The student housing cooperative movement in the UK, which I have been researching since 2022, is still small. There are currently four housed coops, and active groups in several cities working towards their own homes. Nevertheless, this is a powerful and inspiring movement, led by students who are committed to actively creating alternatives to the exploitative student housing market that dominates so many university towns in the UK. In this post I briefly show how the four existing housed coops came into being. It is a story of student activism, hard work, savvy networking and above all persistence in collectively creating spaces where students are taking control of their housing.
The Edinburgh coop is the largest in the country, with 106 residents living in 24 flats in 2 student housing blocks. Several of its co-founders were active in 2010 national student mobilization against tuition fee rises; their interest in actually creating alternatives in addition to protesting was also influenced by Colin Ward, anarchist planner and architect who in the 1970s wrote a manifesto for ‘collective dweller-control’. The students ran a Student Union referendum, where 92% of respondents voted in favor of establishing the coop. This also led to support from the university's leadership, with the then Rector being committed to making student housing a priority and another senior manager knowing about student housing coops because their child had lived in one in the US, where there are many more coops.
The co-founders then began looking for property with the help of the city council. They also had support from the Co-operative Enterprise Hub, which put them in touch with Castle Rock Edinvar (now Places for People), a local housing association, that had two disused Napier University halls. Very savvily, the students negotiated a long-term lease with retroactive payments and also negotiated with Napier to keep all the furniture, which meant that the first residents were able to move in in August 2014 with little upfront cost.
The first year was understandably chaotic, with the co-founders having to quickly find over 100 tenants, figuring out how to manage the property and establishing policies and processes for the daily task of living together collectively. This is still governed by direct democracy and general meeting. Since these beginnings, much work has been done on improving the buildings with colorful murals and political messages, with transforming one basement car park into communal space for meetings, social events and the use of community groups, and another into a maker space, and with the setting-up of work groups and a workshare plan and roles that contribute to the successful running of the coop.
Similar to Edinburgh, the Birmingham coop co-founders were active in the 2010 national protests, in addition to their own campus politics and campus cooperatives. They had however a much more adversarial relationship with their university leadership, following the Defend Education Birmingham and The Rents are Too Damn High campaigns. The co-founders were inspired by existing housing cooperatives in their city and also had support from the Birmingham Cooperative Housing Service, which helped students establish contact with The Phone Coop at the 2012 closing conference of United Nations’ Year of Cooperatives, which was held in Manchester. The Phone Coop subsequently provided the loan for the purchase of the house and signed a long-term year lease with BSHC.
In order to make the coop work financially, the students needed to convert the existing 7 into 9-bedroom house, so they divided a very large lounge area and converted the garage. While the more substantial work was done by contractors, the student did much of the finishing work themselves. They also built a large shed, greenhouse and raised beds in the garden. The coop became famous for its Friday night dinners, which served as a community space for political discussions; they are still happening once a term and are open to everybody interested in learning more about coop life.
The Sheffield coop is the smallest in the country, with five bedrooms, and has been home to students since September 2015. It was established by a group of three students, one of whom was studying for an MA in Architecture and used her dissertation to create a proof of concept for mutual housing for transient student communities. They joined the University of Sheffield's Enterprise and Social Innovation Lab to get access to workshops, expertise and resources to develop a business plan and subsequently won the business plan competition, which allowed the coop to actually come into existence. Very similar to what happened in Birmingham, to co-founders met with the Phone COOP at a COOPS UK national conference which then agreed to fund the purchase of the property.
There is much documentation of the process in the MA dissertation available on the coop's website, including a survey with students and case studies of existing coop models such as Radical Routes, NASCO (North American Student Cooperative Organization) and URBED.
SEASALT (South-East Students Autonomously Living Together)
SEASALT is the youngest of the UK student housing coops, providing a home to 7 students at the Universities of Sussex and Brighton and other local unis since September 2021. The coop started when in early 2018 a Sussex Student Union officer put the establishment of a housing coop into their manifesto and organized the first meeting of a small core group of co-founders. Many of them were familiar with coops, through the Sussex campus bike coop, through attending Students for Cooperation conferences and through having stayed in student housing coops during travels to US.
The co-founders worked with Brighton and Hove Community Land Trust (BHCLT), where they were supported by a part-time project manager and an architect and had financial support from the university, several foundation, Homes England and the city council's Community-Led Housing Programme. Together with the BHCLT SEASALT ran a community share offer on the ETHEX crowdfunding platform and raised £336,000 from over 150 investors, which together with a mortgage from the Ecology Building Society enabled the BHCLT the purchase the house and lease it to SEASALT long-term.
All of this was needed to start a coop in the hyper-expensive Brighton housing market and one of the objectives of establishing SEASALT was to prove that it is possible even in such a difficult environment. Much work has been done since 2021 to make the house more accesible and ecologically sustainable, and in recognition of these combined efforts SEASALT won the CCH Young Co-operator of the Year award in 2022.
As these four origin stories show, there is no one-size-fits-all process for setting up a student housing coop, as the contexts and conditions are different in each location. There are a few commonalities however: every successful coop has been driven by an incredibly committed, hardworking and organized group of students. Setting up coops is a grassroots process and the few top-down attempts at doing so have failed. But students can’t do it on their own and in every case, the co-founders were supported by different external organizations, including secondary organizations such as Student Coop Homes, housing associations, city councils, land trusts, universities and Student Unions. These networks of support provide financial support, expertise and legitimacy. One supporter called this a form of 'inter-generational justice' spearheaded by students who are committed to showing that a more affordable, healthy and sustainable way of living together, as students and with surrounding neighborhoods and towns, is possible.
There is lots more additional information on each coop’s website. Some of the co-founders and early residents of the Edinburgh and Birmingham coops have also written more academic articles, which I have compiled here:
Ø Macias, T. and Ruiz, P.P. (2018). Co-operation in action: The Edinburgh student housing co-operative as a pedagogical space. Journal of Co-operative Studies, 51(1), 54-57.
Ø Perez Ruiz, P., & Shaw, M. (2019). ‘The Co-operative as Site of Pedagogy: The Example of Edinburgh Student Housing Co-operative.’ In Reclaiming the University for the Public Good. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
Ø Perez Ruiz, P. (2014) Deconstructing the ‘community’ at the Edinburgh student housing co-operative. Available at https://www.academia.edu/19710974/Deconstructing_the_community_at_The_Edinburgh_Student_Housing_Co_operative
Ø Shaw, M. and Farmelo, S. (2017) ‘Cooperatives: Resisting the Housing Crisis.’ In R.Filar (ed) Resist? Against a precarious future
Ø Kallin, H., & Shaw, M. (2019). ‘Escaping the parasite of the student flat: Reflections on an experiment in co-operative housing.’ Radical Housing Journal, 1(1), 223-226.