We are in the midst of a housing crisis. The lack of social and affordable housing, combined with high house prices, means more people are relying on the private rented sector.
Tenants are blighted by high rents, substandard conditions, and insecure tenancies. There are growing numbers of households being ejected from this uncaring and inefficient housing system. Classed as homeless, they are left to sleep on the streets or housed in overpriced and unsanitary temporary accommodation for far too long, while they wait on an increasingly long housing waiting lists.
It’s a grim situation for the increasing numbers of families and individuals experiencing the sharp end of the housing crisis, and many national housing initiatives appear ineffective in alleviating the crisis. One ray of light in this bleak housing picture is the current government support for an alternative model of housing to the current dominant tenures of home ownership or private rent. Known as community-led housing, it was supported by a Community Housing Fund which the government launched in 2016 with a commitment to initially invest £60m, over 5 years, in the sector.
Community-led housing (CLH) is an umbrella term that covers a variety of legal structures that allow homes to be built around the needs of local people where, instead of maximizing profit, the ultimate aim is to benefit the tenants who will live in these housing developments by providing safe, secure and genuinely affordable homes.
Community housing history
Tom Hopkins is the director of Greater Manchester’s Community-Led Housing Hub, which provides advice, support and inspiration for communities across the region to meet their housing needs in a mutually beneficial way. As we talk over Zoom, he chases his Staffordshire Bull Terrier out of the room to give him some peace. Tom points out that the community-led model is one that has been developing over centuries:
“Community-led housing dates back a number of centuries to the old almshouses and philanthropic businessmen landowners wanting to create housing for their staff. Local dignitaries would come together to offer housing for small groups of defined characteristics.”
This type of housing development was the direct predecessor to the development of housing associations, Tom says, and raises the The Guiness Trust, set up in 1890 by Guinness Brewery heir Edward, as being a prime example for philanthropic support for socially conscious house building leading to the development of one of the largest housing associations in the UK operating across 155 local authority areas in England.
Tom also recalled more recent history in housing association development. “Fifty to sixty years ago, you had governments that were preparing to create these housing associations based on local community needs, and local people running the operation themselves. Giving a formal alternative to local authority municipalised housing. So community-led housing isn’t anything new, it’s just been reinvented.”
The need for its reinvention is clear to Tom who says people who bought property in the 1960s and 1970s have become reasonably well off due to rising house prices. But “clearly for the younger generation,” Tom points out, “to own a property is a real struggle. To be able to afford that and afford deposits with the values that we’re talking about, without actually having donations of family members to make it happen…”
Types of community-led housing
The most well-known structure that comes under the CLH banner is the housing co-operative, where the housing organisation is mutually controlled, managed and often owned by its members. Community Land Trusts (CLTs) are another legal structure gaining ground in the UK. A CLT is a not-for-profit organisation that can be set up by a community to provide and protect valuable community assets such as genuinely affordable housing.
There is also cohousing, a method used in developing housing for specific communities, to create built environments that promote togetherness and connectivity. And the self-help housing concept provides “hands on” involvement for members to refurbish existing properties and regenerate neighbourhoods.
It is this diversity of approaches available to CLH that gives it the ability to tailor specific packages suited to a community’s needs, providing unique developments with character.
“It’s an opportunity to offer communities the challenge to build homes to their design, their location, where they want then,” Tom tells me, “and to move away from the large monolithic house builders like Persimmons, Barrett’s or Morris Homes who are creating modular homes on size and scale with no character and with no thought of the personal or family that’s going to occupy those homes.”
The GM Community Led Homes Hub is already providing advice and support to communities across the region in different stages of their CLH plans, which include a student organisation keen to escape the high rents associated with student housing and communities representing minorities, who want to set up neighbourhoods where everyone can feel at home.
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The Hub was created with financial help from the government backed Community Housing Fund, which promised £60m in 2016 towards promoting CLH across England. Initially it was aimed at communities in coastal and rural towns, particularly in places like Cornwall where local families have been priced out of the housing market due to people buying second homes for holidaying. That initial push failed to produce many housing developments so the fund was switched to be a more general purpose fund to support CLH solutions across the country, including urban areas.
The government promised another £163m to the fund in 2018, covering up to March 2020, and also announced in January 2021 a further £4m in funding to cover the next year.
This funding is having an effect. In 2017, there were just 6,000 CLH homes registered as being in the production pipeline on the Homes England live application system. That figure rose nearly four-fold to 23,000 homes by 2020. The Fund goes a small way to helping the government to reach its target of building 300,000 new homes per year, and the economic benefits of creating CLH also provide further explanation for the government’s continued funding.
A report released last year by Capital Economics calculates that for each £1 of public support to CLH development leads to £1.80 in benefit to the wider economy. This rises to £2.70 when you factor in health and benefit savings, income distribution and wellbeing. The report also shows that over 80% of CLH projects in the pipeline will be below market rents.
Cooperative style CLH – Homes For Change
This is not the first-time government money has gone towards creating a CLH project. A previous government City Challenge grant helped a group of tenants who had already formed a housing co-operative, to create a new home, which was needed due to the destruction of their old ones in the Hulme Crescents in the early 1990s. Their successful bid allowed them to plan, design and create Homes For Change, a complex comprising 75 flats. Built in partnership with the Guinness Trust, it was ready for tenants to move into in 1996.
The building’s design paid homage to the communal and creative architecture of the Crescents. The six-storey blocks surround an internal garden, play and parking area, and all flats have external deck access similar to the set-up at the Crescents. The housing co-operative was also linked to a sister workers co-operative called Workspace for Change, which is how former Hulme Crescents resident Rob Harrison got involved in the project.
The Homes For Change (HFC) multi-storey flats were built on top of the Workspaces For Change (WFC) units, to allow local residents to set up businesses close to home. Rob first occupied one of the workspace units, due to his old base in Moss Side shopping centre being under threat from development, and then joined the housing co-op and became a residential tenant.
From the rooftop decks of the residential blocks the central courtyard looks green and inviting, the stepped back nature of the homes above the workspaces below, affords an incredibly open and light ambience to the development. Great views are available acrossthe city centre, with many overpriced and out of reach block of flats in the picture, from the city’s latest development boom.
There are around 150 people living in the flats, with some of those people working in the associated units. I ask Rob, what do residents usually say are the benefits of living in Homes For Change flats. “I think it’s the friendliness that people like” Rob replies and then points me toward a short Youtube video where tenants describe why they like living here:
Rob says previous council accommodation in Hulme such as the Crescents did not respond to tenants’ needs well. “The responsiveness and quality of repair and maintenance and basically property management weren’t that great. The Council left a lot of flats unoccupied and so they weren’t really quick to fix stuff and often it would take ages.”
One idea behind the co-op was that if you are in control of the budget, you wouldn’t have to wait ages for someone to turn up and fix it, Rob explains, but taking on that responsibility “is actually harder than it looks” with problems sourcing people with the appropriate skills a particular headache. But overall, Rob says “co-ops offer a responsiveness to the needs of the people that are quite immediate. You don’t have to go through bureaucracy.”
Co-ops support tenant members better than other forms of housing, Rob believes, and he goes on to explain that the flats at HFC are social housing, generally accommodating people on lower incomes, and that often people come to them when they are in a difficult place in their lives, suffering from a long-term illness, or a breakdown of a relationship has led to them being chucked out of their home. The co-op structure has monthly tenan meetings where members can vote on decisions that need to be made and working groups that are formed by tenants to get the jobs that need doing, done.
“It’s a good way of supporting people to get engaged with, you know, just doing stuff,” Rob says about the way the co-op is run. “You get to know all your neighbours, so you know there’s quite a community. It’s been really helpful to some folk to have something to do that kind of gives them a sense of purpose. From that you go on, and everything is good after that.”
There is also a network of support for the housing co-operative through bodies like the Confederation of Co-operative Housing and Cooperatives UK. Workspace for Change being a cooperative, also draws other cooperative businesses to take up units there, drawn by the cooperative values of their landlord and neighbours. Rob is also a co-founder and editor of the cooperative Ethical Consumer magazine which is based at WfC, alongside OpenSpace co-operative which provides office space.
To boost the creation of community-led and cooperative housing Rob believes we need to look back at what has worked before. He points to Cooperative Development Agencies, which were a feature in socialist-led local authorities in the 1970s and 1980s. These provided a full service business development support for nascent co-operatives. Rob expresses gratitude to one called MANCODA which helped set up Ethical Consumer.
Housing culture is key
It was during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister that the Hulme Crescent clearances came about, which fitted her agenda of promoting home ownership at the expense of council housing. The Thatcherite propagated narrative that home ownership is what good people should aspire too, and those that rent are somehow inferior to homeowners, is still a dominant one in the UK which is continually reinforced by media reporting on housing and tenant issues.
But international comparisons clearly show it does not have to be this way.
“We can learn a massive amount from other countries, massive” Tom says. He goes on to describe how housing culture in the UK is dominated by home ownership, the tenure driving everything. People buy into the narrative because it links stability and financial security with property ownership – whereas, Tom says:
“Our colleagues in Europe, and even over the pond in the [United] States have a different viewpoint. The vast majority of accommodation in central Europe remains rented, so cooperatives run a vast percentage of European city housing… They will operate through a mutual home ownership model, whereby every resident puts a financial stake in of a certain amount of your Euros to actually come together to create a pot of money, that brings and creates and builds. But it’s about community and strong community ties, rather than just having a block of flats as we do over here where everybody has their individual equity in their individual unit.”
The community land trust (CLT) model, originated in the US and Canada, where “swathes of land were protected by a Community organisation” Tom explains. “This wasn’t just social housing. This allowed private entrepreneurship, but asa collective. The collective owns the land, the collective builds the properties. That property will have a value so people can come in and buy it”.
Within some of these state side CLTs an increase in value is not acceptable, so they will cap the ability of the equity to increase so that they remain affordable, this applies to owner occupied and rented accommodation.
Land is essential
The availability of land is a big issue for Tom and his work with the hub, which is already helping communities across GM progress their CLH plans but they could help more. Tom says:
“We’ve got dozens of communities across Greater Manchester who would love to develop their own housing. But the major obstacle is obtaining the land that’s actually viable and affordable for their scheme.”
Tom’s concerns resonate with broader debates about public land use in Manchester. Andy Burnham promised in his Greater Manchester mayoral election manifesto to introduce a Land Commission, in order to allow a more democratic approach to the management of public land in the region. A broad range of campaigning groups, concerned that land use is not addressing housing and environmental concerns, have signed an open letter calling on Burnham to keep his promise.
The GM mayor’s office has also supported the hub, injecting “pump priming” funding in before the government funds were received, and by helping facilitate the CLH debate with community groups across the region.
Local authorities could help the Hub get around the major obstacle of the availability of land if they were not bound by fiscal constraints, Tom says:
“We require local authorities, housing associations and even health authorities to actually recognise that if they dispose of land that they sit on, that they’ve got to take into account a calculation of social value, not just monetary value, to make sure that these schemes are viable.
“But unfortunately, such are the Treasury rules, local authorities have got to maximise the income, because of the reducing rates of government grants and support. So it’s a bit of a vicious circle, where local authorities are saying ‘yes, we’d like to’ or ‘we’d love to’, but ‘we can’t because we need the money’.”
Community led housing could be a much larger part of our housing mix, examples from overseas show that this is an achievable reality, and one the Hub in GM is attempting to reach. The Community Housing Fund, with a meagre amount of resources when considering the scale of the housing crisis nationally, has led to a resurgence in CLH projects across the country. Imagine what community led housing, with all the benefits it offers its tenants, could achieve in this country with the backing it deserves.
Feature image: screenshots taken from Homes for Change video