In Sweden, co-op housing provides more than one fifth of housing. That’s more than the UK private rental market. Starting in 1945, the Swedish government began to subsidise co-operative housing at the same level as other housing types. The tenant movement, forged in struggles against rent rises in the 1920s and 1930s took full advantage of this development. HSB, one of the largest housing co-ops, was founded as part of the tenants movement in 1923. Other organisations, such as the housing co-op Riksbyggen, were founded after 1945. True to much of the Swedish model of public services, the co-ops were price controlled until 1973 and subsidised until 1990, gradually being built up before being exposed to market forces.
By contrast, the UK has a much smaller co-op sector. Often associated with radical and alternative politics, some of these schemes are truly inspirational but need scaling up. Giroscope, a worker co-operative started by radicals in Hull pooling their giro cheques, has an impressive record of providing housing and jobs. Starting from nothing, they bought derelict property, renovated it, and then rented it out. It provides housing to people who are excluded from private renting, and provides opportunities to the long-term unemployed and ex-offenders managing the co-op and renovating the stock. In turn, Canopy and Latch in Leeds have been founded along similar lines, and a website, Self-help housing, started up.
Different and larger models of co-ops are also now being developed. In East London, a scheme which could house 1,000 people through a Community Land Trust was approved in February this year. It is through a combination of Community Land Trusts, Cohousing schemes, traditional co-ops that Britain could address its housing needs.
Nic Bliss, Chair of the Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH) says that interest in co-operative housing since the start of the recession has been “considerable”. Interest is coming from people who would have been first time buyers a few years ago, and from those seeking co-operative retirement housing.
The credit crunch and subsequent recession have put traditional home ownership out of reach for many people. In particular, young people are going to find it increasingly difficult to afford buying a house. The Halifax discovered just over a year ago that only 5 per cent of 22 – 45 year olds had the finances to save for buying a house, they termed this new class ‘Generation Rent’. The previous 30 years of prioritising home ownership has been roundly criticised by the Chartered Institute of Housing who said “The Love Affair of owner-occupation is over”, the National Housing Federation, whose CEO said: “We have used it [home ownership] as the policy determinant and that’s absolutely wrong”, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF). The JRF’s research concluded that prioritising on home ownership had resulted in four housing bubbles in 40 years, skyrocketing prices, a rise in social exclusion caused by repossession and arrears, a poor safety net, and insecurity in housing.
What could co-op housing bring to the UK? The Bringing Democracy Home report concludes that the benefits are:
‘a) tenant satisfaction is far higher than any equivalent form of housing
(b) co-ops tend to perform as well as if not better than other housing providers in relation to business criteria
(c) there are considerable social and community benefits in co-operative housing
(d) there are individual benefits for the people involved in co-operative housing.’
Unlike Sweden, the UK is still far behind in providing the type of financial support to develop co-operative housing on a large scale. The Chartered Institute of Housing calculated that home ownership is subsidised by £6bn subsidy through Capital Gains Tax relief. Shared ownership is subsidised by £1.6bn, and housing benefit in private renting was estimated at £7bn. However, that could be about to change.
The Confederation of Co-operative Housing has been working on trying to find ways to generate the elusive finance needed by co-ops. They are currently working with the Homes and Communities Agency to try and raise finance of “between £100m to £250m” for community-led housing projects according to Nic Bliss.
At its best, co-op housing could offer a means to address the housing crisis, tackle unemployment, and balance out the housing market.