November 27, 2020

Towards a new paradigm of cooperative social housing

Housing cooperative, co-housing, cohusing, transfer of use, right of use, collaborative housing… many are the names that –really meaning the same or not– are used to describe a reality of access and management of community housing and not speculative. But is there just one model or many? What exactly is it about?

We could define some basic elements such as the ownership of the home or real estate by the cooperative without transferring any title over it to: the resident members, the right of the members to live in them indefinitely or in the very long term , democratic participation and management, mostly periodic financial contributions (similar to rent) and at cost, the transfer of this right to use the home in a non-speculative way and through the cooperative and, finally, the will to replicate and increase the stock of social and affordable housing in a cooperative regime.

A non-speculative model with high social impact

In addition to these elements, cooperatives and other entities, such as REAS, promote a model committed to a solidarity and clearly transformative economy.

In the first place, from a strong commitment to the Social Market, to provide goods and services that strengthen the ecosystem of the solidarity economy (ethical finance and insurance, architect cooperatives, social and labor insertion companies or local industrial companies in construction, consultancies of the sector in the fiscal, economic and legal field, support and facilitation teams, cooperative green energy marketers, etc.).

Secondly, generating community dynamics with internal shared spaces (dining room-kitchen, library or shared work or study room, guest space, multipurpose space …) and external (allowing uses for the fabric of the neighborhood or the environment), as well as shared services (from a fiber optic line to services for the elderly).

Also making an effort in energy efficiency, sustainability and the fight against climate change, as well as in the field of social inclusion, favoring homes for people with special vulnerability or specific profiles (victims of sexist violence, refugees and migrants, ex-ward youth, etc.). It is also possible to generate socio-economic initiatives in the field of solidarity economy from cooperative premises, where they exist, and promote responsible consumption and other initiatives among the group of inhabitants (for example, in organic and local food consumption)

Even so, the essence of the model resides mainly in the cooperative property indefinitely and in the transfer or award of the right to use the home to the inhabitants, without any need to implement it as a real right, and in the impossibility, therefore, of free transmission by the members of the house, since they do not hold any property title. A social and ecological project that can be privatized is not a transformative project. And for this reason we do not generally speak of cohousing or cohousing, since doing a cohousing (that is, a shared coexistence model) could be carried out on very different legal formulas, also on private property. In any case, cohousing or in some cases coliving is one of the values ​​of the cooperative housing model in assignment of use. We understand that the cooperative formula is the one that best shields the absence of profit and democratic management. And we speak of assignment of use to clarify the tenure regime of the house and differentiate it from the cooperative property of property.

Understanding housing as a use good to guarantee long-term rights and not as an investment good marks a substantial difference with respect to the traditional cooperative model. In the Spanish state, cooperatives have built tens of thousands of homes and, once the development has been carried out, they have awarded the property to their partners, thus disappearing (partners and bricks) from the social economy. In other words, without cooperative dynamics (the purchasers become members of the cooperative from time to time to acquire the house) and without a policy to generate social or affordable housing (the houses go to the free market). In the best case. And in some communities this model has been carried out with officially protected housing and, therefore, at a regulated price for a certain time (rarely with indefinite protection).

The majority commitment to a property model also in the cooperative field means that there are currently less than 200 homes in Spain in the hands of cooperatives in transfer of use. On the other hand, in Québec there are 30,000 affordable homes spread over 1,300 cooperatives, and in Uruguay another 30,000 that represent 2.58% of all housing in the country. In Switzerland, more than 1,500 cooperatives represent around 8% of the national real estate assets, the same percentage of the park as in Denmark, in this case spread over 10,000 cooperatives. Although in the latter case, the deregulation and liberalization of the model of the 90s was a severe blow to its accessibility. For this reason, a stable legal framework that shields the model is one of the key challenges.

Different challenges to overcome

How do we go from a minority and incipient model, for now, to a consolidated and growing model? We have several challenges ahead.

First of all, we need a legal framework that facilitates the rules of the game, but above all shields the model and makes it impossible to transform to a different cooperative modality or to sell the home. This is undoubtedly a regional competition (if it is developed through cooperative or housing laws), but it could also be linked to financing, as in Canada or Quebec. Through the existing State Housing Plan, the contribution of economic resources to cooperatives could be conditioned to shield the elements of general interest of the model.

The promotion and construction or rehabilitation of housing is a complex sector, very technical and with a high risk at different levels. It is necessary to have teams (in management of promotion, fiscal, legal, social …) experienced, solvent and aligned with the model within the solidarity economy. Today, there is not a sufficiently solid sector, and it is essential to support the creation and consolidation of these technical teams to strengthen the projects and their viability and contribute to making the voluntary dedication of so many people sustainable.

It would be convenient to move towards a structured and structured sector at the regional and state level to improve the relationship and exchange between projects, especially to represent the sector, and improve political dialogue and advocacy capacity. For this reason, this year a working group has been created within REAS to bring together projects of this type. This is very good news in both directions: for the support that the Network is providing to the sector and, on the other hand, to strengthen this federal connection and link the new projects clearly in the coordinates of the solidarity economy.

Undoubtedly, in the long term, it will also be necessary to create federative cooperative structures or to shift the federations of existing housing cooperatives (currently focused mainly on property-owned cooperatives) towards this model in transfer of use. In countries where the model is more mature, cooperative federations offer free technical, legal and financial support and advice to new projects, document models, training, etc.

The current financing difficulties must be overcome.

But the greatest challenge is to overcome a stage in which projects are carried out thanks to enormous personal efforts and a few complicities of pioneering public administrations. We must evolve towards a model that has clear and stable public support at all levels that facilitates escalation, increases the social diversity of the member inhabitants and guarantees an affordable price.

A model of general interest and with public support

Cooperative housing in concession of use can be a diverse reality and adaptable to different contexts, but the key question is whether it can also respond to the need for social and affordable housing, and be an ideal model to guarantee the right to housing for the popular classes and compatible with public social housing policies. That the cooperative world and the solidarity economy are capable of proposing a model of public and cooperative collaboration in this area is a strategic bet.

First of all, the transfer of land by the public administration must be encouraged. In Catalonia, it has already been shown that this is a model that, apart from the community and transformative dimension, generates social housing. The transfer of public land, for 75 years, especially by the Barcelona City Council (which has already promoted 10 projects on municipal plots via direct award or public tender), has made it possible to qualify as official protection the first cooperative homes in transfer of use of the entire state.

Second, the need to promote economic and fiscal measures to make the model truly affordable. There have been significant advances, such as the inclusion of the transfer of use in the State Housing Plan and, consequently, direct subsidies for the promotion of cooperative social housing in some communities. But there is a long way to go in the economic sphere (aid for the acquisition and cooperativization of housing, aid for cooperatives with low incomes to assume the initial contributions, etc.) or fiscal (consideration of cooperatives in transfer of use as specially protected, reduction the current rate of VAT, discounts at the municipal level, etc.) as well as in public financing (ICO) or in the promotion of financial instruments and guarantees.

On the other hand, there are also many measures of a different nature that could be applied to promote and consolidate the model. For example, it should be remembered that currently 1 out of every 3 homes in Copenhagen is a cooperative thanks to the right of first refusal that Danish tenants have had to collectively establish themselves as a cooperative and buy and finance the building in which they resided.

Hopefully, then, the new working group of cooperative housing in assignment of use of REAS can delve into these and many other issues and be a meeting place and exchange of projects and technical teams that aspire to another, healthier way of living , more ecological, more communal … and that also contributes to generating a long-term social housing model. And thus demonstrate how the solidarity economy and not the free market is the natural space to satisfy basic needs such as the right to decent and affordable housing.


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