It’s a windy October evening in New Cross, London and I’m sheltered from the cold in a cosy living room with a cup of coffee and a cat at my feet.
In the kitchen next door, people are sitting around a breakfast bar, chatting and preparing dinner. An overgrown garden surrounds the house; a collection of random furniture from over the decades is scattered through the room and a joint sits in an ashtray on the windowsill.
The development is home to 120 people (ages range from 20s to 60s, with the average being early 30s). It is essentially a street of terraced houses, interlinked by a snaking shared garden. Roughly eight people live in each house.
Rebecca, 29, moved to Sanford Walk a year ago after hearing about it through a friend. The social enterprise worker tells me that Sanford has been used for community living since the 70s. There’s a bike workshop and a place to do carpentry at the end of the road. Outside there is a pizza oven and I’m told they host regular events in the gardens.
There’s rumours of a keg party when I turn up on Friday night and Rebecca tells me that last week they had their annual street festival, which featured two stages and music from the residents.
There are co-operatives like Sanford dotted up and down the country, but few people have heard of them. Not to be confused with co-living (a profit-fuelled form of property development), co-operatives are a not-for-profit form of community-based living.
Bills are low and you act as your own landlord. Members get to choose their rent and the terms of their living but share the responsibility for the upkeep of the property.
Because the house is owned and run by the co-operative, it remains separate from the fluctuating housing market. Ideally, rent should only ever go down – it amazes me when Rebecca says her rent is £70 a week (bills included). This is particularly impressive when you consider that the average price for a room in New Cross £137 per week (and that’s before bills).
“The biggest perk of having low rent is that you can invest in your own creativity,” she explains. “I now dedicate more time to my wellbeing, friendships and interests – there are lots of musicians and artists at Sanford.”
Another benefit for Rebecca is the social nature of the space. “When I was renting from private landlords, I found myself scheduling a drink with mates weeks in advance. Now I just have to come downstairs and there’s a bunch of people in my kitchen. You end up forming these deep friendships with a number of really different people.”
Community Led Housing is an organisation that collaborates with boroughs, developers and housing associations to create more community-based accommodation.
Levent explains that British co-operatives grew from the London squats of the 70s when the government was desperate for more social housing. At this time, local councils offered grants to squats under the agreement that the spaces could be turned into affordable housing.
Rebecca describes Sanford as a ready-made friendship group, but I wonder if the intergenerational nature makes it more of a family.
At another co-operative development called The Drive – an eleven bed co-op in Walthamstow – the age of members ranges from mid 20s to late 60s.
Saul, 28, and Rowan, 30, are two members of The Drive. The two charity workers are both incredibly enthusiastic about the experience of living in a co-op. Saul found The Drive through word of mouth, whereas Rowan had turned to Google, searching ‘alternative housing setups’.
Rowan explains that the diversity in age, backgrounds and religions makes for truly interesting conversation and healthy disagreement.
Living in such close quarters isn’t always simple or easy. “We did have some trouble a couple of years back,” Saul tells me. “There was a polyamorous relationship gone slightly awry… We did lose a member or two.”
The Drive, like Sanford Walk, is a co-operative where members act as their own landlord, making decisions such as membership and rent as a collective.
“Usually rent is £450 to £630 a month, depending on room size – bills and food included,” explains Rowan. “But this month we dropped rent by £50 because we’re doing okay.”
The average price for a single room in a flatshare in Walthomstow is £524, however this will not include the additional cost of food, maintenance and bills that come included in room price at The Drive.
“Obviously deciding our own rent is great,” Saul tells me, “but the main draw for me is not having to deal with landlords.”
Like many people in their twenties, Saul has a backlog of renting horror stories – he’s lived in an illegal garden shed and shared one washing machine between 16 people in a house with a broken boiler.
Private landlords baffle him. He used to ask himself: “Why the fuck do you own my house? You’ve already got a house.” Thanks to his co-operative, Saul doesn’t have to deal with them at all.
Levent explains: “The real advantage for many members is the control and security co-operatives bring. Everything from rent to repairs is in the hands of the tenants.”
Members become responsible for the upkeep of the home, whether that be fixing a leaking tap or organising collective finances, and I’ve been told this can be rather draining.
Every co-operative is run slightly differently. At The Drive, the eleven residents are expected to get together every two weeks for a democratic house meeting.
Sanford also make all living decisions within general meetings, but not every occupant has to go along – as long as each of the 14 houses are represented by at least one elected member.
“If you don’t want to engage in responsibility, you’ll find it hard to live here,” Rowan says. He deems the bi-monthly meetings worth it for the low rent and community atmosphere.
Rebecca also stresses the importance of responsibility at Sanford. “The reality is that you have to pull your weight. I help to organise the tool workshop and I work as vice secretary at meetings – that can be a challenge on top of a full time job.”
When I ask if there is a stigma attached to co-operative living, she shrugs. “Once people hear about the benefits, they end up wanting to join.”
The process of joining a co-operative varies depending on the development, but they all involve an application process and then a date of some description where potential residents will meet current members. At the Drive this involves a week-long stay in the spare room, whereas at Sanford this is usually a small social gathering.
“The danger of co-ops is that they can become increasingly homogeneous because people recruit in their own image,” states Rebecca. For that reason, co-operatives tend to put a lot of effort into outreach programmes. “You can’t live at Sanford if you own other properties, but other than that, we like to include everybody.”
Neither The Drive nor Sanford Walk accept families, either. If you have a baby, you are expected to leave the co-op. On the day I visit Rebecca, they’re hosting a leaving meal for a housemate who is about to have a baby. “Unfortunately we just don’t have the facilities for children,” she explains.
I’d be lying if I said they seemed to have fully achieved diversity. Every person I’ve spoken to is university educated, works for some form of charity and seems fairly liberal in their politics. To put it simply – I don’t think Piers Morgan would fit in.
But it’s not hard to understand why community-based living would appeal to a whole generation of people fed up with extortionate rent and faceless landlords.
You don’t have to be a hippie – or even a liberal – to see the sense in low rent and sociable living. It seems like a rational alternative to the demoralising and isolating rental market in the UK and London in particular.
The problem is there aren’t many co-operative developments in the UK – those that already exist often have a waiting list. But there are organisations set up committed to developing this form of living.
Community Led Housing is one such group. Project director Levent explains that there is a small amount of funding available for those that are interested in starting a co-op, but finding funds for a deposit is often a struggle for many.
But it’s clear that all the residents I met have a passion for this way of life. As Rebecca says: “The important thing is that we keep pushing to bring co-operative living into the public psyche. It shouldn't appear exclusive – we want people to realise it is a possibility."