HOW SHOULD COMMUNITY HOUSING BE SUPPORTED?
David Mullins and Tom Moore
Community-led housing organisations can provide solutions to entrenched social problems such as homelesssness, lack of access to affordable homes and neighbourhood decline. They innovate in the production and management of housing by adopting a local focus, with a strong emphasis on community leadership and engagement. This has led to a groundswell of support for community land trusts (CLTs) and self-help housing organisations in recent years, including from the Localism Act. Yet to take root such innovations need more than just rhetorical support. New research from TSRC explores the recent growth of CLTs and self-help housing to see which forms of support have been effective in helping them flourish and how they should be supported into the future.
CLTs are set up to ensure access to affordable housing, by constructing affordable homes sold on a shared ownership basis. Self-help housing organisations are set up to bring empty homes back into use. While different forms of community-led and self-help housing have a long history in the UK, modern CLTs and self-help housing groups have grown in number in recent years. This has come parallel with political support for community empowerment, providing new powers for communities in housing and planning policy. This support is found in many countries and it is hard to find a government across the world that does not express some support in principle for such examples of citizen action. But beyond the rhetoric, these projects need practical and ideological strengthening to secure the flows of resources and legitimacy required for survival.
There are now around 100 organisations operating in both the CLT and self-help housing sectors, and they have each benefited from state funded grant programmes totalling £25-30 million. CLTs have so far developed a total of 229 homes constructed or in planning nationally, while the self-help housing sector aims to bring an additional 1,600 empty properties (and 3,700 bedrooms) into use by 2015. There are, however, key differences in the way each sector has expanded.
The CLT sector has developed a network of national and regional umbrella bodies. These professional umbrella bodies have reduced burdens on local projects by providing technical expertise, training and support for housing development, identifying resources and assisting with organisational management. This institutional support has been critical to the expansion of CLTs. New umbrellas have begun to emerge around the country, supported by a National CLT Network hosted by the National Housing Federation (the trade body for housing associations). While such expansion is sometimes referred to as ‘scaling up’, this term has an unfortunate nuance implying expansion away from the small community-based experiments that many see as their key advantage. For instance, some of the professional CLT umbrellas adopt a property development role in their own right, which alters our understanding of community ownership and control. Forming partnerships with technical experts such as housing associations can also help overcome practical problems and gain access to funding, but this also risks moving decision making away from local communities.
Self-help housing has largely focused on another form of expansion, known as ‘going viral’. This is characterised by a loose network of support, led by a national intermediary – Self-Help-Housing.Org - that aims to reproduce local projects in different places, by brokering partnerships and facilitating shared practice between projects. Reproducing small locally based projects rather than creating larger scale support structures helps to preserve local leadership.
As self-help housing embarks on a period of rapid expansion, the sector may begin to follow the pattern set by the earlier growth of CLTs. It could develop new institutional structures and partnerships to provide intermediary support regionally and locally. Alternatively it could maintain a loose networking approach based on peer mentoring. The latter course could preserve the advantages of small-scale community initiatives but risks overburdening local projects and diverting them from their own local work.
State support for self-help places significant faith in the capacity of volunteers, yet support and resources are required to construct the environment in which community self-help can thrive. In harnessing ‘help from within’ in communities, there also needs to be ‘help from without’. This has been largely achieved by CLTs, with an active network of intermediaries, housing associations and local authorities involved in their development. Led by self-help-housing.org, the framework for communities bringing empty homes back into use has also begun to incorporate a range of local partners, such as local authority empty property officers and housing associations. However, there are concerns that the interests of local community-led groups may be incompatible with those of larger partners, such as asset focused housing associations. Researchers were made aware of conflicts that had arisen, such as rents being increased substantially by housing associations prior to hand-back creating sustainability problems for self-help groups.
A key challenge in scaling up community-led initiatives is the danger of professionalisation and distancing decision making away from communities. Such experiences tended to support a view that there are differences of ‘institutional logic’ between community-led and large scale housing providers. Caution is therefore required in developing such partnerships if the values of small scale local providers are to be preserved. Our research shows that while intermediary support is clearly important, there are always likely to be tensions in its provision. It will be interesting to observe, as the two sectors evolve, whether similar or different solutions emerge to the common dilemma of harnessing external resources, while maintaining the local scale and accountability that provides the unique added value of the community-based housing sector.
Read the research