The One Trick Landlords Don’t Want You To Know About: Housing Co-Ops

A group of tenants in south east London is trying to fight an eviction notice by turning their home and artistic space into a mutually-owned co-operative. Can they do it?

09 July 2021, 9:26am

Walk past The Rising Sun in south London and you might assume it’s still a functioning pub. A cream tiled facade reads “The Rising Sun, Truman’s. Burton, Brewed, Bitter.” Baskets of pink and orange geraniums hang along the outside and a sticker in the window says “phone from here.” 

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Inside though, it’s another story. In the basement of this ex-pub, which stopped being an actual pub in 1982, you will find a fully functioning DIY music studio, bedrooms, a communal living space, a workshop for making clothes, and a small club space that’s hosted the likes of AJ Tracey, Novelist and Nina Las Vegas. It’s also where the seven or so residents are fighting to take control of their home by turning it into a housing co-op, after being presented with an eviction notice in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Outside The Rising Sun.

“There has been a distant threat of eviction the whole time,” Scott Bowley, a musician and one of the original residents of The Rising Sun told VICE World news. “But then about a year ago, it became very real, and we got a formal letter saying, ‘This is your final period and your eviction date.’ And since then, [the managing estate agents] have started actually showing around potential buyers. We were told that it was clearly marketed towards developers, and it was very clear that we probably wouldn't have a place here any longer if it got sold.”

In England and Wales, if faced with a legally-presented eviction notice, there is no way to resist it. Across England, no-fault evictions are the leading cause of statutory homelessness and give landlords total power to increase rents or remove tenants at a whim. If the property you rent is being sold, like in the case of The Rising Sun, the options for most people are to either move out, or to buy it (if your landlord is willing to accept your offer – tenants don’t get any priority).  

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Or, there’s a third, more radical option that very few people know about. You can turn it into a housing co-op.

Residents of The Rising Sun in south east London.

Originating in the 1800s, a housing co-operative is a collectively owned and non-profit organisation where tenants mutually support each other. The concept has existed for centuries, but its modern incarnation grew out of England and France primarily to support a growing working-class struggling to afford property, with the first English housing co-op on record originating in Rochdale. In the UK, the rise of council housing in the early 20th century meant housing co-op numbers were relatively small, but after Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy in the 1980s saw the depletion of social housing stock, co-operatives grew again as an affordable way of living. It's a popular idea elsewhere in Europe too: in Poland, 3.5 million dwellings are co-operatives, while housing co-operatives make up 17 percent of housing stock in Norway. 

In the UK, all co-operatives today – a hard number to estimate but thought to only be around 0.1 percent of the UK’s housing stock – must register as a housing co-operative under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act 1965. The property is collectively owned, and no one is permitted to make a profit off it at a later date. It’s a sustainable model – when a co-operative has paid off the cost of the building, any rent that isn’t needed for repairs can be used to help other co-operatives get off the ground. But it’s not easy: housing costs are high, and it can be hard to attract investment.

Scott Bowley, a musician and resident of The Rising Sun, in the studio space.

Housing co-operatives are a radical and rare proposal in the face of a London property market that values owners over tenants. In the city, average house prices exceeded half a million pounds this year, and rents take up 40 percent of tenants’ wages. During the pandemic, homeowners were given mortgage holidays and stamp duty discounts if they wanted to sell their homes, while renters suffered some of the hardest effects as a result of the national lockdown. Co-operatives, however, offer a viable solution to the issue of the rental crisis – if you can raise enough capital.

“We kind of said to ourselves straight away – is there any way that we can get hold of [the property]? And I think almost jokingly to begin with, we were like ‘Oh, we should just, you know, buy it ourselves,” says Bowley. “Yeah, right. How do you go about buying a £1.2 million house?”

The club space in the basement of The Rising Sun.

It’s a daunting prospect but it’s not impossible. The residents spoke to various organisations involved in housing co-ops across the UK, who provided clear direction on how to realise this almost unimaginable plan. First, The Rising Sun Collective had to become incorporated as a co-operative. In order to access financial advice, they successfully applied for a loan from Community Led Housing London, supported by the Mayor of London’s office, for £7,290 to cover initial costs. Once they had secured that initial money, they were able to use a consultancy service to build a financial plan, showing how they would cover the cost of the property. Using the financial plan, the group applied for a speculative mortgage from an ethical lender, who would take the collective worth of their rents – rather than income as is normally done by banks – to guarantee repayment. 

A resident of The Rising Sun in the living room.

Even with a partial mortgage of £720,000, however, the group couldn’t cover the entire cost of the seven-bed property – which was originally valued at over a million pounds. Negotiating with the landlord, they managed to bring the price down to £950,000 – but there were also safety and improvement works to the property that needed to be funded on top of this. To raise more money, the group received a loan from a group called Co-operative & Community Finance, and sourced loan stock, which is essentially a donation to the co-op that is eventually returned to the provider with interest. Despite all the fundraising, the group still have £170,000 to raise before they can successfully purchase the property. 

Beyond providing an affordable place to live in London, The Rising Sun performs another function: a community space that allows musicians and creators to produce music or hold parties without a specific financial agenda. In London, where booking out a club venue or renting out a studio comes with high costs, The Rising Sun provides an opportunity for young, often queer, artists to experiment without having to make money off what they’re doing. If the housing co-operative is successful and the mortgage paid off, one ambition will be to make rents so low artists can work as little as possible, and make art as much as they like. 

A resident outside The Rising Sun.

“For the wider community, it's an important asset,” says Chloe Curry, a friend of The Rising Sun who has been instrumental in setting up the co-op. “I'm not actually a resident. I'm a burlesque dancer, and sometimes I make videos here, or sometimes I'm asked to perform with some bands. I've got so much work from just coming here. This means so much to me.” 

“Having a space like this – rather than thinking, ‘Okay, I need to take out an extra shift on Sunday to pay for my studio time,’ people can now say, ‘Oh, do you mind if we just come along for a few hours in the evening on Wednesday?’” resident and musician Elliot Brett, says. “And we're like, ‘Sure!’”

Residents of The Rising Sun in their studio.

The battle is now on for the group to raise the money before the July deadline. If they’re successful, it could mean decades of affordable rent for a young, queer group of artists. If not, it will just be one of the million stories of community venues lost to the city’s property market. 

“I'm really hopeful,” says Bowley. “For me, this project started out as – how can I not lose my home? But now, the more I've learned about housing co-operatives, and the more I've learned that actually, it's quite doable, it's become something way bigger.”

“In years to come, people are gonna be able to live in this house for literally like £200 a month, and be able to make their art without having to have any side hustle,” he says. “And if that model could be replicated elsewhere, then that is, as an artist, just my dream scenario.”

Tagged:

London, HOUSING CRISIS, worldnews, the rising sun, housing cooperatives

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