Living with other people: exploring the options for starting a cohousing project

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Posted Jul 5 2018 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org
Interested in starting a cohousing project? This community shows it can be achieved.

My partner and I have decided that we want to sell our house and come together with other people to create some sort of cohousing / community living project. But how many other people? And where will it be? Will it be a new-build project, or will it involve converting or combining an existing propery or properties? What will the ownership / legal structure look like? And when we’ve decided all that – how will we live together? How much will we share and how will we make decisions?

Over the coming weeks, I’m going to be interviewing people who’ve done it, using different models, to see how they answered those questions. I’ll blog the transcripts of those interviews to inform and hopefully inspire more people to be able to do something similar.

Why we want to do it

Humans are social creatures – we’re pack animals. We didn’t evolve to live solitary lives, or even lives in separate couples or nuclear families. Extended families were the norm until relatively recently, and although blood relatives aren’t always (or often?) the people that we’d choose to spend a lot of time with, living closely with other humans is good for us, I think.

I suppose that for us, the most important thing we’re looking for is to live with a group of people who will not only provide company and a good social life as we get older, but will also commit to provide mutual support – to look after each other if disaster of any kind should befall any of us.

I lived at Redfield Community in Buckinghamshire for 13 years, with around 15 adults and 8 kids, and I loved it. However, for me, there were aspects of life there that I couldn’t see myself continuing as I grew older, and I left a few years ago. I’m still on great terms with the community though – and in fact we got married there last year, in a good old hippy celebration.

The ground floor of the house and the 18 acres of grounds were (and still are) communal, and the members have private units on the first and second floors. The units don’t contain bathrooms or kitchens. Members sign up to cook communal meals (around once a fortnight), which are served at 6pm every evening. There is an industrial-sized kitchen on the ground floor, and bathrooms, shower rooms and toilets scattered around the house. The food is great – a lot of it from their land – organic fruit, vegetables, herbs, meat, eggs, honey and sometimes wild mushrooms.

I’ve also visited many intentional communities around the world, and feel very comfortable living communally and sharing spaces. My partner wasn’t familiar with these kinds of living arrangements, but now she’s seen some, she loves the idea too.

We particularly like the idea of living together with like-minded people as we grow older, and it seems that this is quite a popular idea, as something called ‘senior cohousing’ exists, and is growing. We’re middle-aged rather than old, but we’re all headed in the same direction eventually, and we want to be set up in some sort of cohousing project before we’re too much older. We’re not thinking that we want to be in a scheme just for older people, but we want to grow older ourselves in community, with people of all ages.

None of us wants to spend our final years alone, or in an impersonal institution. Look, I know this sounds morbid, but decline and death is not something anyone has worked out how to avoid, and I remember as a child visiting grandparents who complained bitterly about loneliness. I’d just prefer to avoid that, if at all possible. I’d like to party on to the end.

We want to share various aspects of our lives, and not have to travel long distances to have a good social life. We’re envisaging regular shared meals, parties, fires, and just catching up with people whilst going about daily life. Not having to travel will be a big bonus as we grow older, too.

I see this kind of project having three more potential benefits, over and above the benefits to the lives of the members.

  1. environmental: sharing means fewer resources required. So for example, if we share a lawn mower, a laundry room or even vehicles, it means that each household doesn’t have to own their own, and so fewer pieces of kit need to be manufactured, saving lots of energy, resources and waste. Less travel for social engagements would lower fossil fuel use, and therefore lower emissions of carbon and pollutants.
  2. economic: I’d like to reduce the profits of, and hence the power of, corporate banks. Redfield Community has an ‘asset lock’ in its founding documents that means that if the property is ever sold, the members at the time can’t profit from it – the money would go to another co-operative organisation, or be used to buy land to start another community. This removes the incentive for the property to be sold for profit, which takes the property off the market, and doesn’t allow banks to profit from it ever again. I don’t know how feasible this is nowadays, but it will hopefully become clearer as we do more research.
  3. social: I’d also like to leave a legacy of affordable, co-operative housing after I’ve gone, rather than pushing house prices up for locals in the place we set up.

Sunflower Cohousing in France – a limited company with shares.

What kind of a place we want

At the moment, we’re a group of six adults and one child. We’re thinking that eventually, we’d like to be part of a group of maybe 10-14 adults with possibly a few kids. But we’d like to make decsions about what kind of place we want, and where, with a smaller group, and then invite other people to join, rather than trying to make all of those decisions with a larger group.

We realise that this is unusually small for a cohousing project, but we do definitely want our own front doors, and to eat most of our meals in our nuclear, rather than extended family groups. Eating together once a week will do nicely, but the rest of the time we want to decide ourselves when and what to eat. We can also decide to be slobs and leave the washing up until the next day if we want to (not that we’d do that, of course, but you know – the option’s there).

It’s the ‘own front door’ thing that makes what we’re thinking of cohousing – even if much smaller than other cohousing projects. We can have lots of shared areas – gardens, guest rooms, hanging out spaces, workshops, laundry etc, but it’s the private accommodation that makes it cohousing, whatever the legal structure.

The buildings

So, we know roughly how we want to live, but we’re not sure how we achieve it – and the two most difficult problems that we can see are the building or buildings, and the legal / ownership structure.

First the buildings. We want our own front doors, but does that mean separate houses, or can they be units within one large building? And do we try to purchase land, and then get planning permission to build our own houses? The problem with the self-build approach is that developers will almost definitely beat you to it, as they’re likely to want to put more units on any given area of land than you will. If the property is within a town, developers can put flats on there, the sale price of which will make it profitable enough for them to offer a lot more for the land than we could afford.

If the land is just outside the development zone, say on the edge of a town, we could try to get planning permission to build homes if we can persuade the local authority that we’ll be a) reducing the need for social care for older people, b) leaving a legacy of affordable housing in perpetuity, c) providing sustainability benefits. Developers wouldn’t have this option, but then again, we might not either – it depends on the area and the attitude of the local authority.

None of us is keen on having private units that are not on the ground floor. We’d all prefer access to the shared outdoor areas directly, not via a flight of stairs. Again, this will become more important as we get older. This suggests that we’re looking at new build, or finding a property with existing buildings that can be converted to ground-floor accommodation. And who knows, we might find new members who are perfectly happy living on the first floor of a building.

One more option we thought of was to try to buy neighbouring houses on the same street, then knock down fences to create one large garden, and to somehow join the houses together, maybe with some sort of a shared conservatory built alongside all the houses. We didn’t have any idea about how to organise the legal / ownership structure of such a project, and considered it so unlikely that we didn’t really talk about it very much. Then I met an old friend at a party, who told me that he lived in a housing co-op in Sheffield that consisted of 6 houses in a terrace, and, you’ve guessed it, they knocked down all the fences and attached a long conservatory. They put solar panels along all the roofs too. I’ll be interviewing him to find out how they did it.

LILAC cohousing scheme in Leeds – a mutual home ownership scheme.

What kind of legal / ownership set-up?

In this image from UK Cohousing, there’s just one little bullet point in stage 6 of the process called ‘decide organisation legal structure’ (there are 17 stages, with several bullet points under each). I’m really surprised by this, as it’s the biggest decision of all, and there are so many options, with so many variables.

I think a crucial question that we need to ask ourselves is: will any increase in the value of the property accrue to the community or to individual members? For me, the answer is clear – to the community – otherwise I think it will be impossible to leave an affordable legacy that the banks can’t profit from (and if we can manage that, I’ll die happy).

here’s a list of the different kinds of cohousing ownership models that I’ve come across so far:

  • Company limited by guarantee
  • Company limited by shares
  • Housing co-op
  • Community land trust
  • Mutual home ownership society
  • Commonhold
  • Trusts
  • Community interest company
  • Community benefit society

I lean towards the housing co-op option – it’s ‘clean’ and seems to be a better model for longevity of community. But the co-op model may prove too difficult to set up, and may not be the best fit for our circumstances. As I said, I’m hoping to research a lot more to find out, and to publish the results here. For example, a co-op might mean that the founders will end up paying rent, whereas if they stayed where they are, they’d pay mortgages off and would have no ongoing payments. I don’t think that a successful model will make the founders worse off than they would have been otherwise – how will that encourage or inspire other people to do it?

There might be ways round this. For example, could members pay rent to the co-op if they have no capital, or buy a long lease if they do? Also, a new model called mutual home ownership – so new that it’s only used by one project in the country so far – in which, I believe, founders don’t have to pay rent if they’ve already put money into the project. The LILAC project in Leeds uses this model, so I’ll try to interview someone there.

In fact, I’ll be interviewing people involved in as many of the different models listed above as possible. I’ve already interviewed Monica King, part of the forming Bridport Cohousing group (a community land trust). I’ll post a transcript of that interview soon.

The Threshold Centre in Dorset – partnering with a local housing association to provide social housing, as well as selling leases on housing units.

Where?

Well, we all want to get out of London – it’s ugly, congested and polluted. It’s difficult to get into the countryside, there’s precious little nature around, and in our street at least, there seems to be a campaign to remove it completely. More and more people are paving front gardens to park cars, and the council regularly pollard the trees back to stumps. A conurbation of 10 million doesn’t feel like a healthy environment, and it’s not conducive to a strong community, both of which we feel are essential to human well-being – not just desirable add-ons.

However, we don’t want to be in the middle of nowhere either. We don’t want to be dependent on cars or non-existent public transport. So we’re looking at small towns – ideally we want to live in a place that has a vibrant community. At Redfield, I found that the community was quite inward-looking, with not so many ties to the local community (which is conservative, with a small and a big ‘c’).

Another reason that we’d prefer to be in a small town is so that we can get our food, firewood and other resources from its hinterland. Although we currently get a veg box, a fish box and a meat box delivered in London, they have to come some distance, as there’s not enough productive land in the city to provide more than a tiny percentage of people’s needs. It would be nice to be able to meet the people providing our food.

So we’re currently investigating likely towns. We’d heard that Stroud was a buzzing, interesting place, and so we went to visit for a weekend. Now I don’t know if Stroud is exceptional, or whether we’ve just got used to living in London, but everyone was friendly. People said hi as they passed us in the street, and we got into conversations easily. Interesting conversations too – and everyone had an opinion on cohousing. We stumbled across a local beer festival, a local baker serving pizzas from a wood-fired oven, a Brazilian band was performing in one bar we went into, and everywhere – local, organic food. We’ll have to see if other towns are like Stroud.

One thing we chatted with locals about was our desire not to be the kind of Londoners who move to the provinces and push house prices up and locals out. We explained that we want to start some sort of co-operative venture that will provide affordable housing even after we’ve gone, and the consensus was that you can’t say fairer than that.

Laughton Lodge in Sussex – a company limited by guarantee.

The order of doing things

We’re having regular meetings to work out how we might do this. It’s been going very slowly, but on reflection, I think this is a good thing. If we’d rushed into something quickly, if it wasn’t the best model for us, we could have either been stuck with it for a long time, or it would have caused the project to fail. I think that if we take our time to decide things, it’s more likely to be successful.

We’ll follow advice from people in existing projects, and from organisations such as UK Cohousing, but the most important questions we have to work out are a) what will be our legal structure, and b) will the project be a new-build, or conversion / combination of existing buildings?

The size of project we’re talking about is extremely small for cohousing, although that still does seem to be the best umbrella term to call it for now. Who knows – trying to start a project of this size may turn out to be too difficult, and some or all of us may end up applying to join an existing project that’s looking for new members (if they’ll have us).

Assuming we do manage it, we’ll have to work out our ‘internal rules’ – a term I’ve borrowed from Redfield. It may not seem very ‘alternative’ to live under a regime of rules, but I think not having rules can turn out much worse. If things aren’t clear, the strongest personalities tend to get their own way. This was outlined in a famous essay called the Tyranny of Structurelessness by Joreen Freeman.

The sort of things I’m thinking of are: will smoking be allowed in the house? How many vehicles will we have? Will there be restrictions on things like washing machines if there’s a shared laundry? Who looks after the garden? Will we produce some of our own food – and for the group or for individuals? If someone wants to grow food for a living, is that OK, and could we just buy food from them (we could ensure it was organic, and it would certainly cut down food miles, as well as providing a job for someone)? How do we make decisions? Can members’ elderly relatives, or children, come to live with us if they need to? And after all, we’re working out the rules ourselves, not having them imposed from above.

So we’ve got a lot of work to do to decide exactly where we want to be, what kind of buildings we’ll live in, how we’ll live and what our legal structure will be (including get-out clauses if it doesn’t work for someone). Any advice gratefully received.