Come together: Could communal living be the solution to our housing crisis?

Sarah Morrison visits five of the country's 'alternative' co-habitational projects to find out

Sunday 13 November 2011 01:00 GMT

With home ownership in decline, rents rising rapidly and social-housing waiting lists at a record high, it's time to face up to the fact that we have a totally dysfunctional housing market," said David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, earlier this year. With warnings of an "unprecedented crisis" in housing to follow and a predicted downturn in ownership to a level not seen since the 1980s, the long-held belief in bricks and mortar has slowly started to crumble.

Details of the slump tell their own story: roughly 4.5 million people are on social-housing waiting lists in England and it is estimated that private-sector rents will increase by almost 20 per cent over the next five years. The proportion of people owning their own homes, meanwhile, is expected to fall from a high of 72.5 per cent in 2001 to 63.8 per cent in 2021. Is this the beginning of the end of our love affair with owning property?

If it is, there are groups of people all over the country who are proposing a myriad of alternatives. Co-operatives, co-housing models, or "intentional communities", might sound like buzzphrases better associated with 1960s California than 21st-century Britain, but an interest in communal-living projects is growing. As recent graduates, young families and older people find themselves priced out of the housing sector, the idea of harnessing a community's resources and buying power no longer seems like a hippie dream, but an increasingly urgent imperative.

Over the past few weeks, The Independent on Sunday has visited some of this country's most unique homes, from a self-defined, intentional, rural commune committed to sustainable living and a low-carbon lifestyle, to looser communities in which a shared kitchen, cooking rota and monthly work day are the extent of their communal living. Their inhabitants represent a wide range of society: from members of radical collectives who eschew all forms of property ownership to developers and middle-class families who simply yearn for the community dynamic of years past.

For Joe Dunthorne, the 29-year-old author who decided to spend five weeks living in a range of communities around the UK in preparation for his second novel Wild Abandon, the desire to live communally is commonly misunderstood. "I think one of the main battles is that people have a fully formed cliché of what that lifestyle is like and it is a cliché k that hasn't changed for 30 years. They are probably thinking of long-haired tie-dyers running around naked, taking mushrooms. This is just not the truth. The truth is a lot more pragmatic and possibly a little more boring," he says.

Boring or not, the sort of communities Dunthorne is describing are anything but a homogeneous mass with binding rules and expectations. In fact, the benefit for many is that it is residents who shape the dynamics of each neighbourly fold. There are currently 11 "co-housing projects" in the UK and more than 30 in development, with proposed sites in Wales, Leeds, Lancaster, Norwich and Fife. Inspired by the Danish model, set up more than 40 years ago when the architect Jan Gudmand-Høyer decided he wanted to create a "more supportive living environment", they evolve around the notion of privately owned houses with shared communal facilities in a pedestrianised setting.

"It is so easy for a living situation to develop where you are isolated," says David Michael, 55, managing director of the Cohousing Company, which has built four co-housing communities in the UK to date and is now busy on its fifth. "The English are not good at speaking to their neighbours and it is part of our culture to be private, but in the co-housing model, you have your own front door; you can be as private or as sociable as you like."

With cooking rotas, communal meals and regular meetings at which decisions are reached by consensus, Michael's communities are more reminiscent of the Israeli kibbutz model than suburban Britain. Approximately 1 per cent of Danes live in such schemes and 10 per cent of all new-build property in Denmark is co-housing. Michael's projects, he says, are almost wholly occupied by the white middle-class, but, he stresses, "there is no reason why it can't be attractive to everybody".

Michael acknowledges the feeling among some in Britain that living in a shared space is tantamount to "going backwards". "Some people want to have their car next to their own house, with their own front garden, and have aspirations to have bigger houses in the future. There is a feeling in this country that being an adult is about being autonomous and you do lose some control in these sorts of communities," he says. "If I wanted to put a shed in my garden or paint the outside of the house, other residents might stop me. But it feels really safe, it is great to know your neighbours and there is always good, cheap food around the table."

Good food aside, the co-housing model still focuses around owner-occupation, a feature that places the schemes out of the reach of many. For David Rodgers, executive director at the Co-operative Development Society (CDS), the largest such association in England, the economic crisis is undermining our national adherence to this way of life. "There has always been a financial incentive to own your own house, but the two things that drove it – easy mortgages and money flowing back and forth – are gone. k We are in a new world economically and financially and we need to find a new way of providing houses," he says.

Rodgers cites the co-operative movement as the "solution" to the future, and points to another Scandinavian country, Sweden, as inspiration. "If they were as common here as over there, given the relative population sizes, there would be six million co-operative homes in Britain," he says. In reality, there are currently approximately 92,000 co-operative homes in the UK and 686 housing co-operatives, up just 34 since 2008. "We are way behind the pace in comparison to the contribution it could make to our affordable housing supply," acknowledges Rodgers.

But there has been a move in recent years for housing associations to work with communities in creating co-operative spaces where tenants democratically manage their own homes. Rodgers has also worked with groups of friends who have come together to a set up a co-operative in order to buy a property, which they would be unable to purchase alone.

Nick Potts, a 46-year-old housing adviser at Greenwich Council, is one of the UK's 61,000 housing co-operative members and his house, in New Cross, south London, will have contributed to the £143.9m turnover raised by such co-operatives this year, a 5.4 per cent increase from 2010. His co-operative owns four houses with 32 residents, a mix of artists, musicians and activists, paying £245 a month each towards the running of their properties. "The thing about being part of the co-op housing movement is that you are sitting on a huge asset, but no individual member can profit from it," he says. "You can't use property as collateral on a loan but you can borrow money as a group. I give out housing advice every day and see people get in so many difficulties, overextending themselves to pay for a mortgage or rent, but when something goes wrong there is no safety net."

Of course, whether living in a co-housing community, a co-operative or a more radical "intentional community", there are obstacles involved in trying to live outside the mainstream housing market. Maria Brenton, 66, has been trying to set up the first older-women's co-housing project in the UK, in partnership with Hanover housing association in High Barnet, north London, for 13 years now. They plan to create 26 flats plus common facilities and a garden for women between 50 and 81 years old.

"Getting something set up in this country is chronic. There are major challenges when it comes to finding land and the sheer expense of it. The huge barrier is the lack of familiarity of the housing sector and local authorities with the notion of co-housing," she says, before adding that in the Netherlands, there are 200 senior co-housing communities.

Scandinavia may be years ahead in matters of co-habitation, but residents here are nothing if not ambitious – meaning the idea of communal living is no longer just a retreat from the pressures of modern-day life, but, increasingly, a way to confront and overcome some of its failings.

Rainbow co-operative

Housing Co-operative, rental

41 residents

Sitting around a kitchen table in one of the 24 terraced houses in Rainbow Co-operative, Milton Keynes (or "the street" as it is fondly known), are half-a-dozen of its biggest fans. As the biscuits are shared out, Annie Bradstock, 58, describes how it can take an hour to get from one end of the road to the other because of all the tea she is offered.

The street was taken over by a group of university academics in the 1970s, and in 1992 the tenant-run co-operative bought it from Milton Keynes Development Corporation for £10,000 under the Right to Buy scheme. Its 27 residents, ranging from young parents to pensioners in their seventies, paid £1 to move into their houses and pay a monthly rent to the co-operative: just over £300 for a four-bedroom house.

The houses were originally homes for local railway workers; today, the residents are proud to be a mix of working- and middle-class people. No one owns their property directly and any prospective tenants must sell any housing they own before they move in, reinforcing the co-op's concern with providing places for people to live, rather than self-enrichment. One of the houses is used as a communal space, equipped with a kitchen for monthly breakfasts, a workshop and an office.

While the average age of tenants is 50, they insist they don't want it to end up as an "OAP place" and a family in their twenties has just moved in with their four-year-old son. Long-time resident Tracey Walters, 67, says that if it was "more sandals and lentils when people started the street, it is now definitely more beefburger and boots".

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Brithdir Mawr

Intentional Community

Five permanent members

11 current residents

The first thing you notice as you walk into the huge farmhouse that acts as the focal point of the Brithdir Mawr community is the battery meter hanging from the door. It compares the electric units coming into the farm each hour from its renewable-energy sources to the amount the household consumes, and reminds the residents, aged from 18 months to 61 years, that life on the 180-acre farm is not just one of ease.

Sitting in a valley on the west coast of Wales, at the foot of Mount Carningli, Brithdir Mawr is determinedly off the electrical grid. Residents generate their own energy through wind, hydro and solar power, they have no fridge and when there is no wind, they cannot use their washing machine. Set up in 1994 when Julian and Emma Orbach bought the property, it is now home to five full-time residents and a handful of volunteers and potential new members, embarking on the first stage of the year-long initiation process.

The community, which focuses on sustainable living, cannot remember a time when the farm was so full. Each resident works 18 hours a week on community activities – from milking the goats to collecting wood – and most work part-time jobs outside the farm to earn the £210 a month they each pay to the co-op in rent.

Brithdir Mawr's oldest member, Tony Haigh, defines the community as a "commune" and says it is a full-time job to run the farm. While horses and carts are used to transport wood, there are modern conveniences such as laptops and TVs. "We're trying to live in a way people can carry on living in, without depleting the world's resources," Haigh explains. "We are not going backwards, just in a different direction."

There are half-a-dozen long-term volunteers, most under 30. Pete and Tess Greenway, in their mid-to-late twenties, arrived a few weeks ago with their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Ffion, and are considering making it their new home. "We were hardly able to pay rent before," says Tess. "Raising a child in a community makes sense; we want Ffion to grow up with positive things around her. She'll learn a lot without realising it."

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Co-housing community

18 residents

A car-free sign marks the entry into Springhill, in Stroud, Gloucestershire, the UK's first co-housing project built from scratch. Eighty people, mostly families, live among the 35 timber houses and flats, insulated with recycled newspapers, to keep down the heating bills. With solar panels on every roof, the eight-year-old community is the epitome of eco-chic and comfortable community living in the 21st century.

But the communal fitted-out kitchen, large garden with a multi-storey tree house and chickens resting by the compost come at a price; one set of owners is currently selling their house for £400,000.

The founder of the community, David Michael, who bought the land and built the houses, spent £6m on the project. Originally choosing to sell the houses at cost-value, Michael says he made a loss on completion of his project; he moved into the community with his wife and two daughters when it was finished.

Michael acknowledges that Springhill "isn't very radical"; he based the properties on the Danish model of co-housing and all residents had to sign up to principles, including communal cooking and meetings before they bought. Organic vegetarian meals are served three times a week, which residents take it in turns to cook. The shared kitchen is viewed as a "communal extension to their living-room" and there is also a shared table-tennis table, pool table and "village green".

Residents pay a surcharge of £10 to £58 a month, depending on their property's size, for maintenance and the cost of the common space, but as they are directors of the freehold company, they can sell their property for a profit to whom they wish.

Sarah Lunnon, 46, moved from a terraced house in Wales to Springhill with her partner and three children eight years ago, paying £100,000 for her property. She says the move was not an "overtly political decision. If I need anything, from a fuse to someone to step in to look after the children, I know I can call on my immediate neighbours for help," she says. "And it means I don't have to cook every night."

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Housing Co-operative, rental

6 residents

"Dodgy landlords, leaking roofs, ever-increasing rent and isolated lives. Sound familiar? It did to us..." Thus starts the online description of Branches, the young persons' co-operative set up in Bradford in 2007 by eight people fed up with the state of housing. Four years and dozens of residents later, the project currently has six young tenants in their first co-operatively rented house.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle, 25, from Sussex, a student at the University of Bradford and an original member of the co-operative, says that they hoped to provide a "safety net" for young people when they set up the co-operative. Members pay an average of £40 rent a week to the landlord and £15 to cover communal activities, some of which goes towards a savings fund, out of which they hope to purchase their own house in the coming months. They currently have a few thousand pounds saved.

"We felt there were other co-operatives for older people, but we needed one for young people," says Russell-Moyle. "The biggest problem facing them today is property – it is so hard to get into it. They can't get a mortgage from banks, but the co-operative can. It is easier with the collective power and a business plan."

As a paid-up member of Radical Routes – an umbrella of co-operatives committed to radical social change – Branches is hoping to receive a loan from the network to help them secure the mortgage on their prospective house. Then, once the co-operative has bought the property, tenants will pay a rent to cover the mortgage and the daily running of the house.

For newest resident Michael Chater, 23, from Lincolnshire, the biggest attraction to moving into a co-operative is "having more autonomy. Living in rented accommodation starts to wear you down and this way I am not tied down to a mortgage." Russell-Moyle adds that co-operative living chimes with the Government's call for young entrepreneurs. "This is the front line of entrepreneurial skills," he says. "I have already got my head around spread sheets and rent models."

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Co-Flats Stroud

Co-housing community

18 residents

On a terraced street, walking distance from Stroud's town centre, sit the UK's first new-build "co-flats". Eighteen people in eight single-owner-occupied flats and six rentals live inside a converted Unitarian church, complete with roof-top wind turbine. Set up in 2006 by co-housing developer David Michael, they are, in his words, a "tighter" version of their sister co-housing project, Springhill. Flats, which sell from £75,000 to £185,000, are each equipped with their own kitchen, lounge and balcony, but also come with communal facilities, including a car-share club, kitchen and laundry-room.

Residents sign up to co-housing principles, meaning they agree to carry out collective chores and contribute £140 a year to the car scheme, even if they cannot drive. They also pay a monthly fee of £25 a month to cover building insurance, maintenance and repair, and heating and lighting for the shared areas.

Peter Williams, 62, bought his flat for £92,000 four years ago. He took up Michael's offer of a 20 per cent, interest-free mortgage and paid £73,600. Having never lived in a co-housing model before, he describes the arrangement as "jolly versatile", but wishes, if anything, it were more communal.

"I like the principle of helping other people and we are all very fond of each other here," he says, before adding that he is dating a resident across the hall. "I take out her rubbish and she reminds me to take out mine. She even paid one of the other tenant's big debts when he forgot to. The biggest problem we have here is petty: it's the collection of laundry money."

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