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Plans for 'co-living' apartment blocks in Dublin are in opposition to the 'cohousing' model popular in Europe

Cohousing arrangements are a co-operative movement that helps to create affordable housing, writes Tom O’Donnell.

Tom O'Donnell

“CITIES HAVE THE capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when they are created by everybody”.  

So said Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities

What has housing to do with meaningful democracy, civic participation, social equality, or diverse and fulfilling ways of life? What about inclusivity, health, community, ecologies or sustainable land use?  

The importance and connection of housing to these general themes is usually highlighted when things go wrong.  In a housing crisis, inequality, social alienation and exclusion as well as their broader consequences for democracy are brought to the fore.  

Given its importance in society, it is strange that housing is usually discussed in terms of ‘units’ and ‘delivery’ or ‘provision’.  ‘Land’ is employed as a completely neutral term, independent of place.

This use of language is revealing and tells us that the supply of housing is generally understood as an instrumentalised mass phenomenon and a top-down process where the users are passive agents.

However, as increasingly complex ways of life, lifestyles and changing demographics begin to define the ‘norm’ and as we become subject to fluctuating social and environmental pressures, it is more and more obvious that different approaches to housing are needed and that it is unrealistic to expect present top-down and market-led structures to meet these needs.

On this basis and in the present climate, we might view the emergence of ‘co-living’ developments with some suspicion.

On the face of it ‘co-living’ appears to be merely a commercial repackaging of familiar types: shared apartment living or at its most extreme, the hostel for single, transient accommodation.

Co-living versus cohousing

Recently a high profile planning application has brought a co-living model to the fore in Ireland and that idea has been welcomed by the Minister for Housing.  

‘Co-living’ plays on the similar sounding ‘cohousing’ and in its commercial branding seems to infer some sense of ‘community’ is included in the package.

It is important to make a distinction between the real cohousing model and attempts to monetise human relationships or exploit people’s difficulties.

The cohousing model emerged in Denmark in the 1960s when 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.

Cohousing has become fairly mainstream now in some European countries, including Germany, where public and voluntary supports have been built up around it.

In cohousing, the prefix ‘co’ refers to collaborative and cooperative approaches to housing where neighbours form a real community. 

A cohousing project might contain relatively conventional private accommodation with shared or communal facilities and spaces.  

Equally, it might contain smaller than usual private apartments with extremely generous shared living and outdoor areas.

This latter arrangement is sometimes called a ‘cluster apartment’ and may have influenced the development of the ‘co-living’ model.  

However, the ‘cluster apartment’ offers significant differences to the ‘co-living’ project proposed here.  

Firstly, neighbours have got to know each other over years of planning; it is a stable community of people.  Secondly, they themselves chose their way of living and their homes are secure and affordable.

The cluster arrangement is frequently used for multi-generational and inclusive living where singles, young families and older people, as well as people with disabilities, share meals and living areas when they desire.

An important and empowering aspect of cohousing is self-organisation: projects arise from the particular needs and desires of the people who come together to form that group.  Some groups favour a little communal life while others chose a lot.

It is the residents themselves who decide on their priorities, work out all the arrangements, they find land, engage architects and other professionals, and finally build and subsequently manage their own housing projects.  

Cohousing projects are built by people for themselves, there is no developer profit to be paid, nor is there a predetermined ‘lifestyle’ to buy into.

Often groups wish to maintain the affordability in perpetuity and so they agree at the beginning that the project won’t be profit-making. So if they want to leave – the price at which they sell on will be tied to the price they paid for their home. 

Possibilities

There are lots of possibilities when groups come together to create cohousing projects. An element of self-build could be included to reduce costs. 

Another advantage of this model is adaptability. Sometimes people will consider that they might want to split their home in their later years and sub-let part of it. So they might design so it can be split in two. This might help to fund their retirement once their family has flown the nest. 

Cohousing has also been developed for single-generational use.  A project in London called New Ground was developed by women of retirement age as an alternative to living alone.

A major hurdle for affordable cohousing and community-led housing is the availability of land.  That is why, increasingly in Europe and the UK, non-profit organisations known as Community Land Trusts are being used to guarantee affordable housing permanently.  

A Community Land Trust holds the ownership of the land and then leases it in perpetuity to those who build on it. 

These arrangements mean the land and housing is held in an ownership lock which prohibits the homes from being resold on the open market in the future. 

So the long-term leasing of land to cohousing groups by the state or other institutions creates a stock of long-term affordable housing.

Co-operative approaches

At Self Organised Architecture we are involved in research and promoting collaborative and cooperative approaches to housing including advocating for the establishment of Community Land Trusts.  

In order to enable these approaches, we are arguing for a cooperative approach to housing and urban development where top-down and ground-up initiatives can work together to allow people to address their own needs affordably and sustainably.  

This would reflect the trend across Europe and the UK for a ‘new municipalism’ – that is an approach to housing that prioritises democracy, participation and community-led initiatives and values land as a community asset rather than a commodity or source of income.

In reality, this can mean central or local government developing structures for cohousing groups to finance projects, such as sustainable investment funds or allowing Credit Unions to lend to them.

This could mean developing policies and master planning for Community Land Trusts. 

Or this could mean recognising cohousing and self-organised initiatives including self-build and developing policies to inform and support people who wish to address their own housing needs.

In order to inform policy and bring these ideas to the wider public, we are organising a major event in June called Cohousing Here which will take place in Dublin Castle on the 14 June and TU Dublin on the 15 June.  

We have invited speakers from Germany, Belgium, Spain, Holland, Italy, the UK and Ireland who will approach themes of collaboration, participation and social agency in cohousing. 

Self Organised Architecture also runs a quarterly Cohousing Cafe. 

Tom O’Donnell is an architect working in Ireland and Germany.  He is a director of Self Organised Architecture Research CLG, an organisation that researches and promotes cooperative and collaborative approaches to housing in Ireland.  

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Tom O'Donnell

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