The private rental market is currently very precarious for most. The number of households privately renting doubled between 2007 and 2017, with rent in England hitting a record high during the pandemic. Tenants are often pushed into unstable rental agreements, where they are made to stump up large deposits before even moving in, and wait unreasonable lengths of time to have their deposits returned when they move out.
But these facts seem almost like an inevitability we feel forced to accept, when housing only appears to be a choice between private rent or personal property ownership in the mainstream. Renting a property is painted in terms of self-reliance and personal responsibility, and renters have no choice but to contribute ever increasing percentages of their wages just to rent. This while being put under increasing pressure to not settle in – paternalistic contract rules prevent tenants from being able to ‘damage’ a property, i.e. to never being able to paint walls or hang a picture without the threat of a lost deposit hanging over your head. This is combined with the necessity of going through a landlord to fix problems which haunt many rented properties, such as damp, faulty white goods, broken boilers. Can landlords be relied upon to take these complaints seriously, or act on them in a timely manner? Not always.
These things are such universal experiences that they seem almost too obvious to say. But then if we are all collectively scarred by private renting, maybe it’s a good time to be considering some serious alternatives?
What is a housing co-operative?
The common image of housing in the UK follows an all-too-familiar cycle: family home, box room university halls, sub-par shared housing, back to the suburban semi-detached family home. This tells a tale of two options in the housing market: privately rent, or pay a mortgage. But a very real, viable alternative has existed for decades, and has seen increased interest and popularity during the pandemic: cooperative housing.
When you mention anything to do with co-ops in the UK, people’s immediate response is almost always, “you mean the shop?”, when in reality ‘The Co-operative’™ is only one example of a much wider, older movement.
Put simply, a housing co-operative is an alternative form of home ownership, where groups or organisations have an equal share in their housing, and are thus both tenants and their own landlords.
Housing co-operatives, or ‘co-ops’, can be traced back to the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844, whose early consumer co-operative formed the bedrock of the modern co-operative movement in the UK. The movement got its second wind in the 70’s and 80’s, when squatters were given licenses to live in short-life houses in exchange for maintaining the properties, and some of these co-ops still exist today. Legislation has changed a lot since then, but new co-ops are still being founded regularly, through a combination of inter-cooperative loans and local council funding.
Interest in alternative ways of living has grown in the wake of the pandemic, where polls show people are in favour of trying to fit their work around their life, not vice versa. There is also an increased desire to live more intentionally and communally, combatting stereotypical ideas of adult communal living just being for hippie weirdos.
During the pandemic especially, communal living groups and housing co-operatives banded together to help their tenants. There has been less loneliness and isolation, and less risk compared to most of being evicted when employment and rent were hard to come by.
The pandemic has highlighted our need for functional, comfortable homes, as well as connection with other people and a strong sense of community, highlighted by the increase in grassroots mutual aid and spontaneous generosity and altruism during the height of lockdown.
Brighton and Hove Housing Co-ops
I live in one of the properties owned by Two Piers Housing Cooperative, one of the 14 housing co-ops in Brighton and Hove registered with CHIBAH. Two Piers is the oldest housing co-op in Brighton, and is made up of six properties, including shared houses, self-contained flats, and shared flats. All decisions are made through general meetings involving all members (housed or not), rather than by executive committee, meaning democratic decision-making involves every individual member.
Like many other co-opers I’ve spoken to, I happened upon housing co-ops by chance. Although the option to live in a housing co-op isn’t widely known, this is more often due to long tenancies and waiting lists, rather than co-ops being difficult to set-up or not being a viable housing option.
Although rent is usually low compared to market-level rent (usually between £220 – £450 a month, bills incl), labour put towards the management and sustainability of the co-op is usually considered to be a sort of converted rent, where the labour contributed is a substitute for cash.
Not only is rent considerably cheaper than the rest of the city, all tenancies are completely secure. There are no contracts with a set end date, and a member could theoretically live here until the co-op itself ceased to exist (hopefully that won’t happen anytime soon). Plus – you can decorate to your heart’s content!
Surplus income is reinvested into the co-op, in the form of improvements and general up-keep, having the added benefit of co-ops being able to afford upgrades private landlords often wouldn’t consider worth them investing in, or would consider to be an unnecessary personal expense. The focus is on ‘leaving your home better than you found it’, and making the properties as comfortable and functional as possible, rather than expecting tenants to put up with the bare minimum.
Legally co-operatives can’t be for-profit enterprises, so the housing has to reinvest the money into itself, meaning it is more difficult for a single person or persons to benefit unequally.
These benefits don’t come without commitment and hard work, but there are rewards wider than cheap rent for members who contribute. Many of the roles tenants take on to fulfil the basic functions of the co-op give members skills, and many co-op members feel incredibly empowered to have ownership and control of their housing. Housing co-ops present a potential answer to the housing crisis which has yet to be fully explored in the UK, and which in the era of ever-increasing rent, and consistently falling housing standards in the private rental market, seems more urgent and necessary than ever.
Break free from the shackles of extortionate rent, shitty landlords, and precarious tenancies, and move into your local housing co-op today!
If you’re interested in finding out more about co-ops in general, check out Radical Routes and the Confederation of Co-operative Housing. For enquiries specific to Two Piers, please feel free to contact [email protected].