, or other events.
In Belfast, we have the aim to develop the cohousing project asa cooperative, where the accommodations costs will be affordable in perpetuity. Residents willbe members of the cooperative and togetherwill be responsible forthe maintenance and management of the enterprise.
2 What are the main benefits of being a co-housing scheme, in your opinion?
Cohousing allows people and households to achieve their aspirations of living as a mutually supportive community. Each household can co-design their accommodation to meet their needs and contribute to the overall design with the aim of creating a sustainable community. Cohousing makes it easy to form clubs, organize child and elder care, and a carpool. Co-housing facilitates interaction among neighbours and thereby provides social, practical, economic, and environmental benefits.
Intentionality– residents commit explicitly to living as a community and often share common values, goals, or vision. These can be loose or more formally expressed through spiritual or ecological values.
Size– cohousing communities usually range from about 6 to 50 households. Smaller numbers do not achieve critical mass; with higher ones, relationships can become too diffuse.
Shared facilities– the schemes are usually based around a common house. Shared facilities and spaces are often open to the wider community.
Resident participation in design– an element of co-design and co-production of the homes, through planning of new build and/or through resident control as aspects are modified.
Self-governance– many groups use formal tools for direct democracy such as consensus decision making.
Ritual and tradition– groups often take part in regular community-wide events such as shared meals, social activities and team-based work days that build community glue, social capital and trust.
3 Why a cooperative model suits your housing scheme?
Residents collectively have control over how the cohousing project would be managed and developed. It can provide good quality housing at an affordable cost and these costs can remain affordable in perpetuity. Residents would provide support to other residents where they have a need. Cooperative members include all residents in decision making, in running and managing the project, providing opportunities for all to develop and improve their skills and knowledge, enhancing the resilience of the cohousing project.
4 Who are your members? How do they benefit from the housing cooperative scheme?
We are currently a steering group and will be creating a membership policy in the near future. Membership will be open to people and households who share the intention of living within and actively contributing to the values of cohousing communities.
5 How does the housing scheme/cooperative benefit the wider community?
Providing permanently affordable housing, and adding to local housing supply
Offering amenities and facilities for the local community
Contributing to neighbourhood cohesion and civil society
Promoting environmental sustainability and contributing to climate resilience
Acting as a ‘social laboratory’: Cohousing schemes often serve as testbeds for promising new approaches to architectural design, urban planning and social governance
6 What goals/aspirations did/do you have for your housing scheme/coop?
12 -20 homes, from one bedroom apartments to 3-bedroom houses or apartments, affordable to buy or rent, sustainable both in terms of environmental factors and human wellbeing.
We aspire to become a paradigm for community living here which will be accepted and promoted by the government as a valuable contribution to achieving important integrated housing and community outcomes.
7 What are/have been the main challenges to become a coop? How do/did you respond?
There are start up costs with trying to get this project underway. Any housing project requires investment in site identification, feasibility, selection, design and costing as well as formal planning investigations and approval. The project needs resources invested to make progress against the development milestones so that it can be achieved in a reasonable timescale. We obtained the CLT voucher and support from Go Social BCC, we are currently looking at the DAF and NCLF for ongoing funding support. There is no specific funding for community led housing development in Northern Ireland.
We chose to remain as an unincorporated group while we pursued the site selection. We will be considering the best legal structure for achieving our project aims and on balance; the housing cooperative model is the current front-runner. We expect to continue with funding challenges in the short term, but we have access to good advice and information about housing cooperatives.
8 What advice would you give to others considering starting a housing scheme / coop?
You need to identify a group of individuals who will give a long term commitment to getting the project underway, get help from individuals and organisations who have already gone down the same road and learn from their experiences, find the allies that share your aspiration and involve them as much as you can.
9 What do you think is the future of the housing coops in Northern Ireland?
Housing cooperatives historically have been limited to a few isolated locations in Northern Ireland. The transformation of the Housing Executives 80000 homes, in full or in part, to a cooperative or mutual housing model will be a positive and significant change to the growth in housing cooperatives. The acceptance by such a major player will stimulate interest in cooperative housing as a solution for households to take control over meeting their own housing needs.