Leeds housing focus: The co-operative solution to affordable housing woes

HOME SWEET HOME: Cath Muller and Woody who both live at the Cornerstone Housing Co-op in Chapeltown. PIC: Tony Johnson
HOME SWEET HOME: Cath Muller and Woody who both live at the Cornerstone Housing Co-op in Chapeltown. PIC: Tony Johnson
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This week the YEP is shining the spotlight on community-led housing in Leeds, its bid to offer an alternative to volume housebuilders and the pioneering work taking place across the city to put people - not profit - at the heart of housing.

Joanna Wardill looks at the use of housing co-operatives as a means of creating affordable housing in Leeds.

Students want to set up First Student CO-OP at Leeds University..Pictured from the left are Gauthier Guerin, Ai Van Kok and Annmarie Clay.

Students want to set up First Student CO-OP at Leeds University..Pictured from the left are Gauthier Guerin, Ai Van Kok and Annmarie Clay.

Community-led housing doesn’t just have to involve new build projects.

One movement which is evolving in Leeds is that of creating housing co-operatives, or co-ops.

This is where a group of people band together to buy a property - and then are collectively responsible for how it is run, who lives there and setting the rent.

It is similar to cohousing - in fact many cohousing projects are run through a co-op model - but involves people living in a single property.

Co-ops help people who wouldn’t be able to afford their own homes as well as creating a house within the community which will always remain affordable.

To set up a co-op, a group of like-minded people form what is essentially a business and, after raising a deposit, secure a mortgage from a sympathetic building society.

Rent is then paid to the housing co-op society – ie themselves – which pays off the mortgage and any loans.

If things go wrong, all that is lost is the deposit.

But if it all goes right, it has created a long-term, affordable home where only those who live there have a say in how it is managed.

Cath Muller has lived at Cornerstone Housing Co-op in Chapeltown for 22 years.

Cornerstone now owns two Victorian houses in the north Leeds suburb; buying its 
first in 1993. She said: “From a tenant’s point of view, it is much like renting from a private landlord but your rent doesn’t go into a landlord’s pocket – instead it goes to preserving affordable and secure housing for the future, which can be adapted to suit your needs and desires.

This means that – depending on the overall rental income – you’re allowed to drill holes in your own bedroom wall and replace the heating system... as long as the rest of the co-op agrees.

“We chose the big house in Chapeltown because it had big gardens and lots of cellar space and we bought a second house within 18 months.

“Over 20 years and 100 members later, we’re still going strong with businesses operating in the cellars of both houses, productive gardens, excellent workshop spaces and infamous annual parties.”

After paying off their mortgages and loans, Cornerstone members decided to keep rent the same and use the money to help other co-ops across the city. Cath said: “We have invested over £60,000 in other housing co-ops, given £25,000 to another co-op in Woodhouse to stabilise its finances and regularly give money to causes we support.

“Becoming a member of Cornerstone means learning all sorts of skills - property maintenance, financial management, project planning, co-operative decision-making and a serious commitment to communication.”

She added: “We work hard to make sure that people joining Cornerstone learn to be guardians for the community, looking after it for future generations and using our resources to support more and more co-operative housing in the UK.”

A group of students at the University of Leeds are trying to blaze a trail for their peers with ambitious plans to set up a student housing co-op.

It would be Leeds’ first if the plans come off - but there are a significant number of hurdles to overcome first, not least finding a bank willing to give a mortgage to a bunch of students.

Gauthier Guerin, 31, a PhD student in sustainability, said: “Most of existing student co-ops in the country have been sponsored by someone to get a mortgage. That’s something we haven’t got yet and it’s preventing us from moving as quickly as we’d like.”

But he says the co-op housing model would be perfect for students in a city like Leeds.

“This mode of housing hasn’t really been developed for students until recently. Now there are a few housing co-ops - in Birmingham, Edinburgh and Sheffield. And now, hopefully, in Leeds.

“In Leeds it would be very beneficial because for students, a lot of housing stock is controlled by landlords who rent houses out to students and don’t take great care of them. The housing stock is not very good for students, so they don’t feel part of the community or really have any sense of investment in the houses, so they in turn don’t take great care of them.

“So the idea is to set up a new form of housing.” The students are on the hunt for an investor to help with a deposit while also looking for suitable large properties for sale.

They have formed a business plan and are in talks with organisations across the city who they could link up with.

The group is also in the process of setting up a society to help spread the word across the universities in Leeds.

Gauthier said once in a house, residents would then pay rent to the co-op - which would be set at just enough to cover the debt and housing costs. “You pay your own organisation, so you control how much rent is being paid. It’s not dependent on the housing market so it’ll become cheaper as you pay off the debt.

“It kind of takes the house out of the housing market so you don’t have prices going up and down.

“It does come with more responsibility as you need to take care of the place.

“But the idea is also to create a society - and people can put themselves on the waiting list.”