A Deptford housing cooperative now accommodating 120 people continues to thrive in “a crisis” London housing market described as desperately short of affordable private renting and home ownership.
In the last fortnight renters across London have staged protests against disproportionate fees and rents charged by letting agents. At a speech in Worcester on April 25, Ed Miliband laid out propositions for housing reform, and proposed a landlord’s register to go some way to regulating the private rental housing market and protecting tenants. The coalition government is offering subsidised mortgages to try to help first-time buyers onto the housing ladder. Politicians are acknowledging that there is a problem with housing provisions in the UK.
However, at Sanford Housing Co-operative in Deptford, some 120 people are managing to avoid the pitfalls of the traditional housing market. For around 40 years, Sanford Walk has been nestled in the nook of a branching train line in suburban south London. It’s a peaceful, private street with verdant gardens, a pond full of frogs and fish and an impressive bike shed built from old railway sleepers. It was set up by student activists in the 1970s to provide affordable accommodation for single people priced out of the London housing market.
The rent is very reasonable — the residents at Sanford pay £250 a month, including all bills and council tax, which is almost unheard of for a location just a few minutes from central London by train. The reason the rent can be kept so low is that there is no landlord. The tenants of a co-operative own the site collectively, and the money they pay in rent all goes back into the site. Each resident has a responsibility to contribute to the running and maintenance of the site.
Mark Langford is a support officer who helps with the administration of Sanford. He said that a co-operative is a housing model which provides a stable, affordable home in a strong community. Members have control over their own housing and there is no profit motive. There are occasionally problems with conflict between members, but Mark says the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
“You have to acknowledge that it’s not a perfect system, but it’s pretty good,” Langford said. “Everyone has a right to have a democratic say in how the place is run, which has got to be a good thing in the end.”
The members have a lot of interest from other groups who want to set up their own co-operatives. They come to Sanford as a pioneer of its kind to find out how to progress but, Langford said, “unless you’ve got money, it’s very difficult to set co-ops up in London and the South-East, because things are just so expensive here”.
If a co-operative housing model can succeed on a larger scale, the government would have to do more to encourage it.
On the evening of April 29, a documentary entitled Living In The Future was screened at Sanford. It was part of the Deptford and New Cross Free Film Festival which had been taking place at venues in the area last week.
The subject of the film is the establishment of Lammas, a low-impact eco-village in Pembrokeshire in South Wales. It is about people who are seeking an alternative kind of housing, and how that alternative model can fit into mainstream society.
The event was organised by one of the residents, Maureen, who’s been living at Sanford for about six months, and has organised several events at the co-op for the film festival. Her aim is to educate and explain to people alternative housing models. The private rental market, she says, is a system that benefits nobody. “I don’t blame landlords. I blame the system that we’ve created whereby a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, great, house prices are rising, let’s buy up, let’s buy to make money.’ No. You need somewhere to live. That’s basic.”
One reason people are turning to co-operative models is because house prices are unaffordable, especially for single people. Alternative housing models are being sought not because they are radical, but because they are practical. While a place like Sanford may lie somewhat outside of the mainstream, Maureen said they are inundated with applications from people wanting to live there.
But is co-operative housing a viable large-scale solution to Britain’s housing problems?
Both Langford and Maureen pointed out that, while people of all ages live there, co-operative housing as it’s manifested at Sanford is most suited to young people. Couples and families are not allowed.
Dr Tom Moore is an assistant researcher at the Centre for Housing Research at the University of St Andrews. His field of expertise is community land trusts, which are similar to co-ops. Community groups purchase land and hold it in trust so it can’t be sold on the market. In England, most of these trusts have the aim of providing affordable housing. There’s one in Tower Hamlets — the East London Community Land Trust — and like Sanford, members pay £1 for a share and can then vote on issues affecting the organisation.
Co-operatives and community land trusts can provide a solution, but at the moment it’s only on a small scale. Dr Moore said, “In an era when government policy is very much favouring home ownership and it doesn’t seem very keen to invest in social housing or other forms of affordable accommodation, these communities are the ones who are doing that in their local area.”
As well as financial investment from the government, there would also need to be infrastructure and supportive organisations. The Localism Act (2011) has placed a certain amount of power into the hands of community groups should they choose to exploit it, but Dr Moore said it’s too early to assess what impact this will have.
“Simply introducing legislation alone isn’t the answer,” Moore said. “There needs to be a simultaneous injection of resources as well.
“There are viable housing alternatives for many communities and they can make a significant contribution to the housing sector, but it’s not a cost-free solution for the government. It’s not a cheap option. It still requires resourcing, it requires support and there’s a significant role for
infrastructure organisations to help support communities to fulfil their objectives.”
Michelle Smith is the London lead manager at the National Housing Federation. She said the most pressing problem for housing in London was the short supply of homes:
“Housing co-operatives can be a great solution for local people looking for more affordable and secure rental options. As a country, however, we need to address the real root of the housing crisis: we’re simply not building enough homes.
“As London’s population increases, demand for housing is rising but supply isn’t keeping pace with demand. This means prices are on the up, waiting lists for social housing are getting longer, and renters are not in a strong position to negotiate with letting agents and landlords.
“The only long-term solution is to build more homes of all kinds to ease the London housing crisis.”
At this stage, it seems unlikely that co-ops will provide a large-scale solution to housing problems in London, unless there is significant investment and support. As Langford and Maureen both pointed out, it’s up to individuals — and collectives — to take matters into their own hands and seek out an alternative.