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14/04/2016

Is shared living a solution to the housing crisis?

Words:
Communal living

Could communal living offer a solution to our housing pressures? Paul Ridge of Bindmans LLP, who has represented residents in co-housing units, thinks we should take a serious look at an old idea for modern cities

There is a housing crisis. We all know it – house prices that are out of reach; rents are sky-high and increasing. There is almost no security of tenure and retaliatory evictions when you dare to complain about disrepair or that rather nasty rent hike the private landlord is proposing.

The government response? More and more Right to Buy, larger discounts, and now the promise that you can buy that housing association place. So housing lawyers like me look forward to even less housing stock, more buy-to-let and higher and higher rents in the private sector.

We cannot carry on like this, yet what are the alternatives? One option long passed over is communal or shared living. Until recently this would have sounded like hippy nonsense to me, but over these past months I have seen two of the longest and largest housing communes in London.

That said, when I visited I was immediately told: “Don’t call us a commune! And no, we are not hippies.” The communities were of almost 70 people living together in Islington and Kingston, and have been going successfully for more than 40 years.

"Living communally is plaingly not suitable for everyone, but it is for many who desperately need low-cost accommodation with manageable expenses"

One resident, Rupert, was 16 years old when social services dropped him off for the ‘interview’ to join the community. He is now in his fifties. Being unable to read and write has not held him back and communal living has enabled him to flourish, as he takes responsibility for house repairs and maintenance.

Food and bills are paid for collectively and when I visited there was a choice of vegetarian or meat meals. Most chose the meat. The communal contribution to expenses enables residents to live well – and this was despite the fact that many worked in low-paying or part-time jobs.

Because bills and food are shared costs, they are kept down. The problem was not so much fuel poverty, but that the house was too warm for some.

Communal living is nothing new, yet often breaks down because of splits, factions or arguments. But these communities have lasted for over three generations, housing several hundred people over the years. How have they achieved this?

The reasons are complex, but partly longevity has been achieved because the communities have been self-governing and not about shared ideology. They have a policy of making sure that new residents are ‘not friends of existing residents’, so as to push against any tendency to become self-selecting.

Although residents have changed frequently over the years, they have generally avoided the cliques that can drive such communities apart. There are mechanisms for regular meetings and resolving disputes. Residents are real about relationship problems. As one said: “Of course we have problems, but when there are 20 of you and are fed up with one or two, it’s easy to get on with the others. If the house just had five people that would be impossible; we would soon go our own way.”

Living communally is plainly not suitable for everyone, but it is for many who desperately need low-cost accommodation with manageable expenses. Living on the minimum wage in London is all but impossible and yet many in the houses could manage, even thrive, on such an income because of the communal sharing of costs.

Could this be a solution to some of the capital’s housing problems? Could these communities be showing us something of how to tackle poverty, isolation and the housing crisis in an increasingly overcrowded capital city?

I suspect they are and yet after more than 40 years this is all being lost. The housing association that obtained the Kingston and Islington properties from Patchwork Housing for £1 is now gaining possession and evicting the communities. Shackled with the Regulatory Framework 2015 from the Homes and Communities Agency, they say that they cannot find a way to embrace these communities without breach of the HCA framework.

The landlord may gain a building, but in doing so will destroy two longstanding successful communities. We will lose the chance to see why they could last so long and why so many could prosper despite low incomes.

The housing crisis is serious and getting worse. Radical solutions will need to be found and this may have been one – not a panacea, but certainly a help at this time of crisis. Take a look before they go: http://islingtonparkstreet.org/

Paul Ridge is head of housing at Bindmans LLP and represents residents of the Kingston and Islington communities

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