Co-housing: the promises and the pitfalls

Over the past two years, the coronavirus pandemic and the cost of living crisis have eclipsed the UK’s chronic housing shortage. But the housing challenges of 2019 are still with us in 2022, and in many ways they have worsened. According to the housing charity Shelter, over 17 million people are living in overcrowded, dangerous, unstable or unaffordable housing.

There’s no single solution to Britain’s housing emergency. But one idea that’s gaining increasing attention is co-housing.

A London School of Economics report has given a good definition of co-housing:

“A co-housing group is formed by a community of people typically with similar needs and interests. Co-housing is owned by the group and usually contains private rooms or houses with communal areas such as living rooms and kitchens, where people will come together to share meals and spend time together. The residents are responsible for the management and maintenance of the site, and they are run in a non-hierarchical way, giving all residents an equal say in how they are organised.”

The modern co-housing movement began in Denmark in the 1970s, and has since spread to other European countries, including Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands. There is now a growing number of co-housing projects in the UK, and although these are small in scale, they are pointing the way to alternative models of housing, and also to addressing other social issues, such as isolation and loneliness.

The promises of co-housing

The proponents of co-housing suggest that it has multiple benefits for residents:

  • affordability: by pooling resources such as cooking, childcare, and household expenses, co-housing residents can cut costs;
  • security: co-housing provides safe spaces for residents to live and socialise;
  • sustainability: sharing resources increases efficiency and reduces waste;
  • community: co-housing residents make decisions together, and co-housing can also reduce the chances of isolation.

The multiple faces of co-housing

There is no single template for co-housing. Some projects have a mixture of generations, singles, couples and families, while others focus on the needs of particular communities. In the United States, intergenerational co-housing projects have brought together retired people, families and foster children. Another scheme, in Berlin, has been designed for older gay men, but also welcomes older lesbian women, trans and inter persons, as well as younger LGBTQ+ people.

In 2016, the UK’s first co-housing project for older women opened in Barnet, north London. The New Ground scheme has been successful in developing a mutually supportive community of women over the age of 50. In addition, New Ground has worked to encourage policy makers, planners and housing associations to recognise the social and economic benefits of co-housing, and to respond to the demand that exists for senior co-housing.

Because co-housing is often seen as being reserved for communities who are affluent and predominantly white, Housing 21, a leading provider of retirement properties for older people, has recently launched a co-housing initiative with a focus on older Black and Asian people of modest financial means.

Tackling isolation: how co-housing can address loneliness

The communal nature of co-housing makes it a natural fit for people who are isolated and lonely. This was one of the themes of a recent webinar hosted by Housing LIN. One of the participants was Kath Scanlon, a researcher from the London School of Economics, who highlighted her work exploring the links between loneliness and participation in community-led housing.

Kath’s research has underlined the importance of social connection with neighbours and sharing spaces with others as ways of preventing loneliness:

“Broadly, we found that the most tight-knit places, where members knew and trusted each other most, performed best as supportive communities… Emotional loneliness was countered by fostering meaningful relationships and ‘belonging’ through physical proximity, sharing similar values, a reciprocal commitment and care, looking out for and supporting each other.”

A resident’s perspective

One of the most engaging and powerful contributions to the Housing LIN webinar came from Alison Cahn, who has been a resident at Lancaster Cohousing scheme since 2012.

Alison was one of the first residents of the scheme, which is an intergenerational co-housing community of households in the village of Halton, three miles from Lancaster in the North West of England.

The Lancaster scheme was designed by the people who live there. It consists of private homes, community facilities and shared outdoor space. Shared facilities include a laundry, food store and a car share scheme.

As Alison explained, the scheme is an eco-housing community, designed to make sustainable living easy. The homes are built to Passivhaus standards, which means they use about 15% of the energy to heat compared to conventional housing. Electricity comes from the scheme’s own microgrid. And if Alison needs anything, from a drill to a tent, she can borrow it from her neighbours. Overall, the scheme is estimated to save around 540 tonnes of CO2 every year (a single tonne of CO2 is equivalent to a 500 m3 hot air balloon).

Alison also highlighted the social aspects of co-housing. The scheme has been designed to enable residents to meet and interact. As well as sharing facilities, the residents get involved in communal activities, such as art, camping and wild swimming. They also work together and make decisions on the future development of the scheme.

Alison watched her mother grow old alone, and was determined that this shouldn’t happen to her. She feels supported by her neighbours, something that was especially important when her husband fell ill. Alison also spoke very movingly about another resident called Roger, who found support from the co-housing community in the final weeks of his life. As she explained: “Roger said he came to this co-housing scheme to die, but he didn’t. He actually came here to live.”

The pitfalls of co-housing

While Alison was keen to stress the attractions of co-housing, she also described the challenges. “Different people need different levels of social connections. Not everyone is keen to spend much time with their neighbours, and some prefer their privacy.” While decisions are taken together, reaching a consensus can take time, with general meetings sometimes getting heated. “Some bitter conflicts have fractured relationships, and some people have left.”

And although co-housing can reduce isolation, some residents have the impression that it will solve all their problems – “We’re neighbours, not carers or psychotherapists.”

Final thoughts

As things stand, co-housing schemes in the UK are too small to tackle the enormous challenges of the country’s housing shortage. But existing schemes demonstrate the great potential of this model of housing. And with more support from housing associations and local authorities, co-housing in the UK could really take off.

It was thanks to an imaginative collaboration between Hanover Housing Association and the Older Women’s Co-Housing group that the New Ground co-housing scheme became a reality. The housing association financed purchase of the land and construction of the properties, and the homes were presold or pre-let by the co-housing group before construction started.

Co-housing isn’t for everyone. It requires commitment from residents to participate in the management of a scheme, and to sacrifice some of their privacy for the benefit of their neighbours. This model of housing presents particular challenges, some of which might be hard to overcome. But the rewards of co-housing can be substantial.

Or, as Alison Cahn puts it: “When it works, it’s awesome.”

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

Further reading: more on housing from The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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