UK housing stories have consistently hit the headlines over the years. Homelessness, shortage of homes, beauty standards, quality of build, zero carbon targets, health and wellbeing. The issues around housing create a minefield of obstacles and the key question remains: how do we create the homes that people want?
Community led housing (CLH) takes on all these challenges by involving the end-user from the beginning. It’s a rising trend where communities come together in different ways to create homes and places they truly want to live in.
This is the case for multi award-winning Marmalade Lane in Cambridge, home to the city’s first cohousing community.
My first encounter with the development was at the 2019 Housing Design Awards where we heard from Meredith Bowles of Mole Architects, the practice behind the scheme, and Jan Chadwick, a Marmalade Lane resident. Recently, I had the opportunity to see the scheme in the flesh as I attended an event by Community Led Homes (CLH), exploring how this innovative way to live and build can be applied across the UK.
After a brief tour around Marmalade Lane by resident Frances Wright (who now works for the scheme’s developer, TOWN) we were invited into the community hub ‘The Common House’ to learn more from the experts. The workshop was led by Leah Eatwell and Tom Beale from Ecomotive, together with freelance consultant, Jimm Read. We also heard from the regional hubs: Martin Field at East Midlands Community Led Housing, Kirsten Bennett at the newly established Cambridgeshire ACRE, and Emily Mulvaney at Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority.
Five key takeaways: the benefits and challenges of community led housing
1) Social and financial value
One of the greatest benefits of community led housing is the value it brings residents, both monetary and socially. Any profit from a community led housing scheme is ploughed back into the project, with direct benefit to the residents. This is often used to improve or create new amenities that can be enjoyed by everyone.
Community led housing is an effective way to combat loneliness and improve inclusiveness. Several schemes were created to promote social connectedness for groups of people who may feel ostracised because of their personal situation. This includes the LGBTQ community, older people and people with disabilities. This approach to housing can have a powerful impact on increasing the health and wellbeing of residents.
2) Empowering communities
The benefits can reach the wider community too, especially in the case of Community Land Trusts. These can create a ripple effect by empowering the community to speak up for what they want. Community led housing is also more likely to gain the support of local people, potentially simplifying the planning approval stage.
3) Raising standards: quality, design and sustainability
Community led housing is raising the bar for the quality, design and sustainability of homes. And it isn’t at an unaffordable cost either. These are homes that people want to live in: healthy homes with minimal environmental impact that will boost their health and wellbeing and meet their specific needs. They are a best practice exemplar of how housing can be done when the end-user is included in the process.
4) Working with diverse opinions, experience and knowledge
Community led housing presents a forum of people with common values but diverse opinions, experience and knowledge. Therefore, the decision-making process can be slow. This is where professionals can add the most value with their experience of the planning, design and construction process. Key tips for the professionals involved are to clarify their job role and to ensure any technical terms are being explained in plain English.
CLH also encourages peer to peer support. Though no community led scheme is ever the same, valuable lessons are learned along the way and the experience from one project can save the next from making similar mistakes.
As an end-user led project, the professionals need to remain open-minded about what can be achieved. There is a fine balance between the dream and delivering a viable project, particularly where funding is concerned. The group needs to be resilient and open to potential changes while the professionals need to be willing to try something new.
5) Timescales and funding
Like with many housing developments the conception to completion stage can be a drawn-out process. The same applies to community led housing. On average it takes four to six years to reach the moving in stage.
Aside from the opinions and wishes of the group, the most fundamental part of getting the project off the ground is funding. Grants are likely to provide much of the funding and there are an increasing number available. While there is still no news on whether the Community Housing Fund will continue past 31 March 2020, other options include the lottery and its Power to Change fund and charities such as Nationwide Foundation.
Generally, high street banks are still on the fence about community led housing despite CLH’s argument that this style of housing is potentially lower risk because of the community support and the impact this may have politically.
So, what is community led housing?
I learned it comes under several guises:
- A Housing Co-operative or Tenant management Organisation (TMO) is run by the members, for the members. It may be organised by residents in the same apartment blocks, homes on the same street, or homes within the same development. Housing co-ops are increasingly popular among students in UK university towns and cities.
- A Community Land Trust (CLT) allows community members to control and protect buildings and land in their community, both homes and commercial buildings. The CLT buys, long-leases or gifts land, and the CLT members decide how costs are calculated to ensure local people can afford to rent or buy. The CLT remains the steward of the land and ensures profits are re-invested for the community’s benefit.
- Cohousing, like Marmalade Lane, focuses more on the creation of a community. It creates an intentional neighbourhood where the residents share similar values and want to live in a similar way. Cohousing schemes have shared spaces such as community hubs and play areas which enhance social interaction and encourage community spirit. Individual homes and apartments give people the privacy they need while providing opportunities to come together for meals and activities.
- Self-help housing transforms ailing neighbourhoods and provides homeless people with their own dwelling. This style of housing considers existing vacant properties that can be refurbished and rented out to those struggling to afford a home. It requires community effort, including the prospective tenant, in refurbishing the properties.
The information here is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more to know about community led housing but I for one am sold on it being a worthy alternative to tackling the UK’s housing crisis.
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