Cooperative housing is a popular housing model around the world. In Scandinavia, as much as 30 per cent of housing is cooperative housing. In Australia, there are already more than 8,000 people living in cooperative housing. It is one of the best models for providing affordable, secure rental housing in a collaborative way.
Image courtesy of Murundaka
What is it?
A co-operative is a democratic organisation, owned and controlled by its members for a common benefit. They are legal entities governed by the Co-operatives National Law. All members have equal status and voting rights, and no member can hold more than 20 per cent of the shares. They operate according to seven principles:
Voluntary and open membership
Democratic member control
Member economic participation
Autonomy and independence
Education, training and information
Co-operation among Co-operatives
Concern for the community.
A housing co-operative is a particular kind of co-operative that manages housing for its members. The co-operative may hold title to a property through ownership or lease or be engaged by a title holder to undertake tenancy management and selection. A share in the co-operative gives the right to live in one of the homes managed by the co-operative. Depending on the value of the shares, residency can feel more like renting or more like owning. This leads to a lot of diversity in co-operative housing.
In NSW, Common Equity NSW Ltd is the peak body for housing co-operatives. It owns or leases a portfolio of properties, and sub-leases these to housing co-operatives. The housing co-operative works with Common Equity to manage and maintain the property, collect rent and make decisions on new members. Common Equity provides training and support.
Who is it for?
Co-operative housing can potentially work for anyone, because the members of the co-operative and the physical form of housing they manage can vary widely. Co-operative housing can take many forms, from affordable urban apartment rental, to student rental housing, to owner-occupier eco villages . Some co-operatives focus specifically on meeting the housing needs of particular cultural communities, lifestyles or demographics (for example, older people).
Most housing co-operatives have a strong focus on social justice, affordability and security of rental tenure. Common Equity NSW manages properties under a community housing program. Most of the co-operative members living in these properties are eligible for social housing (65%), which means that they pay no more than 30% of their income in rent. The remaining 35% pay market rent, however still need to demonstrate a need for affordable housing on application. This flexibility provides members with affordable housing and security of tenure and to be able to remain in their communities even as their circumstances change over time.
Co-operative members do need to be committed to their community, as they are usually required to commit a specified amount of time to attending meetings and managing the co-operative and the property under the membership rules.
Mehr Als Wohnen
Perhaps the most ambitious and innovative co-operative housing in the world is Mehr Als Wohnen (More Than Living), north of Zurich in Switzerland. A series of smaller, independent buildings are arranged across thirteen lots, connected by an intricate network of public spaces, pathways and parks. The shared spaces are rimmed by ground-floor tenancies, which contain work-spaces, retail and community rooms. Mehr Als Wohnen was funded by fifty small co-operatives and contains 395 dwellings, 35 retail spaces, and shared care and community facilities.
What are the benefits?
International research demonstrates that housing co-operatives build social capital by strengthening social networks and support. There is also good evidence that they deliver housing that is more affordable, stable and of greater quality than comparable options.
There is also some evidence that housing co-operatives improve health and well-being, help members to acquire and develop new skills, reduce overall housing costs and deliver broader economic and sustainability benefits.
What makes it collaborative?
Co-operative housing involves members in collaborative decision-making about how to manage their housing and who to invite into their community. It can also involve members in the design process for new properties, as many housing co-operatives have a waiting list and may need to secure new dwellings to meet demand.
Shared spaces and facilities vary widely due to the diversity of forms that co-operative housing takes. Many of the properties managed by Common Equity were not originally designed with shared spaces in mind, so shared facilities may be minimal. Some housing co-operatives find ways to repurpose parts of the building as shared space. For example, Planet X has repurposed a car park as common space.
For more on housing co-operatives, visit the one of the following sites:
Victoria: Common Equity Housing Ltd
Western Australia: Federation of Housing Collectives
South Australia: Common Equity Housing South Australia
If you are interested in a more detailed international review of housing co-operatives and the value they provide, see Articulating Value in Cooperative Housing: International and Methodological Review by Louise Crabtree et al.