Chris O’Meara describes a new scheme to bring Co-ops and housing associations together.
Ely Farm Housing Co-operative is a pilot scheme that is setting out to give tenants greater control of the way their housing and community are managed.
The project is being developed by Cadwyn Housing Association and funded through Welsh Governments social housing grant program. It will provide forty one rented homes on a site on the bank of the River Ely, across the river from the Wiggins Teape site at Ely Bridge.
So what’s different? On the face of it the scheme will look the same as other new social housing. What will be different is the way it will be managed, with tenants taking the majority of the responsibility for how the estate is managed.
When Welsh Government expressed their wish to pilot this approach, Cadwyn, a community housing association in Cardiff, decided to research the opportunity. We are always keen on innovation but it was combined with healthy dose of cynicism about whether such a model would generate interest initially and then sustain it long term.
A group of staff and board members (including a tenant) went on a study trip to visit a couple of Housing Co-Op’s in Birmingham – both to learn more about potential constitutional arrangements, and talk to those involved. We saw a variety of models and met people who were passionate about the principles of the co-op movement and had translated them into how they were living in their community.
What tipped us from cynicism to enthusiasm were two specific stories. One related to a group of tenants who were currently debating the affordability of the current Rolls Royce maintenance service they currently were enjoying. Maintenance costs had significantly risen, and they were collectively deciding whether to increase rents to continue, or reducing costs and do more D.I.Y.
The second story was told by a group of neighbours praising a young mother who had recently moved in, in a house adjacent to the communal bin store. She didn’t want her kids to live next door to a rubbish dump and guarded the bin store to make sure that there was no fly tipping and all those who used it took responsibility to keep it clean and tidy. It was immaculate.
Managing the increasing cost of repairs within constrained rental income and waste management (aka bin stores) are thorny issues for social housing providers, and those costs are rising.
So what does it mean in practice? The development will be finished early next year and virtually all the homes have been pre let, mainly from the waiting list jointly owned by Cardiff Council and housing associations. Prospective tenants have to have a housing need, but also have to demonstrate their commitment to a different way of living over a sustained period.
The intention is to constitute the co-operative as a separate body, and to grant a lease that allows it to manage its own affairs.
However, the scheme is being partly grant funded, and with that comes a regulatory framework. This will ensures that the housing continues to be let to people in housing need, and tenants will have obligations in relation to maintenance, rent levels and collection, dealing with antisocial behaviour, equalities etc.
The new residents are meeting as a group fortnightly to learn about these obligations and how to meet them, but also the skills to manage collectively. They need to understand the constitutional model as well as practical skills like negotiation, conflict resolution, budget management and communication. They need to build a community before they move in.
How’s it going? Well early days, lots of enthusiasm and commitment to the ideas, and lots of wider interest. We are supporting the group through their journey, which we will continue for a while after the development is finished.
It’s too early to say whether it will be sustainable, but clearly it can be (some of the Birmingham models had been going for upwards of 20 years) and we are getting the best advice.
In terms of the future, there has been so much interest that we are going to extend the model to another project combining some new homes with some retail development. We are also looking at other potential models.