Housing for Thriving in a Post-COVID World

The unprecedented 2019–20 fires, storms and pandemic highlight and intensify ongoing structural flaws in Australian society. The now common refrain is that we are all weathering the same storm, but in very different boats. Some of us relax in luxury yachts while others cling desperately to floating debris. Among Australians’ various experiences of the pandemic, the complexities of Melbourne’s social-housing lockdown demonstrated a microcosm of the issues at play, throwing harsh light onto the ongoing inadequacy of federal support for social housing and raising concerns about the over-policing of certain communities amid the intensifying context of Black Lives Matter. However, the lockdown also revealed the resilience of the communities impacted and the generosity of vast social networks in providing rapid, well-organised support. 

Housing is a fascinating and vital perspective through which to engage with these issues. As a primary place of residence, a home—for those who have one—can foster self, security and family (however defined) but also threat, constriction and danger. Home, and our access to it and experiences of it, fundamentally shape and reflect our sense of self in the world, encoding our core relationships to place and to each other. When so many people under lockdown are perhaps more acutely aware of home than ever before, it is timely to consider how this foundational space might enable futures in which individual, societal and planetary well-being can thrive.

Australia’s housing system is dominated by an owning–renting tenure duopoly, but there are many other ways to configure housing access that speak to the social nature of people and the embedded and relational nature of property. Prior to and alongside the pandemic, persistent and intensifying concerns about lack of affordability, stability and flexibility in housing were triggering investigations of alternative housing forms, including community land trusts (CLTs) and cooperatives. In looking at CLTs and cooperatives as housing options in a post-COVID world, the reference to ‘post-COVID’ is not intended to imply that the virus has left the building but that the world is operating in a changed state due to the existence of the virus and its impacts on human society. We are yet to enter this post-COVID world, so we cannot determine what it might look like, but we can assume that the world will have changed and that consequently how we house ourselves will need to adapt. Whether we are working from home, working out of home, are out of paid work, are caring for others, including those permanently impacted by COVID, or any combination of these in a reconfigured economy, life will continue to be different. Additionally, a growing call is being made for ways of thinking and organising that are fit for the purpose of thriving in a climate-changing world and that engender resilience and enable flourishing through collaboration, flexibility, trust, vision and communication. How might housing be part of this?

Housing as it currently stands

Climate change in a post-COVID world is likely to intensify housing problems already at large and made worse by the pandemic. Research shows that all other than the over-65s are increasingly unable to buy a home and are becoming long-term renters, with implications for the health, education, employment and prosperity of generations of Australians. We see that core housing aspirations such as security and stability are increasingly unmet by the market and barely supported in legislation, with rents also out of the reach of an increasing number of people. This structural mess is left to a persistently underfunded and demonised social-housing system to clean up.

Recent, pre-pandemic research threw light on the ‘aspiration gaps’ that are emerging in the housing opportunities available to adults aged up to thirty-four, thirty-five to fifty-four, and fifty-five and over, with income and wealth differences within each age cohort compounding these gaps. The evidence from this national survey, The Housing Aspirations of Australians across the Life-course,1 is stark: there are widening gaps between the ‘safety and security’ that respondents at all ages aspire to and their ability to achieve it. These gaps are evident between younger and older households, and between wealthier and poorer households, and will become insurmountable if we try to solve them using standard policy options and housing tenures alone. While for many households current housing meets their needs relatively well, large proportions of all age groups lack confidence that their living arrangements will enable them to achieve housing safety and security in the long term. Taking a ‘housing aspirations’ approach raises serious questions about the fit between current housing options and the housing Australians want and need. 

Meanwhile, this year’s challenges, and a growing concern that our elected leaders seem unable to address such systemic shocks, are setting the scene for an increasing desire for community, connection and something like Care for Country in a yet-to-be-decolonised landscape. Interest in community-based housing alternatives to both the market and the state are emerging within a broader upswell in cooperativism and other models of community ownership. Consequently, housing alternatives such as CLTs and cooperatives are timely interventions not only for their ability to address the basics of affordability and security but also in terms of their resonance with the types of thinking needed for transitioning to thriving futures. These alternatives are characterised by adaptive co-management where shared vision, trust, collaboration within diversity and iterative learning all inform practice and development towards a common project.

Community land trusts: decommodification for community purpose

In Australia, CLTs are not trusts in any legal sense: they are not investment trusts, property trusts or conservation trusts. Therefore, it might be best to ignore the word ‘trust’ here, other than as flagging a driving ethic of collaboration and reciprocity. In essence, CLTs are community-based housing arrangements that permanently take land out of a speculative market and steward it for community benefit. Building on a number of prior traditions—including various First Peoples’ understandings that they are caretakers of the land rather than owners of it, and Henry George’s land-tax model—CLTs emerged during the Civil Rights struggles in the southern United States and have since spread nationally and internationally. The core operating principle is the decommodification of land and a balancing of the rights and responsibilities of householders with those of the broader community, including future generations. That balancing act is upheld in the legal agreements between the householder and the CLT according to what works best in the context of each CLT. The focus is on the ethic and the function.

This flexibility is the result of CLTs being defined as providing community benefit and permanent affordability, which means that each CLT defines what that means for its particular development and location. As CLTs are community-based organisations, residents of the CLT’s neighbourhood, city or region define what community benefit and permanent affordability mean for it, and why, and then shape programs accordingly. This combines a clear central mission with the reflexivity needed to be able to change activities to continue to uphold core objectives as context or circumstances shift over time. This is a central tenet of adaptive co-management, an approach with much to offer a rapidly changing world. As a result, there is immense diversity in CLT programs and activities, with nearly all CLTs in the United States providing a mix of affordable rentals and permanently affordable ownership, with the resale value of homes calculated according to a formula designed to allow a degree of equity gain, but not so much that the next buyer is priced out.

To ensure their relevance to community and place and to balance the interests represented in these, the ‘classic’ CLT structure comprises a broad voting membership including people who live in the CLT’s homes (or would like to, once they are built) and people who do not seek CLT housing but share the same locale and support its mission. One third of the CLT’s board is elected from each of those two groups of members, with the resulting two thirds of the board appointing the remaining third to serve in practical or strategic roles. This embeds the balancing of interests into the governance of the organisation, so that ideally no voice can dominate the direction, and ensures that diverse local knowledges can inform the organisation’s mission on an ongoing basis. ‘Classic’ CLTs also tend to require majority or super-majority votes of both the membership and the board before selling any properties; they cannot sell any property that has a resident in place. They are committed to housing as home, residential stability, and only selling property when it is possible and necessary as a way to further meet their mission. An example might be voting to sell an outer-suburban family home on the open market if it becomes vacant, and using the funds to buy or develop accessible homes for the elderly in the middle of a city because the changing demographics of the CLT’s location mean there are more elderly people needing homes near support services than families needing homes in the suburbs.

The focus of CLTs on stability is substantial. In some arrangements the resident’s legal agreement with the CLT is inheritable, restarting at the point of inheritance and generating a class of inheritable yet permanently de-commodified housing stock that cannot be sold or let for profit, and fostering intergenerational relationships between households and the broader organisation. CLTs provide a range of tenure options spanning renting, resale-restricted ownership and cooperative ownership at a range of price points. CLT developments include freestanding homes, apartments, duplexes, triplexes and terraces, as well as more innovative forms such as cohousing and ecovillages. The ongoing focus on community benefit means they also underpin a range of non-residential activities such as farms, pubs, shops, community centres, childcare centres and medical centres, which can be a mix of profit- and non-profit leases to diversify the income stream of the CLT.

To understand what this all means on the ground, it is worth looking at an example.

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Dudley Neighbors, Incorporated, Boston, Massachusetts 

Dudley Neighbors, Incorporated (DNI), is a CLT acting as the development arm of a vast community-planning entity, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), which comprises several thousand voting members. DSNI was formed in 1988 when the City of Boston used the power of ‘eminent domain’ to hand over title to vacant and disused properties in a 12-hectare area of Roxbury in inner Boston. In addition, DSNI was given the power of veto over any development application on city land in an additional 12-hectare site surrounding the core area. These are extraordinary powers for a local entity and DSNI has shown itself to be a progressive and dynamic stakeholder in urban planning while providing permanently affordable homes and community-development programs to its locality.

The thirty-four-seat DSNI board includes sixteen residents from each of the four local major ethnic groups, two additional board-appointed residents, three youth members, seven non-profit agencies, two churches, two businesses and two community-development corporations. Because of the substantial powers of the DNI, its board comprises six representatives from DSNI, two from the city, and two from the state. This unique and substantive relationship between residents, the city and the state has grown and deepened in the thirty-five years since establishment.

At the time of DSNI’s formation, the area had some 1300 vacant properties and was subject to a high level of absentee landlordism, illegal dumping and property destruction. DNI has overseen the development of perpetually affordable housing units, commercial spaces, parks and community spaces, and has overseen more than 1300 development applications in the area, often with several hundred community members at development-application meetings. The strength of the community’s vision for the area is reflected in the city’s adopting DSNI’s redevelopment plan as its planning strategy for Roxbury. According to the DNI website:

This land has been transformed into 225 new affordable homes, a 10,000 square foot community greenhouse, urban farm, a playground, gardens, and other amenities of a thriving urban village. Dudley Neighbors Inc. is recognized as one of the nation’s most successful urban community land trusts and serves as a model for other communities organizing to promote development without displacement and long-term control of the land.2

Research into CLTs highlights the stability of the model and also busts myths about CLTs trapping people in affordable housing because they can’t sell at a market rate. Numerous US studies have also highlighted the resilience of CLTs during and after the mortgage crash: they displayed much lower rates of payment delinquency and foreclosure, mainly due to their use of smaller and sometimes fixed-rate mortgages. This feature is one component of the stability of CLT ownership. This is further boosted by the rights of lenders to contact the CLT in instances of delinquency so that the CLT can reach out to the owner and see if they need assistance. If the property does go to foreclosure, the CLT often has the right to step in to address the default so the owner loses their equity but the home is not lost to the open market.

Housing cooperatives: common ownership for a common purpose

As with CLTs, housing cooperatives are a community-based model of property stewardship. Housing cooperatives are legally incorporated member-based entities that provide housing for their members and are bound by relevant national or state legislation. As members of the cooperative, residents do not own their homes but own a cooperative share, with ownership of a share conveying the right to live in one of the cooperative’s homes. Cooperatives often have rules stating that the member must live in the home and banning activities such as subletting for profit.

As with CLTs, housing cooperatives are highly diverse and comprise everything from dispersed freestanding houses to large apartment complexes. In order to make the homes more affordable and uphold central objectives, members self-organise and undertake activities such as repairs, maintenance and tenancy management and selection. This work might be done voluntarily by the cooperative’s members themselves, outsourced to contractors or provided by a peak body. Cooperatives vary in their approach to inheritance. Some cooperatives provide this indirectly by enabling non-resident membership. For example, Scandinavian cooperatives include a ‘general membership’ class that can be granted to non-residents and gives those individuals priority on waiting lists. This has been adopted by parents or grandparents paying for general membership of a child or grandchild so that they are part of the organisation and added to the waiting list. 

The price of a share paid to achieve membership in a cooperative can range from a minimal value through to market value. Where shares have a minimal value, cooperative housing functions more like renting, as the member pays a regular fee to the cooperative. That fee is often indexed to household income to keep it affordable. Where shares have a market value, cooperative housing functions more like ownership, as shares will sell at whatever price the market will bear. So, in market cooperatives, shares act as a form of housing equity.

There are also cooperatives that set their share value between these two ends of the price spectrum and so can act like affordable ownership models. These are often called limited-equity cooperatives and combine a smaller up-front equity input subject to indexation over time, with affordable ongoing rent. This enables the member to build up a modest nest egg while keeping the housing affordable. Regardless of the value of shares, all housing cooperatives agree to operate according to the international cooperative principles:

  1. Voluntary and open membership
  2. Democratic member control
  3. Member economic participation
  4. Autonomy and independence
  5. Education, training and information
  6. Cooperation among cooperatives
  7. Concern for community

The scale of housing-cooperative sectors varies greatly. Australia, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have very small sectors—typically, less than 1 per cent of housing stock. In contrast, some Scandinavian cities have up to 40 per cent cooperative housing, initially made possible through nation-building projects with strong support among public, union and other cooperative sectors in the post–Second World War period. The member basis of cooperatives tends to translate into a range of benefits. Many members report stronger social networks and support, and stronger friendships with their neighbours after moving into a housing cooperative. Members also have very high satisfaction with the cost, quality and stability of housing, alongside greater health and well-being. Others highlight the opportunity to develop new social, financial, operational, administrative and job-seeking skills, developed through taking part in the governance of their cooperative.

In some instances, cooperative members have voted to demutualise or to remove affordability conditions, benefiting themselves but losing the homes to the open market. As a consequence, to retain affordability controls, some cooperatives partner with CLTs, which hold the land, while the cooperative holds the homes. This complementary layering allows the cooperative to prioritise tasks and activities focused at the community level and that maintain the shared ethos of the cooperative (for example, in providing co-housing for older women, or accessible housing for people with disabilities and their carers), while the asset lock of the CLT prevents the loss of affordability and includes the cooperative in a mission beyond the interests of its own membership. 

As with CLTs, it helps to see an example.

OBOS—Oslo Housing and Savings Association

As one of the four pillars of Norway’s housing strategy in the twentieth century, housing cooperatives in Oslo were provided with central government support to provide mass worker housing.  In 1929 the Oslo Housing and Savings Association (OBOS) was established and through open membership offered its members housing units at cost price. Once a housing complex was built and members moved in, the development was converted into an independent democratic housing cooperative. Capital from the sale of members’ units was then reinvested into new housing developments.

OBOS is now Norway’s largest property developer, operating as a non-distributing cooperative owned by over 450,000 members. Its services include cooperative housing development, cooperative management and governance support, education of cooperative board members, banking and real-estate brokerage, member deals for purchasing housing renovation and other supplies, cultural events and holidays, and developing an app for neighbour help. Ten per cent of its turnover is directed to social and environmental programs, which in 2018 totalled 106 million NOK (roughly A$2.5 million).

Enabling community land trusts and cooperatives

Besides a commitment to community-based objectives, what is common in the experience of CLTs and cooperatives is that residents are empowered as members of their respective organisation. At its base, this empowerment takes the form of greater housing stability, dignity and autonomy, which may exceed what is provided by market-rate ownership, private rental housing or public housing models as currently configured. Beyond better housing outcomes, these models also provide avenues for collective entities to emerge as powerful and effective stewards of a range of housing options sitting between renting and owning. In the Australian context, these are important as they provide practical mechanisms to start to break down the tenure duopoly mentioned earlier. 

Importantly, they can also deliver additional, purpose-designed community spaces and activities that speak directly to issues of human and planetary well-being. This capacity reflects their structure and purpose as member-based organisations. In the case of CLTs, due to the three-part board and diverse membership base, the diversity of programs reflects their structure as a space for ongoing, grounded, multi-stakeholder dialogue about community benefit that channels diverse community knowledge and aspirations into transformational and heavily protected outcomes.

However, the question remains as to how CLTs and cooperative-housing models might be enabled in Australia. International experience shows that many agencies can play critical roles in enabling CLTs and housing cooperatives. This includes government, corporate, philanthropic and non-profit agencies such as other cooperatives, unions, and allied financiers like mutual funds, community banks and ethical investors. Allied financiers have played substantial roles internationally, providing development finance terms of up to sixty years at low to no interest. This is in stark contrast to Australia’s housing finance system, which is overwhelmingly geared towards high-return, high-turnover development that almost inevitably translates into higher prices for the buyer. There is, therefore, a clear role and opportunity for new financial products to be developed that are tailor-made for a decommodified system. New and appropriately designed financial products are a key part of the broader ecosystem that can enable alternatives to emerge and thrive.

Internationally, cities and regions are increasingly realising that an unchecked housing market cannot deliver sustainable and affordable outcomes for diverse communities. Key to this is an emerging understanding that the best use of public land might not be achieved by its sale on an open market but rather through a variety of alternative arrangements that enable non-profit entities to undertake substantial developments and generate multiple forms of value such as environmental amenity, greater community well-being, and social diversity. All levels of government can play a role by considering public lands as a de-commodified asset base for enabling more effective alternatives to market-based ownership and rental options. Examples can be found in London and New York City, where city councils have enacted policies to support CLTs through subsidies and access to public lands. 

Australia’s policy history has created the tenure duopoly of owning and renting, creating institutional and market norms that favour a dysfunctional status quo. But this is a manufactured market failure that government at all levels can help correct. Internationally, CLTs and housing cooperatives experience diverse relationships with various levels of government and have generally thrived when resourced and given the autonomy to operate at scale. The ideal balance between regulation and autonomy is termed ‘embedded autonomy’, where the state supports and underpins the sector without subjecting it to onerous restrictions that undermine its strengths. Housing-cooperative sectors thrive in this space and all major city CLTs overseas share the characteristics of being member based and driven, having a hybrid governance entity and ongoing relationships with varying levels of government. Again, these arrangements look a lot like the multi-stakeholder governance that is vital to adaptive co-management.

Policy support in countries with successful large-scale models includes national regulation, provision of state-level funding or grants of land, and municipal grants and policies, including policies to not sell public lands. These policies generate more diverse housing options, more appropriate and vernacular architecture, and place-based design responses and innovations that include climate readiness and age-friendly communities.

Lastly, and crucially, community efforts are central to the formation, strength, longevity and relevance of the models outlined here. The ongoing and intensifying challenge of climate change and the unsettling harbinger that is the pandemic are triggering an urgent and widespread desire for grassroots action based in an ethics of care, as well as for opening up spaces for new (or renewed) forms of social organising, including spontaneous kitchens for feeding firefighters in the case of recent fires, and various online platforms for people offering or seeking community-based support, goods and services during COVID-19. These are important reminders of the ways in which individuals and communities have always spontaneously organised to provide and share goods and services that enact non-commodified, care-based ethics. 

A call to action

We are at a critical juncture. Climate change and the pandemic are ‘wicked problems’ that historical modes of thinking and governing are ill-equipped to deal with. Such systemic challenges require collaborative and vision-led approaches, such as adaptive co-management, that combine diverse forms of knowledge into governance methods that are flexible and responsive while being bound by a mission to deliver on clearly articulated, locally generated principles and objectives. Approaches like these recognise that no one entity will have all of the knowledge or skills to deal with emergent issues. Hence, no singular sector or entity is presumed to be more or less appropriate for the delivery of housing models that enable human and non-human life to thrive. In practice, being resilient—the term on everyone’s lips—demands that space be made for ongoing dialogue and discussion about how best to decide and meet objectives that reflect people’s diverse, emergent and ongoing housing needs. Both CLTs and cooperatives offer insights into how alternative approaches might be devised. 

The take-home manifesto or recipe from which we might build, learning from local and international trial and error is that CLTs can offer a broad-scale scaffolding for a diverse range of housing options on a decommodified base, channelling various sources of income into a protected structure that can operate at a suburb, city or broader scale. The combination of an active and diverse membership, three-part board, non-profit status, and multi-layered fallback mechanisms means they are visible, stable and flexible. In the United States, catchcries like ‘development without displacement’ are often used to capture the sector’s commitment to human ends, and to effective delivery of a needed service.

Cooperatives can neatly channel a unified community objective for housing into an organisational and built form, whether through purpose-built housing or broad collective ownership. Arguably, they work best at scale and when other entities such as CLTs or umbrella cooperatives play a part in major decisions so that the organisation stays true to a broader social mission.

Allied financiers can play a vital part by devising and offering tailor-made development finance that is long term, patient and low rate, as well as appropriate mortgage products for buyers of resale-restricted homes.

Governments can play a part in making land, funds and other forms of support available and in rewiring tax settings to incentivise permanently decommodified housing forms. It is not impossible for an enlightened public housing system to expand into the space of CLTs and cooperatives by taking resident engagement and empowerment seriously.

Unions and cooperatives in other sectors can also play a key role. An entire ecosystem of CLT, cooperative and allied housing development, finance and management is possible and has been internationally demonstrated. This includes the potential for community-owned and decentralised coordination across finance, design, construction and management of not only housing but also the related systems of energy and water services. 

At the broadest level, everyone can play a part: individuals, communities, non-profits, faith-based organisations, and corporations. We are currently in a unique position to learn from the trial and error of these models both in Australia and internationally. The urgent need to establish systems to organise and govern our relationships with each other and with the planet, to foster the regeneration and thriving of both, demands that we do so.

There’s No Time Left Not To Do Everything

Tim Hollo

Sep 2020: …continuing a supplicant politics, where we beg or demand of governments that they act, is both destined to fail and underplaying our hand.

Notes

Enabling Community Land Trusts in Australia, by Crabtree et al., is an Arena publication, and is available for sale as a PDF or in print (348 pages). It provides essential detailed information to social-housing groups and others interested in developing a CLT. It covers emerging legal questions, lending considerations and qualitative research about resale-restricted home ownership, and provides helpful case studies. Go to https://arena.org.au/product/enabling-community-land-trusts-in-australia/

1. W. Stone, S. Rowley, S. Parkinson, A. James, and A. Spinney, The Housing Aspirations of Australians Across the Life-course: Closing the ‘Housing Aspirations Gap’, AHURI Final Report No. 337, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute Limited, Melbourne, 2020, https://www.ahuri.edu.au/research/final-reports/337.

2. Dudley Neighbors, Inc., History of DNI, https://www.dudleyneighbors.org/background.html.

About the authors

Louise Crabtree

Louise Crabtree is a Principal Research Fellow in the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. Her research focuses on resilience and complexity thinking in cities, regenerative practice, and community-led housing models.

More articles by Louise Crabtree

Joanne McNeill

Joanne McNeill is a Senior Researcher, Impact Innovation, with the Yunus Centre, Griffith University. Her research and professional experience engage with diverse economies and social innovation ecosystems.

More articles by Joanne McNeill

Sidsel Grimstad

Sidsel Grimstad is Lecturer/Researcher at the Newcastle Business School, University of Newcastle, with a focus on the social and environmental benefits of cooperative organisations and business models.

More articles by Sidsel Grimstad

Neil Perry

Neil Perry is Senior Research Lecturer in Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability in the School of Business and a member of the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University, focusing on social and ecological values within progressive economics methodology.

More articles by Neil Perry

Emma Power

Emma Power is Senior Lecturer in Geography and Urban Studies in the School of Social Sciences and Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University, focusing on the caring possibilities of housing systems.

More articles by Emma Power

Wendy Stone

Wendy Stone is Associate Professor in Housing & Social Policy at the Centre for Urban Transitions at Swinburne University of Technology, where she leads the Housing Futures Research Group, focusing on the intersection of social and housing inequalities in cities and regions and for key population groups including children, families and women.

More articles by Wendy Stone

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