by Levent Kerimol.
We’ve been doing quite a bit of reflecting recently, as it is around 5 years since CLH London got going. We have always sought to see community led housing become a consistent part of a diverse London housing offer.
Community led housing is all about the empowerment of residents. This contrasts with a more paternalistic relationship between housing providers and residents seen in public housing and private rented housing, as well as in the development of all housing, with generic and impersonal decisions beyond the control of residents and prospective residents. Where residents control what matters to them most about their housing, they have an inherent interest in the qualities of their homes, common spaces, and neighbourhoods. The physical environment and collective decision making can engender more sociable and neighbourly relationships, and lead to a wide range of benefits.
The scale, breadth, and pace of what we have tried to achieve has been ambitious, and has required intensive work, building sector capacity from very little. We have supported a large and diverse range of projects, with a focus on the ‘group’ and ‘site’ stage. Many projects have made considerable progress with support and mentoring from our team.
There are now several projects with credible sites making progress through planning, and it’s great to see earlier projects reaching the end of construction. We have also successfully supported several London boroughs to develop their approach and policies, and providing a number of site opportunities for community led housing. We have proven to be an agile and effective resource.
Despite these valuable successes, we estimate community led housing (CLH) is still around 0.1% of total stock and 0.1% of annual output in London. We’ve seen first-hand, the many intertwined commercial and systemic barriers CLH faces. We’ve sought to find ways around barriers where we can, and attempted to crack vicious circles at different points on each project, one by one. But this is hard work, and we couldn’t help thinking there must be a better way!
Through this thinking we’ve become aware of two related preconceptions; that CLH always starts with a group, and that CLH is about delivering new housing.
The ‘group’ preconception
The diversity of London has naturally generated groups with different motivations and aspirations. From demographic to geographic communities, niche and broad – from independent churches to moorings to established housing co-ops – all with different approaches to tenure, development, partnerships, site identification and acquisition, some seeking to innovate from first principles. While we value the diversity of projects we’ve been involved in, each of these has required largely bespoke support, often starting from scratch.
As humans, we seem predisposed to the story of spontaneously formed community groups, valiantly triumphing over adversity, but success is when community led housing is no longer newsworthy because it is so commonplace. We have also inadvertently defaulted into responding to individual requests from individual groups, trying to fashion projects that meet their specific requirements, whilst faced with similar commercial and systemic challenges every time.
What if we started with clear repeatable project types and enabled interested people to form groups around those projects?
The ‘development’ preconception
Based on our experience with groups, and the enquiries we receive, we see that many people like the idea of living in community led housing but are put off by the idea of taking on a lengthy and risky development project.
Yet somehow we as a sector have readily accepted the mantra from governments of all hues that we need to be building more homes. Community led housing has been presented as a “new source of housing supply”. Government funding has only been for “additional supply”. However expecting each start-up community led group to take on a development project, or be involved in one, is a big ask, and one which invites a range of challenges. Even the partnerships we’ve helped to create have been tenuous one-offs due to systemic issues in the London market.
What if we left the practicalities of delivering new homes to those with the skills and resources to do so, and let community led housing focus on what it is good at and where it adds value?
We believe what is central to, and distinctive about, community-led housing is resident control and belonging – that people can shape what matters most to them in their housing within a supportive community.
What matters most to most people is not the detail of the development process, but the lived experience, which is as much to do with neighbours, management, maintenance, and security of tenure, as well as the physical form. We’ve seen community expressed even where housing is fairly generic and not purpose-built for CLH.
There is naturally a large desire for affordability, but it is often harder to make housing affordable through small start-up organisations undertaking development. Whereas CLH is very good at locking in any affordability in perpetuity.
Letting go of preconceptions, we are currently working on developing focused pro-active interventions, that give people control and belonging, without the challenges encountered to date:
- Collective Ownership involves purchasing existing properties for collective living, at near market affordability, but offering greater security, control and responsibility, with mechanisms to ensure others benefit in future.
- Building Communities where we help developers incorporate the social and design principles of CLH into ‘live’ developments, and forge communities around these projects.
- Coproduction and Stewardship where power sharing relationships for resident management or community stewardship on larger-scale schemes, add social value and save money in the long term.
We have started to develop these ideas, alongside our traditional work supporting groups and councils creating opportunities. We hope we can broaden what people think of when they think of community led housing, as a realistic and achievable option for all.