“Cession of use” housing cooperatives: A new kind of housing access and interaction

Illustration © Cinta Fosch

When we talk about a housing cooperative under a cession of use scheme, we are talking about collective organisation. Its origins, its form and the experiences lived in it are marked by this type of organisation, and it is one of the pillars of this alternative model to enjoy a right, namely, the right to housing. It is considered a commodity for use (not for investment) based on collective ownership, community building and peer support.

Collective organisation has been a driving force for change in our society in adverse contexts. The last decade has seen the rise of the fight for housing in response to the violation of the basic right to have a place to live. Platforms and trade unions have mobilised to bring about legal changes and, against such a backdrop, new alternatives to access housing have also come to the fore in a scenario – a legacy dating from the last century in Catalonia and in Spain – where the provision system has been governed by the free market and where private property has been promoted as the main form of ownership, and buying as a means of accessing it[1].

Housing cooperatives using the cession of use model have called this system into question and have proposed a new system that turns this logic on its head: ownership will be collective and people will be entitled to use the housing unit on a fixed and indefinite basis over time. This principle became apparent in Catalonia in the early 2000s, especially with the establishment of the Sostre Cívic association in 2004 and the Cal Cases cooperative, the first example of a cession of use housing cooperative that came into being in the country. Subsequently, with Sostre Cívic’s consolidation as a cooperative and the first initiatives in Barcelona: Princesa49 (by Sostre Cívic) and the cooperative La Borda. Since then, the experiences have multiplied in the city and are also growing throughout the country. Today, there are more than fifty such projects in Catalonia, involving more than a thousand housing units, both in the development phase and being lived in[2].

Basic principles: collective ownership and the right to use the property

By breaking with the logic of private property, cession of use housing cooperatives present collective property as the only possible option for its development. We therefore advocate collective organisation to exercise the right to decent housing. This collective organisation takes the form of the constitution of a cooperative, which will invariably retain ownership of the housing, while the people associated with the cooperative, i.e. its members, will have the right to use it on a fixed and indefinite basis.

Therefore, unlike other housing cooperative systems, the cooperative will always hold ownership and thus the model cannot be changed to obtain privately owned housing. In other words, individual profit cannot be made and speculation is prevented.

Apart from collective ownership, right to use is the model’s other pillar. We see housing as a commodity for use and not for investment, as a right and not as an element that can be commercialised. Therefore, we are committed to ensuring that participants, as cooperative members, are involved knowing that they hold the right to use the housing on a fixed basis over time and are not subject to the logic of the free market.

Housing cooperatives based on the cession of use model also involve community management. Beyond the system of ownership, this translates into the members’ participation in everything related to the housing’s self-development, construction at cost price, peer support, cooperative dynamics and all the collective needs that revolve around housing. And what revolves around housing is life itself.

Living with dignity and living collectively

Community living can take different forms, and this housing model covers them all. From intentional experiences, in which shared living is more pronounced, to others in which some common spaces are shared on a less everyday basis. Projects sometimes emerge from a group of people with a common interest and advocates of a change of model, while others are the result of people in need of stability amidst a predatory rental market.

Whatever the case, collective living and community organisation are the very essence of the model, and the common denominator is the challenge of putting collective needs above individual ones. This requires time and space to put into practice. Generally, the group of people living in such housing is formed and comes together a few years before they move in. During these meetings, they work together to define their vision for the building’s future and the cohabitation dynamics they wish to establish. Therefore, by the time they start living together, they have already built community dynamics to contribute to collective living.

“Your home is the entire building” is how many of us living in this manner explain the model, a statement that effectively encapsulates it. This type of housing is shaped around a building where interpersonal relationships take centre stage, where common spaces complement individual housing units and where the community takes the form of open-air dinners and gatherings to make the collective machinery work. Although it might seem insignificant, we have seen how important it is, from an architectural point of view, to provide spaces that favour interpersonal relationships: wide landings that invite people to linger, outdoor staircases that connect living spaces, washing machines in spaces where it is easy to run into neighbours… Designing a building in this fashion is more beneficial than we think. We tackle isolation and loneliness; it is easier for us to find out if a neighbour needs help, or simply to get better acquainted with neighbours.

And without realising it, building collective projects around housing also plays a part in changing the city’s model. The collective organisation we are discussing helps us to get involved in existing initiatives in the neighbourhoods, towns and cities where we live. Just as we organise and celebrate behind closed doors, we also do so externally: taking part in community plans, in local festivals, with organisations fighting for the right to housing… There are many examples of territorial organisation to which we contribute, based on the commitment to change brought about by this model.

Challenges for growth

Cession of use housing cooperatives constitute an increasingly emerging and solid reality. This is demonstrated by existing projects, as well as by the commitment of some city councils to assigning land to non-profit cooperatives wishing to develop projects. However, there are still many steps to be taken to make it a model that can be used by everyone, and that can grow to the levels of countries such as Germany and Denmark.

As demonstrated by the study Assequibilitat econòmica de l’habitatge cooperatiu en cessió d’ús: diagnosi, reptes i propostes[3], [Economic Affordability of Cession of Use Housing Cooperatives: Assessment, Challenges and Proposals], supported by several organisations and produced by La Dinamo Fundació, the main difficulty in accessing this model is the initial social capital contribution that the user must make to the cooperative, which is refundable in the event of cancellation. In projects in which an existing building is acquired, these financial contributions are much more manageable than in new construction projects, in which the entire cost of construction must be assumed. To quote figures, we are talking about approximately 2,000 euros in projects in which only the existing building needs to be refurbished, and approximately 25,000 euros in the case of new buildings located in the city of Barcelona.

This is the main barrier to access, but not the only one. In most cases, participating in such a project requires a time investment that not everyone can take on. Collective management, as has been highlighted, encourages members’ participation, which takes place during a very long development process and, subsequently, during cohabitation in the housing unit.

Seeking ways to reduce this time investment in the long term is one of the issues that Sostre Cívic is raising. As a cooperative that currently brings together around 25 projects with more than 500 homes, it combines long self-development processes with other shorter ones, as has been done with the acquisition of homes through the exercise of the right to first refusal, provided for in Decree Law 1/2015, on extraordinary and urgent measures to mobilise homes resulting from foreclosure processes. This approach not only makes the model more affordable and therefore more diverse, but also addresses the foundation of one of its pillars: the fight against speculation. These acquisitions mobilise unused housing that was owned by financial institutions and had been uninhabited for years, which is transferred to organised civil society in a cooperative, affordable and transformative manner.

This alternative model is here to stay, has grown stronger in recent years and faces the challenge of continuing to grow while overcoming the stumbling blocks in its path. It has established a structure and is gaining the strength to do so, ensuring that its proposal for transformation reaches more and more people and making it more inclusive and representative of social diversity.

[1] Les claus de l’habitatge cooperatiu en cessió d’ús [The Ins and Outs of Cession of Use Housing Cooperatives]. Sostre Cívichttps://ow.ly/f3OQ50P3f39

[2] Housing Cooperatives Observatory. Llargavista, 2022.

[3] Assequibilitat econòmica de l’habitatge cooperatiu en cessió d’ús: diagnosi, reptes i propostes. La Dinamo Fundació, 2021. via.bcn/lgMq50PcFoE

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