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What’s the big driver for Co-op housing? We ask…and find many answers

The desire for people to be connected to their community and share resources is driving the “mainstreaming” of co-operative living around Australia, according to industry representatives.

South Australians who are curious about co-operative living will join delegates from NSW, Victoria and Western Australia to learn about different ways of living co-operatively with a view to forming their own communities at the Create Community Anywhere National Co-op Housing Symposium in Adelaide this weekend (Saturday 29 October).

Federation of Housing Collectives (FOHCOL) event coordinator Robyn Williams said the event was about giving people an opportunity to network within a context of discussing issues but there’s a very strong emphasis on forming new co-operatives.

“We had a symposium last year in Fremantle and as a consequence of that meeting – that diverse range of people coming together – a small cohort formed and as a consequence they’re now putting in an expression of interest for a co-operative living opportunity the City of Fremantle have offered,” she said.

“We had about 60 people [at the symposium] and that was a good size for what we needed to do and to enable people to have the best opportunity to connect with each other.”

Desire for community is growing

Karren Walker, chair of Common Equity Housing Limited (CEHL) in Victoria, will speak at the symposium. Ms Walker, who has lived in co-operative housing for 26 years, said CEHL had a significant number of people on expression of interest waiting lists.

“In a broad sense there is enhanced traction around understanding that co-op is a good way forward,” she said. “And not just co-op housing but co-op as a model of business is certainly garnering far more interest in Australia.

“So the demand is there and certainly the groundswell of understanding of the triple bottom line in terms of actually getting social benefit as well is there,” she said. “It’s just we haven’t had the ability to put more stock on the ground and thus have more co-op households.”

By and large, Victoria has the largest number of co-operatives in Australia. CEHL houses more than 5000 people in more than 2200 properties, with an asset value approaching $800 million. The bulk of these properties are associated with co-ops. NSW is the next largest adopter of the housing model.

According to Ms Williams, the popularity of co-operatives has been growing for 20 to 25 years.

pinakarri-vegie-verge-2014“There is a whole general urgency or desire for people to embrace community,” she said.

“I live in the Fremantle area which has quite a strong community feel but I’m sure many other communities, general suburban communities, around Australia and the world reflect that too.

“I see a change, not a change but a development, of people wanting to have more connection with each other and recognising that living in a community environment or a cooperative environment is another really viable option.”

Living cooperatively can cover many models of tenure including rental and privately owned co-ops cohousing, eco villages, shared houses and even tiny house parks.

Adelaide has a co-op development of 27 homes and gardens on 2000 square metres in the heart of the city. A guided tour of Christie Walk will enable delegates to view its sustainable and community enhancing features.

It takes a village to raise a child

Ms Williams has lived at the Pinkarri co-housing cooperative community in Hamilton Hill, WA, for 16 years. Her home is a rental in a mixed co-operative – she rents her house off the co-op while other people own their houses or rent privately.

At Pinkarri, the 35 community members have a strong intention to be a part of each other’s lives. “I have neighbours who I know really well,” Ms Williams said. Her daughter grew up with 13 or 14 other children and learnt skills such as sewing from the other mothers.

“My daughter refers to my neighbours especially the mothers of other girls as her other mothers,” said Ms Williams. “She acquired her sharing, wisdom, skills, knowledge, expertise. That was the idea when she was little and I started out on this journey.”

Collaboration and decision making

In general, Ms Williams describes cooperative living as “shared property management”.

“It’s about making decisions together and having some structures in the way that cooperative governance happens,” she said. “In many ways it’s like a strata management committee. The only difference is we probably have a little bit more structure around how we decide to hold those meetings and make those decisions, and probably a little bit more common ground around how to do that and how to do that well.”

Sharing resources

A big part of cooperative living is sharing resources. From a sustainability point of view, Pinkarri has been designed so that the private homes have a small footprint and the communal spaces have a larger shared footprint. The 14 houses are climate-sensible with rain-water tanks and extensive use of grey water.

“We have a shared laundry so I don’t have a washing machine,” Ms Williams said. “We have a shared garden so I don’t have to have a huge private yard if I want to have a party or have kids over to play.” Just one lawnmower is required for all households.

The community vegetable garden is a big attraction and a learning curve.

“I’m not the greatest gardener in the world but I do love having some vegies so I share that job with other people and learn as I’m going along,” Ms Williams said. “I also get to benefit from it but I don’t have to be solely responsible for trying to get that poor little tomato bush to produce!”

Young families and empty nesters

The main demographic of people wanting to explore cooperative living is young couples and young families.

“I think it really kicks in when people are thinking of settling down – and they have kids or are planning kids – and start to think what kind of lifestyle do I want to have with my child?” Ms William said.

Another cohort is the over 55s or even people in their 50s. “You get a lot of women who have come out of relationships,” Ms Williams said. “Often partly triggered financially by the fact that when people split up they have to share the family’s net worth and that often means that they don’t have enough money to buy a new house.” Co-operative living represents companionship, community and safety while still maintaining independence and individuality.

Need for innovation

With no public funding available for rental co-operatives anymore, Ms Williams said it was important for communities to think creatively to ensure everyone had an opportunity to embrace this way of living.  “We really have to be innovative about ‘how do we build housing cooperatives that are available for people on low incomes as well as people who have got capital?’” she said.

Ms Walker agreed that a lack of funding sources was one of the main barriers to increasing co-operative living opportunities to a broader cohort of people. “In terms of the growth we are going to have to start looking at different co-op models and that may include things like shared equity because it’s not just about housing people on very, very low incomes … There is a lot of people who want to live in co-op and we need to deliver some different models so that we can get more people into affordable housing.”

  • The National Co-op Housing Symposium will be held on Saturday 29 October, 9.45am-4.30pm, at the Hackney Hotel, Hackney, South Australia. The tour of the Christie Walk Co-op will be held on Friday 28 October, 10am-12pm.

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One Response to “What’s the big driver for Co-op housing? We ask…and find many answers”

  • I am so pleased to see the cooperative housing movement gaining traction. It would appear to offer solutions for a range of households, those seeking connectivity with others, seeking a lower footprint on this earth and those seeking secure accommodation in an increasingly expensive housing market.

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