BLOG: Collaborative housing futures: paradoxes and possibilities in crisis

By Melissa Fernández Arrigoitia (@femimeli)

Collaborative and community-led housing models like co-housing, self-build, eco-communities and CLTs (amongst others) are as an attractive, even radical alternative that can challenge dominant forms of mainstream housing provision and the conditions of crisis that characterize it (e.g., widespread unaffordability and insecurity). These resident-led schemes offer different logics and practices to everyday urban liveability (Jarvis 2011) and, in doing so, can recapture housing’s use value as homes (rather than commodity); provide opportunities for non-oppressive, democratised and desalinating residential environments (LaFond and Tsvetkova 2017; Madden and Marcuse 2016); and promote social, economic and ecological sustainability (Chatterton 2013; 2018; Stevenson et al 2016) in how things are built, maintained, and governed (Mullins and Moore 2018; Tummers 2015).  This modality of living can also offer a response to the deeper, more cross-cutting crisis of social reproduction where the non-economic arenas of care, affective labour or subjectivation – those that form and sustain the human subjects of capitalism–  continue to be devalued, neglected and unpaid as ‘women’s work’ while the welfare state retreats and austerity advances (Federici 2012; Fraser 2016). This reality impacts older women in the UK in specific ways, as they have much lower pensions than men due mainly to their lifelong care responsibilities; their capacity to afford their own homes is therefore lower than men’s; and LGBT women in older age might also be more dependent on residential care since they are less likely to have children and thus less able to rely on intergenerational forms of informal care (Reis 2019). Such troubling gendered entanglements of crisis, austerity and care – with their critical age dimensions- have led to what sociologist Beverly Skeggs calls ‘a crisis of humanity’ (2017), where neglect appears to be deliberately designed into the system of health and care of older people.

It is against this context that models like the Older Women’s Cohousing project in North London offer a different more hopeful landscape, where established societal norms of ageing and care are challenged (Brenton 2017; Fernández Arrigoitia and West, 2020). By embracing mutual aid and relying onexplicit andsubtle modes of neighbourly collaboration, residents work with and beyond traditional kinship networks as an alternative to normative family assumptions.In so doing, they hope to liberate themselves from old ways of ‘being old’. This kind of interdependent, non-paternalist, self-managed and collective housing environment (mixed tenure as well, in their case) not only flies in the face of the mainstream market models of speculative, individualised housing, but can also be understood to offera reorganisation of social reproduction — what Andrea Jones calls (2017) a ‘…rewriting of not only their expected housing pathways, but also their scripts for older age’.

And yet, despite such promise and its anti-crisis intentionality, cohousing is still a niche market that existsin a kind of structural paradox (see also Fernández Arrigoitia and Tummers 2019), both within and outside the mainstream housing world,problematically dependent on many of the neoliberal, unequal systems it opposes. The danger of inhabiting this paradox is that initial radicality can lose its edge over time, goals can be co-opted and original intentions-  particularly ecological ones- can become more diffuse. More worryingly still, as groups struggle to contend with obstacles within dominant regulatory, legal, planning and financial modes of ‘doing housing’, they can end up becoming exclusive ‘enclave’ communities that de facto favour those with access to financial and cultural capital that can help push the project through more easily. This matters not just to the internal spaces and dynamics that get created through the projects, but also to the urban neighbourhoods in which they are situated, to the local political and cultural environments they (re)produce and to the planning, building and regulatory environments they are entangled with (for some critiques see: Chiodelli and Baglione 2014; Ruiu 2014; Sanguinetti 2015).

In addition to this, cohousing and its ‘daily infrastructures of sharing’ (Jarvis 2015) could also be seen to feed into austerity strategies by putting the burden of senior care (and indeed, other forms of care) onto the group itself. More specifically, celebrating senior cohousing’s form of mutual aid as an avenue of potential ’savings’ for local authority budgets can reproduce and legitimate the welfare cuts that have hampered the capacity of councils and housing associations to add to the stock of specialist housing for older people (i.e., sheltered, retirement and extra care housing). This supports Nancy Fraser ‘s arguments (2016) that our current global neo-liberal regime promotes state and corporate disinvestment from social welfare- partly by externalizing care-work onto families and communities while stripping them of their capacity to perform that work. And so, even in spite of avowed intentions to be inclusive and the espousement of progressive goals, including housing democratisation and de-commodification to counter crisis tendencies, exclusivity can become difficult to escape, and wider social inequalities can become reflected and reproduced.  Indeed,how collaborative housing models choose to consider and include questions of gender, race, disability, age into their development and subsequent lived-in process are key intersectional dimensions that ultimately determine whether these alternative typologies can challenge some of the more oppressive and regressive characteristics of traditional mainstream models (see Lafond and Tsvetkova 2017).

To work with and through this paradox, it is important to learn from elsewhere – geographically, intellectually and tactically. Firstly, collaborative housing scholarship could draw more bridges with theories emanating from the global south, particularly with postcolonial theories of resistance that offer a critical language with which to approach the seeming impasses of the structural paradox (Scott 1990). Concepts like ambiguity and ambivalence (Stel 2016; Zambrana 2017), mimicry (Bhabha 1984), and ‘slantwise’ (Heyman and Campbell 2007) — borne out of the realities and spaces of homely dispossession, displacement or insecurity— can provide conceptual frameworks through which to further analyse the practices of apparent consent that collaborative housing groups must engage with. These bottom-up lenses of everyday and adaptable resistance offer oblique angles through which to understand everyday and long-term strategies for action and change. As such, they may help us explore the inhabited structural paradox of collaborative housing as something that is intentionally subversive, rather than straightforwardly collusive.

There is still also ample scope within the growing yet rather siloed academic field of collaborative housing to connect more closely, and in a comparative way, to the fascinating range of global and comparative housing and urban crisis studies, much of which speaks eloquently to the formal and everyday embodied politics of life in dwelling and to the experience of gendered and racialised life in fractured urban margins (see, for example, Brickell 2014; Danewid 2019; Lancione 2016; McElroy and Werth 2019;  Rolnik 2091; Roy 2019; Simone 2018; and Radical Housing Journal). These rich and often ethnographic accounts of (un)liveability in cities should help animate our approach to collaborative housing empowerment in times of deepening austerity.

 Finally, and relatedly, there is much to learn from activist and housing resistance movements taking place locally and around the globe. Feminist, women- led actions like Focus E15(London), Sisters Uncut(London) and Moms for Housing(Oakland, CA), to name a few, are spearheading an array of  inspiring responses to conditions of crisis, austerity, oppression and racism within housing, using tactics that are carefully attentive to residents’ intersectional lived realities. For many of these groups, their struggles lead them to a paradoxical place where they, too, have to find ways of engaging with andfighting against dominant housing systems. By paying attention to their fights and recognising the interrelated undercurrent of austerity and financialised commodification that is impacting citizens across the world (in differentiated ways) can move our solidarities and networking beyond the CLH sector and—in this way—strengthen it further.


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