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How the Danish co-housing model could help solve Ireland's crisis

This type of housing scheme has started to break into the Irish market.

ON MONDAY THE Minister for Housing said he does not know – in the middle of a housing crisis in Ireland – how many homes were built in the country last year.

Figures last week also revealed 76% of social housing in 2017 came from the private rental sector. Building progress is slow and property is expensive, but the government is now considering the benefits of more alternative models it has been made aware of.

One option that is being looked at is the Danish co-housing model which began in the 1960s. Groups of families started to come together to build their own community housing projects, sharing the cost and making decisions for themselves about how their living space would look and who they would share it with.

Co-housing has become almost mainstream now in many European countries, including Germany, where public and voluntary supports have been built up around it.

These include the sale of public land to sustainable projects like co-housing groups, land trusts that buy up land and re-lease it to these projects and alternative banks that provide financing.

How does it work?

In Germany, the project usually starts with an architect or group of people who work in the building sector who may or may not plan to live in the development themselves. They bring together a group of households who are looking to buy property and come up with a plan for how they want to organise the space and what they want included on the campus.

Funds from individual mortgages for each household are pooled for the purchase of the plot and to cover construction costs. Everyone in the apartment building or housing estate has their own unit, complete with bedrooms, living areas, kitchens and bathrooms.

On top of that, most of these co-housing projects will include large communal spaces such as vegetable patches, workshops, shared office space, libraries and roof gardens.

Cutting out the developer in these projects enables the buyers to keep costs lower and allows them to have more control over their homes and who they live beside from the very beginning of the project.

The idea has taken off in Germany, and while many mirror conventional housing, some of the projects are more creative and diverse.

There is a dedicated website for these projects in Berlin, where groups can post their plans and seek households to come on board or link up with architects, project managers and financiers.

Again, some proposals have housing experts like architects behind them already while others projects are started by groups of like-minded people who join together.

One example of this is the WohnMichel project, which is run by a multi-generational and close-knit group of people with an ecological focus.

They built three properties with sustainable materials that can accommodate a total of 32 adults and 18 children.

Source: WohnMichel

Tom O’Donnell, an Irish architect living in Hamburg, told TheJournal.ie that there is a common misconception about this type of living, that the projects are essentially communes.

“That would never work in Ireland. But in Germany it has evolved into something very sophisticated generally. There are lots of shared facilities, but your apartment is your own, you close your door behind you and it’s your own place.

“It’s based on two different impulses. The first is to resist the market I suppose – speculative development and gentrification. The second impulse is to be independent and to be in a position where you can decide for yourself how you want to live.

O’Donnell said there is generally a higher standard of building in this projects and the architecture is more ambitious and creative.

“For the Irish market, I’d really emphasise that because you’re not paying profit to a developer, that’s a good reason to opt for this because obviously if you’re saving 20% or 30% that’s probably for most people the difference between being able to get a mortgage or not.”

Would this model actually work in Ireland?

A version of the co-housing model has already managed to break into Ireland’s housing market, though on a very small-scale for now.

A voluntary housing co-operative called Ó Cualann has already handed over the keys to the owners of houses in a development in Ballymun.

housing1 Source: O Cualann

The estate, which on completion will have 49 houses in total, is built on land that had been owned by Dublin City Council. It was provided to the non-profit organisation at a heavily discounted rate and people in the area were given priority.

Buyers were required to earn no more than a combined income of €79,000 and they had to provide a 10% deposit and mortgage approval.

Prices started at €140,000 for a two-bedroom house up to €190,000 for a four-bedroom house.

This model differs from Germany’s co-housing in that all of the planning and design work was done by the organisation and buyers were brought in at a later point. The estate in Ballymun also does not include any common areas for residents.

However, CEO of Ó Cualain Hugh Brennan told TheJournal.ie that the longterm plan is to move more towards the European community housing.

The organisation has been approved for another project with 39 houses beside its first site and two others are in the pipeline.

“We hope when we move into that space beside the first lot we will be able to provide common ground like a vegetable garden and recreational spaces for children and adults.

Source: O Cualann

All residents who bought into the first project also had to sign up to a charter.

“They said five things – they wanted a community where they would get to know their neighbours before they moved in and they would look out for one another, their mortgages wouldn’t cripple them, their energy bills would be low, their homes would be built to the best international standards and they would feel safe,” Brennan said.

“This is about more than building houses, it’s about building communities.”

Barriers

When asked about this model, a spokesperson for the Construction Industry Federation (CFI) said the key hurdle to the introduction of this type of model would be whether it could overcome the lack of affordable finance and the availability of viable land at reasonable rates.

“Apartment building is a huge challenge at the moment as there is very few lenders willing to lend to construction companies or developers for this type of activity,” they said.

Brennan said the funding for his organisation’s project had been relatively straightforward, but buyers were required to pass a financial assessment to ensure they would be able to get a mortgage. They were also required to provide an initial 10% that was used as part of the project financing.

“AIB were our bank and they have been very supportive to date. They give us the project finance and then they are sold on to individuals or social units are sold to a housing agency.”

As for the procurement of land, Brennan said that having Dublin City Council on board was key to the success of the project as it made the land available at a heavily discounted price and waived development levies.

“We’re not going to compete with developers and pay ridiculous prices for land. We’ve already been in discussion with two particular religious orders and one private landowners in Tipperary who is interested in working with us.”

Source: O Cualain

The third scheme the organisation is planning will also include affordable rental properties.

“We’re looking to have what we call give different tenure types. That’ll be private ownership, private, affordable rental, social rental, rent-to-own where there is joint ownership for a period while people are raising deposits and student rental as well.”

Rent has gone crazy in Dublin. In the estate next to the one we’ve built, a one bed is €1,400 a month. We would be down somewhere at around €900 for a one bed and €1,200 for a two or three bed.

“We’ve had requests from all over the country from groups. We have a job in Waterford, only a small one with 18 units and four of those will be social housing, but we are getting inquiries from Galway, Limerick, Kildare, you name it. The model is catching on I’m glad to say,” he said.

Brennan has been in close contact with Department of Housing officials on this issue and he said he is hoping there will be progress in the coming weeks in linking up the State’s affordable homes scheme with the co-housing model.

Read: Over 8,500 people spent Christmas Day in emergency accommodation>

Read: ‘A chronic over-reliance’: 76% of social housing came from the private rental sector last year>

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