What is Cohousing?
An introduction to the what, why and how of cohousing. See also resources.
What’s the purpose?
Cohousing aims to be a bit like our image of a traditional village or street – a safe neighbourhood where everyone knows each other, looks out for each other, shares a social life and helps each other out. What’s great is that these same qualities can make cohousing outstandingly affordable and sustainable, because sharing resources is a key to both.
What is cohousing?
Cohousing is the combination of four essential elements:
1. Self-contained dwellings with shared facilities: Individual homes can range from 1 bedroom flats to 4 bedroom family houses, but all will have their own kitchen, bathroom, living and sleeping space. Shared facilities may include dining/meeting space, kitchen, laundry, guest rooms, also a market garden, work spaces, play areas.
2. Intentional neighbourhood design: the layout of the site will encourage social contact and a sense of neighbourhood. A cohousing ‘cluster’ is usually 10-30 households, 14-60 people, to create the sense of neighbourhood. Larger projects are achieved by creating several clusters.
3. Participatory development process: Potential residents are actively involved from the early stages of design. This means that a sense of community is already formed before residents move in.
4. Resident ownership/management: The overall site and shared facilities are managed by the residents who all have the same commitments to this, regardless of tenure. A non-profit body, such as a Community Interest Company, owns the freehold of the whole site, and sells leases to owner-occupiers and the Housing Association: the shareholders in this company are the residents and the social landlord. The site freehold will be held in common ownership, with owner-occupiers and any social landlord as shareholders.
Who is it for?
Cohousing can suit a huge range of people – but not quite everyone. It is great for any age, and especially for children or older people. It can offer support to one-parent families or people with some disabilities. But it won’t suit a complete recluse, people who can’t stand having commitments or ground rules in relation to the group, or people who are unwilling to join in occasional meetings.
Some of the benefits of cohousing are:
- Affordability: shared facilities mean individual homes can be smaller and more affordable. Mutual support can also cut living costs.
- Sustainability: through shared resources, e.g. car pooling, sustainable energy systems and shared food growing/food purchase.
- Community: through creating a traditional neighbourhood, safe environment and common ownership and values
- Wider local benefits: cohousing projects create services which meet needs of the wider host community: such as car pools, playgroups, market gardens, social events, function rooms. They are a source of skills and a catalyst across the whole locality.
- Capital Costs: in principle, these can be lower in cohousing. The average size of the private dwelling spaces can be significantly smaller than normal, and the guideline for shared spaces is usually 10% of the private floors paces. However, this potential saving is often offset by the higher cost of sustainable construction and energy systems. Green energy systems, such as a biomass district heating system and photovoltaic panels, are much more cost-effective when shared, and mean that ongoing living costs are substantially reduced.
- Cohousing groups usually have some shared transport, e.g. a car pool, car club, or a requirement that car owning residents insure their car and make it available for others to use at an economic rate. Hence the high cost of car ownership and use in a typical household is reduced.
- Residents typically exchange services with each other, e.g. babysitting, pet care, household repairs, etc., thus strengthening the sense of neighbourhood, and reducing financial outgoings.
- Shared food growing and purchasing in bulk cuts costs.
- Many of the features described above, which make cohousing more affordable, also makes it more sustainable, since they mean that the carbon footprint could be substantially lower.
- Research in the US has shown that cohousing groups use 60% less energy in the home, own fewer capital goods, and have living space 30% smaller than the national average.
- Workspaces and social activities on site reduce the need to travel.
- Cohousing demonstrates a leading edge level of sustainability: for example the Threshold Centre has a projected ecological footprint of 2.4 global hectares compared to the national average of 5.4.
- Because residents must cooperate to create the scheme and to operate the shared facilities, a strong sense of informal community naturally evolves.
- The scale and physical layout create the qualities and safety of a traditional neighbourhood.
- Children and teenagers gain social, citizenship and practical skills by involvement with a diverse community.
- Older people and other special needs households benefit from the ‘semi-sheltered’ quality of cohousing neighbourhoods.
Wider Local Benefits
- Because cohousing groups put a priority on mutual support and internal management of problems, they greatly reduce the demand on external services, e.g. social services, local authority support, and the social landlord.
- Cohousing residents typically have the skills and motivation to contribute actively to organisations serving the wider locality, e.g. local area partnerships, Transition Town groups etc.
- Many of the services and facilities created by cohousing groups are available for use by the wider community. These can include use of the common house, the community market garden, ride sharing and car pool, and services such as a playgroup, older peoples’ support group etc.
- Many cohousing groups are also able to share their facilities with the wider community
What commitments are required?
Resident Commitments: In cohousing schemes, a number of obligations are required from residents; these are included in the leases for owner-occupiers and shared ownership homes, and in the tenancy agreement for affordable rental. Some of these obligations may be site-specific, to comply with conditions attached to a planning permission. At this fairly early stage for the Oxford Scheme, the Residents Group has not yet decided on the commitments required. Some examples, which are typical of many cohousing groups, are as follows:
- Every fit adult resident gives 4 hours unpaid time per week to help run/maintain the shared facilities.
- Encouragement to join in a car pooling scheme.
- Obligation to pay a proportion of costs for the shared facilities.
- Policies on pets, noise, recycling, etc
- Requirement to attend one half-day meeting per month for all residents.
- Binding disputes procedure which could ultimately include termination of the lease.
Resale restrictions: In most cohousing schemes, when any household in an owner-occupied or shared-ownership unit wishes to move, there are tight limitations on resale. For the first three months, the ownership company (i.e. the residents) has the right to nominate a preferred buyer, who will buy at an independent valuation. After that, the owner can seek a purchaser themselves. However, any buyer must accept all of the lease commitments, and go through the same selection process. Whilst the Oxford group has not yet reached the stage of defining policies in this area, it is certain that there will be some restrictions on resale.
How do the finances work?
Because the potential residents are involved in the development process, there is a financial input needed, from prospective owner-occupiers, at quite an early stage. A typical range of payments and stages is as follows:
i. Planning application stage: when a suitable site has been identified and a purchase option agreement is in place, money is needed to pay for the architect and other professional fees to produce and submit the planning application. At this point, a deposit is usually required from each potential owner occupier household: this might be £2k-£5k per household. This money is the purchase deposit on a dwelling, i.e. it secures the right to have a dwelling if permission is achieved. However, it is ‘risk money’, i.e. if the planning permission were to be refused, all the household would receive back is its share of any unspent funds.
ii. Site purchase/construction phase: once planning permission is obtained, funds are needed to purchase the land and pay for the construction. Whilst some of this can be provided by bank loans, some of it has to be from prospective purchasers or other sources. Owner-occupier households will typically need to make a payment at the start of this stage of £20-50k. If a household decides to leave the project at this stage, it can sell its investment in the project to another household, provided they fit the group selection criteria.
iii. Completion of construction: At this point, the balance of the price of the unit needs to be paid: part of this can be paid by a mortgage provider.
Once the development is complete, households will pay some bills in the usual way, e.g. Council Tax, metered electricity or water use, but they will also need to pay an allocated share of costs for the common facilities, e.g. the insurance and maintenance for the common house, maintenance of any shared heating system etc. These running costs will be shared by all households, whether they are owner-occupiers, shared ownership, or rental.
Although there are features in cohousing, especially the commitments and the leases, which might deter ordinary mortgage lenders, the Ecology Building Society and the Cooperative Bank are both very supportive of cohousing, and willing to provide mortgages.
What is the legal structure?
Usually in cohousing, a non-profit company owns the freehold of the site and shared facilities, and sells long leases (e.g. 999 years) on the residential homes. The reason for using leases is that it is easier to enforce commitments on a lease than a freehold ownership. Where a housing association is involved, the ownership company will sell them an overall lease, which requires that the same lease commitments are included in the tenancy contract for affordable rental homes, or in the sub-lease for shared-ownership homes.
Normally, the shareholders in a cohousing ownership company are the residents. Where a housing association is involved, it will need to own shares in respect of the rental homes, but can delegate these votes to the tenants for operational matters. Whilst decisions are made by consensus where possible, if a vote is necessary, it is normally one vote per household, irrespective of tenure.
How are residents selected?
This is a complicated question, and the answer will vary from project to project. Some criteria, for example giving priority to residents from the local area, may be required as part of the planning permission. For affordable housing residents, they first need to prove eligibility and be accepted onto the local authority Housing Register, and then go through the selection process for the cohousing community. Part of the selection process is typically asking potential residents to participate in some working projects and social events with other potential residents. Some of the criteria for selection are likely to be: work inputs to the project in the development stage, local residence, providing the mix of skills which the community needs to operate, and achieving diversity in age, gender, ethnicity, and household type (families, single people, etc).
How are the decisions made?
Many cohousing groups operate on a consensus decision-making basis. Oxford Cohousing has thus far adopted consensus decision making and is developing its skills at using it.
How are problems and conflicts dealt with?
For a cohousing community to work, a good deal of mutual cooperation is essential, so it is important that problems and conflicts are faced and resolved. Many cohousing groups require their residents to undertake some basic training in shared methods of communicating, decision-making, and conflict resolution. If a dispute arises, usually the first stage is to ask the two parties involved to try to work it out between them. The second stage is normally to ask another member of the cohousing community, who is not directly involved, and has mediation skills, to step in to try to resolve the situation. A third stage may be to discuss the issue at a group meeting. A fourth stage, which would only arise in very rare cases, would be to seek formal external arbitration. The lease contract will contain a provision that, if all these stages have been exhausted, and a conflict cannot be resolved (e.g. persistent noise or disruptive behaviour), a lease or tenancy agreement can be terminated.
How do households move on?
We have not worked out all the details for Oxford Cohousing. We are very interested in mechanisms that can ensure permanent affordability and are currently researching what those might be. In many of the cohousing groups that already exist, an owner-occupier household would sell their lease to another household. The sale price is commonly set by an external valuation, and any purchasing household must go through the same selection procedure and accept the same lease commitments. An affordable rental household would give notice to the housing association that it wished to move on, and the housing association would then work with residents to find replacement tenants, who would also need to go through the usual selection process and accept the same commitments.
The experience of established cohousing groups is that there is quite a good demand for homes, so that it should be relatively easy to move on.
What’s the track record?
Cohousing began in Denmark in the 1960s, and has a very good, long-established track record there. It is now quite widespread in the Netherlands and developing in North America, but in its early days in the UK. The experience across many cohousing communities is that there is a high level of satisfaction from living in this way, people stay longer in their properties than in other forms of housing, and it is almost unheard of for a cohousing community to fail and close down.
Where do I find out more?
- ‘Books, Courses and Websites’ available from the resource page
Our next meetingTBC.
Florence Park Community Centre, Oxford OX4 3NH