HACT's Housing Intern Clementine reflects on the community-led projects she has worked on and what they might mean to the future housing agenda.
As the “Community” intern at HACT, I spent the last few months discovering the fascinating world of community-led housing. I am grateful for the opportunity I had to engage with this wonderful world out there where groups of like-minded individuals get together and find a way to make things happen. In spite of austerity, in spite of public spending cuts, in spite of the housing crisis, they find a way to provide genuinely affordable homes whilst at the same time empowering and strengthening their local communities. Am I being too naïve if I believe that these projects could bring a real change in the housing sector? Somehow the stories I came across in the past few months convinced me to consider the community-led housing option seriously.
Through my work with Self-Help Housing, I came across incredibly energising projects whereby community groups use their local knowledge and networks to identify empty street properties, mobilise local stakeholders, provide people who need them the skills to renovate these properties and effectively supply new affordable housing.
These projects all happened following DCLG’s “bold step into the unknown” (Jon Fitzmaurice, Self-Help Housing and HACT conference 2015), assigning away a bit of their Empty Homes Grants Programme aimed primarily at registered housing providers to community groups instead. The Empty Homes Community Grants programme is symbolic in my opinion as it highlights how in some cases, community groups are better positioned to bring small-scale local solutions that prove to be more successful than larger schemes of affordable housing procurement.
My recent work on Community-Led Housing in partnership with Locality was also very inspiring as I got to be in contact with a great number of people already involved in or wanting to start their own community-led housing project, representing an extraordinary variety of schemes ranging from Community Land Trusts both in urban and rural areas to Cohousing or Co-operative housing projects.
Community-Led Housing is fascinating for two main reasons in my opinion: its innovative capacity and the social value it generates.
“The argument for community-led housing starts from the premise that housing (or shelter) is a basic need. When existing systems fail to meet this need, people respond through innovation and sometimes the response is so effective it can be scaled up to help meet this need for others. ” (BSHF 2014). In the current context of considerable reform of the social housing sector, community-led housing initiatives appear as a necessary alternative to address the gaps left between the different sectors of the housing market. Innovation is what makes community-led housing very attractive as it stimulates new thinking and approaches which prompt cost-effective solutions. Considering the challenge of the ageing population for instance, community-led housing solutions could provide a very interesting offer for a generation of active and independent older people in need of mutual care and support.
The second argument for community-led housing is the incredible social value that these projects create. The social impact of the Empty Homes Community Grants programme has been researched by Professor David Mullins at Birmingham University and can be found here. The programme brought a lot more than new affordable housing, including employment and training benefits, safer neighbourhoods, stronger local partnerships and more vibrant communities. Canopy, one of the empty homes projects, calculated their Social Return on Investment (SROI) as generating £4.28 of social value for each £1 of external investment. If similar studies could provide an estimation of the social value created throughout the community-led housing sector I am convinced that results would show similarly great social value.
When the Housing Association movement started in the 1960’s, the sector was also locally-driven and very much open to innovation, proving to be a very successful model which grew to its current size. Today Housing Associations could use their unique position as local actors to support community-led housing initiatives and benefit from the great social value created in terms of community cohesion and capacity building. The benefits can only be mutual and there are some very successful case studies of Housing Associations actively engaged in community-led housing projects.
Community-led housing might not scale up to the same size as the Housing Association sector but it is a movement that will probably develop further as mass public investment in housing is not likely to reappear. The next British government would greatly gain from capitalising on the achievements of the community-led housing sector and provide a framework to enable more of these initiatives. DCLG’s Empty Homes Community Grants Programme showed how even a limited amount of public funding can go a very long way in supporting community-led housing projects, exceeding all expectations. There is a high demand for more from community groups who I believe truly have the potential to become a significant part of the housing sector.