Leeds housing focus: Homes ‘co-op’ where you choose your neighbours

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This week the YEP is shining the spotlight on community-led housing in Leeds - its bid to offer an altenative to volume housebuilders and the pioneering work taking place across the city to put people - not profit - at the heart of housing.

Today, Joanna Wardill looks at two groups who are hoping to set up cohousing schemes in the city and emulate Leeds’ trailblazing success story, LILAC.

The idea of creating a community for like-minded people and choosing your own house and neighbours may sound idyllic but the process can be a tricky one, as Chapeltown Cohousing group, AKA ChaCo is currently finding.

Members of the group are now well on their way to realising their dream – which has been seven years in the planning – of creating a new co-housing community in the north Leeds suburb.

They are the first to do so since LILAC’s ground-breaking scheme in Bramley four years ago and the first to try such a project in what is one of the UK’s most deprived areas.

Their plans – to build 33 households with shared facilities, gardens and play space on land next to Barrack Road and Roundhay Road - have been submitted to Leeds City Council and a decision is due next month.

But work in the background continues apace for the group who – by the very nature of co-housing – must decide everything, from architects, landscaping, legalities, finances and other practicalities.

One of these decisions is choosing, from the many who have registered an interest, who will get to live at ChaCo and become a member of the “co-op”.

Bill Phelps, one of ChaCo’s founding members, said almost half of the units have now been allocated to people who have become full members, but the process continues to fill the remaining homes.

“This form of housing isn’t as simple as finding some money and acquiring accommodation. It’s also becoming part of an active community.

“We are choosing our neighbours and our neighbours are choosing us.

“Because, like LILAC, we need to end up with a community where people trust each other and work together cooperatively to make things happen.”

Prospective members go through a four-month vetting process where they attend members’ meetings, take part in decision-making and join working groups before deciding whether to apply to become full members.

ChaCo has been funded so far with a £360,000 government grant and £650,000 in short-term loans from investors. This, plus buyer deposits, should see the scheme to completion by the end of next year.

After this, ChaCo can apply for a conventional mortgage to pay back the investors with interest.

The homes – of which two-thirds will go to existing Chapeltown residents – are a mix of rented and shared ownership, where members can own up to 95 per cent of the house but pay rent on the remaining percentage. This aims to keep the properties within the co-op system and makes it unlikely that people will buy simply in order to sell on.

It differs from the LILAC scheme in that those on benefits are able to live at ChaCo. Unlike LILAC, where members pay rent at 35 per cent of income, ChaCo will include those on housing benefit and will set rent to go no higher than the maximum housing allowance. Bill Phelps, one of ChaCo’s founders, said: “One reason we couldn’t follow the LILAC model is we are aware a lot of people in Chapeltown wouldn’t have been able to qualify.

“We wanted to set something up that at least in principle would be within anyone’s reach.”

He admitted the process, while “very exciting”, can be stressful at times but said he remains motivated by creating something different for Chapeltown and Leeds.

“It’s enabling local people to make their own decision about the sort of housing they would like, rather than have to take something from the volume house builder whose main interest is housing as a way of making money.

“They’re not particularly interested in housing as somewhere that’s enjoyable to live. Whereas what motivates us is providing somewhere to live that meets our own needs and requirements.”