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How to grow student housing coops?

In May 2023, Sussex University, SEASALT and Student Coop Homes co-hosted a national gathering on how to grow the student housing cooperative movement in the UK and Ireland. The event brought together close to 40 student cooperators and their supporters for two sunny days of discussions, strategizing and co-creation. The highlight was a communal dinner at SEASALT, the Sussex and Brighton university student housing coop. In this post, I share some key insights and photos from the event, which was supported by funding from the School of Global Studies.

The event was opened with a welcome from the co-organizers and during the subsequent roundtable, we heard from everbody in the room about their experiences with housing coops. Student cooperators had come from far and wide: Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Cork, Glasgow, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield. One of the main themes, especially of groups who have been going for years without securing a property, is the difficulty of maintaining momentum and energy to keep going. Events that bring people together in person can often provided much needed inspiration, especially when they include visits to existing coops such as SEASALT. One of its co-founders talked about the importance of celebrating small wins along the way.

We also had participants from different supporting organizations. First and foremost, several board members from Student Coop Homes talked about the organization's future plans to support student cooperators, especially around finances. Blase Lambert, the CEO of the Confederation of Co-operative Housing, reminded everybody of the Rochdale coop pioneers' work against slum housing. As a board member of the International Cooperative Alliance, he also provided an international perspective, where European countries have much more cooperative housing, in part because of regulatory and financial support from governments, while the UK went a different housing route after WWII. This has contributed to the marginal status of coop housing in the UK, although there has been a steady increase in numbers over the past 10 years.

Cath Muller from Radical Routes, a network facilitating mutual aid and funding amongst cooperatives, told us that not only do coops allow people to live in a more autonomous way, but they also provide a training ground for people to learn how to organize and thereby generate new transformative projects. Student coops are also important because they bring a younger generation into current, aging coop movement. Francesco Zuddas from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London talked about his project work with architecture students around collaborative housing. His own research interest is in student housing coops as an interesting point of contact between domesticity and commodification.

Kay Sentance shared her work with Collaborative Housing, an Oxford-based organization that is working with local councils to find properties, and Nehaal Bajwa from the National Union of Students argued that coop provide good models to address the current student housing crisis. A more commercial support model was presentd by Ben Dunn from Roost, which is offering financial planning, legal and regulatory help to housing coops. Last but certainly not least, Tristram Burden, newly-elected Brighton&Hove Labour city councillor and member of the COOP Party, asked what it would mean for councils to be a coop allies?

Breakout sessions: Finance, Skills and Activism

Topics for the afternoon break-out group discussions had been crowdsourced from the student cooperators beforehand. Three themes had particular resonance: finance, skills sharing and coop activism. Financial matters are often the most difficult to deal with in student coops that have a high turnover of residents, and the discussion focused on voids, contract length and subletting policies, but also on the resources such as financial templates that secondary organizations can provide. One obstacle is that coop legal guidance is not black and white and this lack of clarity can sometimes lead to oversights and fines.

Another consequence of the high student turnover is that knowledge and skills have to be passed on to new residents on an almost continious bases, and the skills sharing group brainstormed ideas for how to do that better. These included ensuring sufficient time for shadowing and handover, the use of digital technologies to store and share documents, and proactively creating opportunities for networking and sharing, be they social, uni-based or using intercoop forums. Edinburgh participants talked about the creation of their working groups, workshare plan and role allocations to successfully manage their 106-member coop. Training opportunities are also provided by secondary organizations such as council coop incubators, other housing coops and COOPS UK, in addition to the organizations in attendance at the workshop.

By far the largest group had gathered to discuss activism related to coops, a topic that clearly resonated with many people in the room and has been presented in the movement from its early days. The discussion centered on how safe community spaces could be created, the importance of networking with other housing coops and activist groups and of providing physical spaces and social networks for that to happen, and how to raise awareness about student housing coops among policy makers and the larger housing movement. At the end of the day, everybody walked together to SEASALT for a tour of the coop, a shared meal, more conversations and then music and dancing.

Co-creating a national campaign

On Sunday morning, we continued our discussion with the aim of developing the beginnings of a campaign to create a student housing coop in every university town in the UK. There were some great ideas for how to raise more awareness of housing co-ops amongst students, such as using university Open Days to get prospective students really early, before they might even sign up to university housing. Because coops are often new to students, joining one can feel intimidating, and food or bike coops on campus can help with familiarizing students with how they operate. Students from Nottingham talked about their newly-established dining coop as a welcoming point of entry, and of student houses where students are already living together as if in a coop as potential training spaces for coop residents. Becoming a student society often provides access to resources and the broader student community, but can bring with it organizational requirements that might run counter to coop ideals of horizontal governance, for example. Still, student societies or campaign groups with similar interests can be great places to spread coop ideas.

As many participants knew from first-hand experience, finding a building or site for a coop can often be the greatest challenge, and here students explored how conventional searches for houses can be creatively expanded. Different models of establishing coops do exist and working closer with non-student housing coops was one specific recommendations, also to create housing opportunities for students when they graduate. Other ideas included working with surveyors, planners, architects on a pro-bono basis or doing more work with students in architecture and design departments. The importance of identifying friendly councillors was also stated, be it for identifying suitable council properties, accessing funding or fast-tracking planning applications. The potential implications of rising mortgage rates and falling house prices for business models that still have affordability at their center were also discussed.

Another discussion area was the importance of media, campaigning and other outreach work to build support for coops from different groups, be they university managers, student unions, housing associations, Land Trusts or secondary coops such as Radical Routes. What are the best channels and means for communication? How can promoting coops link up with larger struggles around housing justice and social equality? And how can echo chambers be avoided in order to build a broader movement? This linked directly to questions of equality, diversity and accessibility, where the discussion focused on how to ensure that marginalized groups take the lead, that coops are queer-friendly spaces and could also link up with the struggles of international students for example, who face every increasing challenges of studying in the UK, including in accessing housing.

At the end of the event, we gathered feedback from all participants, that showed us that participants had found the event greatly useful and enjoyable and also left with concreate ideas for future actions. So thank you to everybody who came and we are looking forward to seeing you at future events!


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