Can a commune revival fix London housing crisis?

Story highlights

Housing prices have soared in London in recent years

Some of the city's low-income renters are learning to depend on each other to get by

CNN  — 

Upper Street, Islington, is the heart of chic and cosmopolitan North London – a mile-long stretch of award-winning restaurants, boutiques and public gardens.

The iconic Georgian houses rank among the British capital’s most desirable and expensive, with prices reaching $10 million. Local residents include movie stars Colin Firth and Emma Watson.

But just off the main street, tucked away among the stylish facades, is a parallel universe.

While the borough has shot upmarket, one of London’s oldest communes has never strayed from the vision of Franciscan Monk Greg Moore, who founded Islington Park Street Community in 1976, as a refuge for the vulnerable and low-paid.

Eighteen housemates, aged 19 to 79, share four grand old houses with the partitions removed. They also share resources and responsibilities, each paying $43 a week for food and bills, which has allowed them to survive in this elite neighborhood over four decades.

Residents of Islington Park Street relaxing before an evening meal together.

“People receive what they need and give what they can,” summarizes Karen Grace, a care worker who has spent five years at the home.

Places here are allocated according to need, and applicants are filtered to maintain a balance of age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and support needs – accommodating people that need care, and others that can provide it.

The community includes a victim of domestic abuse, an ex-prisoner, and people suffering with mental illnesses. Many have struggled to access social services outside, which are facing government cuts. “This is a place to have a sense of safety and support,” says Grace. “People here have experienced the opposite.”

Keith Soutar, 79, leads an afternoon jam.

Such an arrangement may seem more of a throwback to the idealism of swinging 1960s London than the modern metropolis with its surging skyline of luxury high-rise towers.

But in a city where the cost of living has shot up rapidly, the communal approach presents a potential solution for many struggling residents.

Tale of two cities

London’s property market has become increasingly unaffordable for many on middle and low incomes.

The average house price in the English capital recently passed $800,000 – Monaco and Hong Kong are the only more expensive cities, according to Knight Frank – and the year to 2014 saw a record 18% rise. Properties deemed “uninhabitable” by estate agents can fetch almost $1 million.

The rental sector offers little relief. British tenants pay the highest rents in Europe, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of wages, according to the National Housing Federation. A separate study found that Londoners pay around 60% of their incomes in rent, while some councils have even been forced to re-house low income residents outside the city.

“For 30 years we have not built enough homes,” says Tom Copley, chair of the Housing Committee at the London Assembly. “We need 49,000 new homes a year to meet demand and fewer than half are being built. Many of these are luxury homes being bought by speculators that don’t serve the needs of the majority of Londoners.”

“We’re seeing huge overcrowding, people living in poor conditions, sky-high rents…and unfortunately these trends will continue.”

Islington Park Street is not immune to this harsh climate. Property owner One Housing Group – which acquired it from a philanthropic trust – is seeking to “decant” residents ahead of “potential sale of the land and property.”

Residents are fighting a legal battle to protect their community, and their campaign has struck a nerve with activists, politicians and celebrities.

“The wider issue is people being priced out of London and someone needs to bring attention to it,” says Grace. “It is social cleansing…I hope we can win our case and become a symbol of hope for the housing movement.”

New adventures in communal living

Yet the lack of affordable housing has also fostered creativity among struggling Londoners and new forms of communal living are emerging to relieve the pressure.

Property guardians’ pay cheaper rent to stay in empty buildings, including office blocks and schools that can accommodate dozens. Inter-generational housing offers another solution, connecting struggling younger people with senior citizens that appreciate the company.

For those seeking more than just affordability, however, converted industrial zones have proved appealing by offering creative live-and-work spaces. Jose Castroviejo made the leap to a former textile factory in East London after months of couch surfing and “rip off rents.”

“I was attracted by the ethic and environment,” says Castroviejo, an events producer, originally from Madrid. “There is a sense of community…it’s tremendously creative and one of the only places in London where you say ‘hi’ to people on the street.”

Live-and-work warehouses in the Hackney Wick industrial estate are increasingly popular.

Several hundred young, artistic people inhabit a network of converted spaces through an arrangement that makes one tenant a leaseholder that can sublet to dozens of housemates at lower than market rates.

Collective responsibilities are minimal, but spaces and resources are available to the community, and events such as the Hackney Wicked festival are undertaken collectively.

“There is a ‘freecycle’ element,” says Castroviejo. “Anything you don’t want that’s reusable is left in a hallway and usually within 24 hours it is re-absorbed into the community.”

The next top model

London also recently gained its first cohousing project – already a popular concept in Germany – which involves residents planning their own community with shared resources, spaces, and decision-making.

The Copper Lane development is home to 13 people, who spent six years and $3 million converting a disused nursery site into energy-efficient homes with communal gardens and a rooftop courtyard.

“We were looking for a way to retain our own self-contained living spaces, combined with indoor and outdoor spaces which would encourage different forms of interaction,” the residents explained in a statement.

The Copper Lane cohousing project cost $3 million.

Activists anticipate Copper Lane will be followed by many similar but diverse projects.

“We have over 75 groups (in Britain) who are developing,” says Sarah Hewitt of the UK Cohousing Network. “It’s growing fast… groups have different priorities, whether it’s about being eco-friendly, spiritual or affordable.”

Housing campaigner Leslie Barson is at the forefront of the movement in London. As a leader of the London Community Housing Co-operative (LCHC), she is developing a self-build project in the central borough of Westminster for dozens of families. She hopes the venture will tackle affordability and host social spaces for education and urban agriculture.

“Housing is just seen as a way of making money and it is driving people out,” says Barson. “People can’t afford enormous rents so they fall into housing benefit (welfare) and our tax money goes to subsidizing private landlords. We say rent should be no more than one-third of average earnings for the area.”

The LCHC hopes to eventually launch several new communities around the city, harnessing innovations such as straw bale building material to manage costs and sustainability.

The major obstacle is securing land, which generally goes to the highest bidder. Developers are obliged to provide a proportion of affordable housing, but rules can be skirted, and the definition of affordable housing has been questioned by leading charities.

Winning hearts and minds

The UK government has given qualified support to community development schemes through its ‘right to build’ initiative, which encourages local authorities to provide land for them, although it remains an uphill struggle.

“If you’re in a bidding war with a commercial operator you lose,” says Gavin Smart, director of policy and practice at the Chartered Institute for Housing. “Public sector finances are under intense pressure, and if local authorities let land go cheaper they take a loss.”

Barson wants more active support: “The Mayor should be telling councils to facilitate passing land to community builders. We’re entering new territory and need goodwill on all sides.”

The activist believes there is huge demand for these projects, which should provide leverage. If the authorities prove un-responsive, Barson says a rent strike is one option to convince them.

But if land is secured, there is still a psychological challenge for communal models. Proponents must overcome the aversion that many feel to the distinct lifestyle, and even veterans admit that adjustment takes time.

“People are used to living as individuals,” says Professor Paul Chatterton, founder of a cohousing community and author of “Low Impact Living”. “You need training to understand how to live and work together.”

Yet the luxury of choice may not last. If the pressure on London housing keeps growing, more of the city’s beleaguered residents could need each other to survive.

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