How to Set Up a Housing Co-op: a Taking Control workshop in Hastings

Blog by Milan Rai

ImageLast night, 21 people crowded into the Friends Meeting House in South Villas, Hastings, to hear Peace News co-editor Emily Johns tell the story of Walden Pond Housing Co-op, which was set up in 1998 and now owns a house and a flat in the town.

The main point of the evening was to explain 'How to Set Up a Housing Co-op', with a lot of help from the Radical Routes handbook of the same name (44 pages, £3 or download for free here). Radical Routes is a Britain-wide network that started in Birmingham in the late 1980s, now consisting of of 24 housing co-ops, 6 worker co-ops, and 2 social centres.

Walden Pond Housing Co-op started life in London in 1997 supported by what was then called Jigsaw Housing Co-op in Oxford (also a Radical Routes member). Despite having members who were almost all claiming housing benefit (because they were unemployed or low-waged), the co-op was able to rent houses in North London which landlords didn't want to rent to HB claimants. The co-op took out 'company lets' which were more acceptable to landlords.

Later on, after being moved on repeatedly by landlords selling their houses, the co-op decided to buy a house in Hastings, the poorest part of South-East England and with the lowest-priced property. The purchase price was met with loanstock borrowed from friends, family and fellow activists; a mortgage from Triodos Bank, one of the few to understand lending to housing co-ops (Ecology Building Society and the Co-op Bank were also mentioned); and a top-up loan from Radical Routes.

In later years, a Radical Routes loan helped Walden Pond to buy a nearby garden flat.

The benefits of being fully-mutual

Emily explained that there are different kinds of co-operative housing, including co-housing ones where people put in capital at the beginning and then take it out again if they leave, or if the co-op goes out of business. There are kinds where, if the co-op is wound up, the profits from property sales are split between the members.

Radical Routes, which is for people engaged in radical social change of some kind (including organic agriculture) only one kind of housing co-op is accepted as a member: the 'par-value', 'fully-mutual' co-op.

Walden Pond is a fully-mutual housing co-op, which means that all tenants are members, and all members are tenants (or people who've been accepted as prospective tenants); and each tenant/member has a single, non-transferable, non-returnable share in the co-op (cost £1).

Being a par-value, fully-mutual co-op means that the members of the co-op cannot benefit individually from the activities of the co-op. If a Radical Routes co-op is wound up, the profits from any property sales has to be given to another co-operative or another body sharing the same aims or values. Any profits from rising house prices cannot be privatised by the members, but must remain in common ownership or in social change work.

This no-individual-benefit legal restriction is what enables tenants in Radical Routes co-ops to claim housing benefit to pay to their co-op. So low-income people can control their own housing democratically, enjoy stable, affordable housing, and help their group/co-op to own property.

Each member is the tenant and the landlord at the same time. Someone at Emily's workshop said this sounded like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time.

Another benefit of this legal structure, for Walden Pond, has been to increase its ability to get grants. As Hastings has been going through regeneration, quite a lot of money has gone into improving housing stock. Owner-occupiers have been eligible for 100% grants for improvements; landlords for 50% grants.

Walden Pond (mainly Emily) managed to persuade Hastings Borough Council that as a par-value, fully-mutual housing co-op Walden Pond should be treated in the same way as an owner-occupier, rather than as a landlord, as no individual would profit from the grant or from the activities of the co-op. The rules for housing renewal grants have been changed to recognise this exemption, and Walden Pond got a big 100% grant to help with damp-proofing and other works in its flat (and to the building as a whole) in the Central St Leonards renewal area.

There were lots of questions during the workshop, and lots of interest. People also had a look at the Radical Routes exhibition on the walls. Emily said that Walden Pond would be running another event, possibly with one or two workers' co-ops from the town, during Co-op Fortnight at the end of June.

Each member of Radical Routes is supposed to organise an event once a year - this could be a Taking Control event, or a Radical Routes gathering.

Radical Routes
Rootstock (the Radical Routes investors' co-op)
Co-operatives UK