Housing

Sharing is caring: How co-housing could be another piece of the puzzle in solving UK housing crisis

In a world where affordable housing is out of reach for so many, co-housing offers a different way forward

Illustration of three people talking

Illustration: Mateusz Napieralski

Co-housing began in 1970s Denmark with Saettedammen, a settlement established by the late visionary Jan Gudmand-Høyer. Unlike communes, co-housing communities live separately in their own homes, though there are often communal areas. Residents do not give up any financial or domestic privacy. Co-housing communities seek stability and support from one another. This can take the form of childcare, chores, shared items, resources or DIY skills. The arrangement has become a popular housing option in Denmark and the trend has spread across Europe to parts of the UK.

Co-housing has taken on many forms in recent years, from tiny houses to streets designed for co-living, to apartment complexes in big cities. Across the UK, it’s a way of life that’s in full swing, with examples like LILAC in Leeds, Marmalade Lane in Cambridge and many more projects in the planning phases.

In most cases, each member of such a community has their own living quarters, alongside communal kitchens, laundry rooms, playrooms, and even co-working spaces. A core principle of these communities is to work together to keep the grounds in good shape, share resources, alternate cooking duties and, in some cases, even distribute childcare responsibilities.

Flora Samuel, architect and author of Housing for Hope and Wellbeing, explains that mainstream housing works to the detriment of community building. “So many policies are there to smash communities apart, like the bedroom tax or not having any say on the location of your social housing,” she said. “It’s hard to keep communities together at this time, but we’re only going to get through [hardships] by sticking together as communities and sharing the limited resources we have.”

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Meanwhile, current housing models place responsibility for the housing crisis on individuals, according to Keith Jacobs, urban sociology professor at the University of Tasmania. It leaves young people “blaming themselves for not earning enough”, he says, “whereas co-living and solutions of communities pooling wealth is a fantastic example of collective strength.”

Tiny House Bristol, a co-living community with plans to develop a property at Sea Mills on the outskirts of the city, say that creating housing that works for the community is key in fending off the crises UK society is facing. The project’s architect, Noah Fagan, noted how housing needs to “work for the community at large, spaces that nurture us and offer us a sense of belonging”. The aim of the smaller homes is to demonstrate how much can be shared, he explains. “Take out the laundry room, the extra bedroom, the study and combine that all together, you get a co-working space and communal spaces dedicated to reinforcing community.”

Not only is community living bringing people together in shared responsibility for their homes, but it is also reducing isolation, giving people ownership of their environment and in turn increasing their sense of wellbeing. Samuel also emphasises the need for community in the modern day, and suggests that co-housing may offer a solution. Co-housing in the UK is usually reserved for students or the elderly, but Samuel highlights the benefits of a multi-generational community.

“There become trade-offs between generations,” she says. “Young people might have more energy to maintain buildings or gardens whereas older people can help with babysitting. It just makes complete sense to have a mixed place where people work together.”

But Jacobs warns we should be wary of taking a one-size-fits-all approach to housing. “Although many [people] thrive in community settings others may find it anxiety inducing,” he adds. A utopia for some that could never work for others.

As co-living offers homeowners autonomy, a built-in community, and a stable place in the world, it is easy to see why people want to live in them. But in reality, co-living is just one solution to the housing crisis. Experts are in agreement: ordinary people need a say in what they want from housing, rather than well-off politicians making decisions for them.

Ellie Sivins is a member of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough programme

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