Co-op conversation with Jamie Risner and Rosie Evered on Saturday 16th of November 2013 at Blue Moon Cafe, Sheffield

  Sheffield Student Housing Co-op is a group of students and ex-students who have come together to make a more democratic form of housing. A housing Co-op is an alternative way of owning a property. It is somewhere between owning your own house and renting from a private landlord. You’re renting but you also own the house at the same time. It’s a good combination. You have the security of owning the house, but you are not tied down to it forever. You can walk away when you want to. Often housing co-ops are fully mutual which means that everyone in the housing co-op lives together, works together in the house to create a co-operative living environment. Each member has an equal ownership stake in the property.

  The ideology of the co-op is that you’re all working together for everyone’s benefit. One of the things I like is that once you’ve formed a co-op as a legal entity, and once that co-op has bought a house, I really like the idea that that house is going to be owned by the co-op forever, maybe. I mean, you may be there for a couple of years, and there will be a whole line of future members who will each be there for a couple of years. Individuals in the co-op can never sell the house for their own profit. If the house does have to be sold the money goes towards other co-ops. It means that the property is collectively and democratically owned forever. 

Freedom to improve

  Unlike when you’re renting from private landlords, the people in a co-op have the freedom to improve their property environmentally or aesthetically. They have more control over how their property functions and looks, and that can contribute positively to the wider community the co-op is within. There are many things students could do in a housing co-op that they couldn’t do if renting from private landlords. They could choose to insulate their property, or invest in double glazing or alternative heating systems. They could take the initiative to make an allotment in their back garden to grow vegetables or they could decide they want to build a shed. 

We visited a housing co-operative in Sheffield a few weeks ago called Fireside. And they’d done that really well. They’d started with four houses and because they can think in the long term they can really invest in their house. They’ve combined their four gardens and they’ve gone on an enormous spending spree where they’ve remortgaged half their houses and started a massive extension that spans the four properties. It’s cost them loads of money, but that’s fine because they can think in the long term and they know it will last. And none of them individually have to pay off the mortgage. It’s fantastic. They’ve changed their dingy kitchens in to a two floor communal area, with windows from floor to roof. It’s made it a really great place to be, for everyone who lives there.
In a co-op you make decisions collectively in regularly held meetings where you discuss the house’s finance, how everyone is doing, how far the rent is paying the mortgage off. You have total transparency. You can see how much of the rent is paying off the mortgage, or going towards energy services or housing services. Deciding what money gets spent on improvements or where you spend your money, like on food for example. Then I guess there are the more basic day-to-day elements of cleaning and sharing tasks out. In a co-op there is a presumption there that everyone wants to work together and so it’s much easier to do things together. You have the regular meetings and you can review how things are going, taken it as a given that everyone wants to work hard to make co-operative living effective. 

Co-ops often function through consensus decision making. These meetings often get drawn out, but it’s such a neat idea! This would be another thing that we would like to teach in workshops, about how to hold discussions where everyone can express their opinions without there being anyone one person charge. It’s definitely not an easy thing to pick up and we want to help share these skills amongst new generations of students. It’s really exciting to find out more about consensus. I’ve used it a little, but not much. You listen to everybody and you try and incorporate everyone’s vies in to the final decision. And you don’t make a final decision unless everyone either agrees with it, or at least is accepting of it. How the people in the house communicate is so important and we want to support this too. 
The house will have a lot of colour and a lot of character too. The house will have an ongoing story. You will know the people who lived there who lived there before you, and you’ll know, perhaps, the people who lived there the year before that. The house will have twerks and bits of furniture people have found in weird places. There will be posters and pictures and drawings on the wall. There will be stories to tell of things that happened years ago. And there will be parties too, or at least large meals, with all the people who have lived there in the past. I think that would be really fun. 

Taking responsibility and taking action

There’s no incentive for the landlord to improve their houses because they can still charge the same rent because of the way the market is. They can take everything as profit from it, rather than investing in the property. There are other landlord related problems for student housing – so many problems! There’s a downward spiral because if the house isn’t being cared for by the landlord for there’s no reason for the residents to care for it either. The residents can’t take responsibility, so if something breaks they call the agent and they have to wait for ages until the landlord sorts someone out to come and fix it. And in the meantime they just have to live with it. And this is stuff like leaking showers or broken doors. And all this has harmful effects, like the student becoming apathetic about their house – not wanting to go and enter in to conversation with the landlords, because there is no conversation. And finally becoming apathetic about the state of the house they are living in. Getting to the point where students just don’t care about the actual health of the house, even when it’s full of mould and is falling apart. And the landlords get apathetic students too, I’m sure, and then they feel like they don’t need to step-up their game.

They don’t need to. Students just aren’t knowledgeable about housing and about choosing the right house. And there are so many bad quality houses out there. Students have never lived in a house by themselves before. So they look at the rent and they look whether it has double bedrooms and, maybe, if it’s got a living room, but probably not, and then they just go for it. And some students, a lot of students, do this and end up in dreadful housing. Then they have to live with it for a year.What Sheffield Student Housing Co-operative wants to do is to create an opportunity for students to take responsibility and to actually learn about their local environment and be a part of the community. At the moment this just isn’t a feasible option for many students here. Student houses are very blank and empty. People come and go and it’s really negative the way that nothing is ever added and nothing ever changes. There are whole neighbourhoods that are like that. 

There is a housing co-op network called Radical Routes who have a requirement for their members to do 15 hours a week of activism contributing to radical social change. And I’d like to see something like that in a housing co-op. Not as specific as a set number of hours, but something saying that if you live here you’ve got to do something for your community. And it could explain the projects that the housing co-ops already do, like ‘this house looks after this garden’ or ‘this house runs this social centre’ and these projects are passed on between each generation year to year. Students can give something back to Sheffield. 

Breakup with your landladys

Invite them round. Tell them
It's just been so long...
Too long.

If they say no, tell them It's urgent.
Tell them  Come round any time

but you'd recommend sooner
rather than later

Don't say why.

Make sure you keep your nerve,
and when they arrive: be pleased!

Hold their hands to your face.
Whisper She has returned.

Place them before their old damp sofas.
Give them time to reminisce.

Invite them to the bathroom.
Admire the mould, together.

Compare it to the pattern on their coats.
(They will not have taken them off.)

Then throw another chair onto the fire
you made when the heating broke

and break the news gently.
Be stoical through their tears.

If they continue, tell them
they have Great Aura

but that it's just not working anymore.
Again, smile into their confusion.

They'll understand one day.

And do this, all the while, plotting.
That wall there: going.

That ceiling: to be painted.
This neighbourhood: ours.

And as the landladys arrive home,
feeling understandably sad,

make sure there are flowers waiting,
along with cards, reading

On your recent property befeftment.
Goodbye forever.

From, your ex-tenants.

Andy Owen Cook

A starting point for exponential activism

So, in a way the housing co-op is just like a starting point. The housing co-op creates the base, a sense of identity which comes with networks and ongoing projects. And we need something like this to overcome the transient nature of the student population. So it’s twofold because the housing co-op in itself is cool because it teaches students about caring for the building they are living in, but on top of that the co-op has a much bigger impact than the house itself. It gives a starting point for new students to get in touch with activism and volunteering for local projects. And hopefully this will help students increase their social consciousness in general. 

The transient nature of the student population has an impact on other student organisations such as a vast number of green or environmentally based student societies. Currently, these organisations flare up for a couple of months or a year or so, then people move on and it doesn’t happen anymore. There should be a continuation of that. It should be an ongoing theme within student communities. There should be a story about it. We want to help make all these things happen. We are creating Sheffield Student Housing Co-op as the first step towards developing an ongoing culture of activism and volunteering. Through sharing and learning from one another and working together this culture’s momentum will grow and grow with each generation of new students. 

1 comment:

  1. you are renting your house.
    you have the security of owning the house, not some students, a lot of students, do this and end up in dreadful housing. Then they have to live with it for a year.

    Aspect 3 | Omnia Sheffield