Leeds housing focus: Cohousing - time to go European?

Amanda Crossfield on the balcony of her flat at Lilac Court in Leeds
Amanda Crossfield on the balcony of her flat at Lilac Court in Leeds
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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.

Today, Joanna Wardill looks at cohousing and Leeds’ trailblazing success story, LILAC.

Leeds housing focus: What is cohousing?

Amanda Crossfield  in the gardens at Lilac Court in Leeds.

Amanda Crossfield in the gardens at Lilac Court in Leeds.

Four years down the line and LILAC’s ground-breaking co-housing scheme has successfully settled into exactly what its residents hoped for - a well-established, caring, sharing eco-community with low rent and energy bills of next to nothing.

So settled are its occupants that the waiting list has now been forced to close so as not to give anyone false hope of vacancies in the near future. And it’s growing in number, with boyfriends and girlfriends moving in and families expanding - the most recent baby born a matter of weeks ago.

LILAC - Low Impact Living Affordable Community - was the UK’s first affordable ecological co-housing project when it opened in Bramley in 2013, with 20 households and a common house.

The 50 current dwellers include two GPs, a paramedic, teachers, counsellors, IT consultants and octogenarian retirees.

LILAC pictured in 2015

LILAC pictured in 2015

Social interaction has been designed in, with the site’s laundry and postbox at the common house, where twice weekly communal meals are also served, along with regular film nights, music nights, yoga sessions and talks.

Residents, who share a pool of cars, swap daily messages on their WhatsApp group, on anything from pub or supermarket trips to asking for spare carrots or sugar.

Amanda Crossfield, 42, has been involved in LILAC from the start and lives in a one-bed flat on the site.

She said before LILAC she was among the many people who, despite having a good job, faced being stuck in rented accommodation because of a lack of deposit for a house.

“I got involved because it was aimed at the people in the intermediate housing market. People who don’t qualify for social rented housing provided by the council but equally can’t afford to buy a house on the open market.

“It’s been a long and hard journey, building your own house, and building your own house with other people in a co-op. It’s not for the faint-hearted. It does take a lot of work.

“But equally, I have this fantastic flat that I would never be able to afford on the open market. I don’t just have the flat, I have shared garden, a beautiful pond, allotments, a common house, great neighbours that I’m friends with.

“I’m part of something that is trying to provide alternative model to the housing market.”

Each resident is a member of a task team - for gardening, finances, membership and so on - and every six weeks general meetings discuss matters relevant to all.

Decisions are made by consensus, not voting.

“With voting, there’s always someone unhappy with the decision.

“It’s divisive and not conducive for community relationships. Consensus takes longer but everyone has had their voice represented and usually the decision made is something that everyone is happy with,” explains Amanda.

But she conceded LILAC is not suited to everyone. Indeed, one of the original members has since moved out after deciding the lifestyle wasn’t for them.

“It has its challenges,” she said. “It does require a lot of personal commitment to do this. You need to have a certain degree of tolerance and patience and ability to get on with the other people. But despite that, it is very rewarding.

“I love living here. One of the best things is that after I had a operation last year and had to have bed rest for a week after, my neighbours organised a rota to cook me meals all week, and we do this for two weeks after someone has a baby too, it’s so nice! The worst thing has to be all the emails and meetings it takes to run your own housing co-op.” Amanda added: “One concern people have is not having a lot privacy in a community like this but you do have your own space.

“You can go into your house and shut the door and no-one will come bothering you. But you do have to make an effort to go to meetings and be involved and engaged.”

LILAC is still a source of inspiration to people up and down the country and is regularly visited by groups which want to emulate its success.

“Every town and city will probably have some kind of group trying to do something similar. But I think most ordinary people don’t realise there are these alternatives. There are a range of options - co-housing, affordable housing, co-ops, self-build. You don’t have to get the bog standard house.

“Obviously there could be more support from the government and council. It’s not easy to do this but it is a real, viable alternative for providing real, high-quality, affordable housing - which builds social capital.

“So many people live in houses feeling isolated and lonely, they don’t know their neighbours, they might be scared, with crime on the streets.

“There is an alternative - with you as an active member of the community.”

LILAC: The Facts

* Funding for the £2.7m project came from members’ investments, a £400,000 government grant and a mortgage from ethical Dutch bank Triodos.

* Homes have shallow baths to conserve water, strawbale walls for insulation, solar panels and triple-glazing

* Each resident is allocated shares based on size of their property and their income.

* Residents pay off those shares on a monthly basis, at 35 per cent of income over 20 years.

* If they leave, they get their depost back and the value of their shares, less interest and depreciation.

* Value of the shares is linked to national average salary and not to the property market, so the homes always remain affordable.

* Visit http://www.lilac.coop.

Read more:

Leeds housing focus: What is cohousing?

Leeds housing focus: Homes built for the people – not for profit

‘Leeds needs a housing revolution’