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Co-house, co-op but only sometimes co-live

© by Nuala Whitty

We should look to Co-operative and Cohousing solutions to the Housing Crisis caused by dependence on developers and prejudice against social housing

by Caroline Hurley and Kim O’Shea

THE RUMBLING by the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) of a dangerous gang engaged in prolonged extortion of building companies for protection, leading to High Court drama in October 2019, was the culmination of various inquiries involving Dublin City Council into accusations of illegal practices since 2016. CAB claimed well-rewarded criminals carried out anti-social acts at building sites to pressurise developers to decamp.

In Drogheda, after seventy shootings and bombings in one year between feuding families, national emergency and armed response Garda have been deployed but a lack of intelligence hampers efforts. Some believe only the type of multi-agency taskforce assembled to combat similar mayhem in Limerick in the early 2000s would work now. Feuding Ennis families repeatedly fight it out with machetes, chainsaws and slash hooks. Casualties mount as the Hutch-Kinahan war extends internationally from Dublin. Parcel bombs are being tossed through letterboxes in a Killarney housing estate. With aggression escalating, bus and rail workers voted unanimously last August to strike if nothing was done about daily assaults, threats, robberies and racist insults encountered by them.

2018 saw a 7% rise in crimes categorised as anti-social, and a 50% rise
in anti-social behaviour orders issued, with only about 200 served nationwide

Beyond those headline-grabbing examples, noise, verbal abuse, trespassing, property damage, stalking and other intrusive and disruptive behaviour frequently forces trapped, targeted householders to uproot as complaints fall on deaf ears. Violations range from vicious random attacks to insidious sinister predation. Effective legal remedies seem to exist in theory only. It’s as if afflicted residents are suddenly conscripted by faceless officialdom into an isolated full-time social-work role, with no consultation or preparation. According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO) and Garda figures, 2018 saw a 7% rise in crimes categorised as anti-social, and a 50% rise in anti-social behaviour orders issued, with only about two hundred served nationwide.

Communities live in fear of fearless malfeasants. Where the nuisance is eliminated there is a syndrome of counter-threats. None of this suggests we should condone vengefulness but it does point to the futility of pursuing approved avenues of redress, given beleaguered gardaí, disempowered Councils, conflicted Courts, and meek providers of Citizens Advice, Crime Victims Helpline, and similar bodies.

The most pertinent laws are: the Housing Acts 1966 to 2014, governing local authority housing; the Planning and Development Act 2000; the Residential Tenancies Acts 2004 to 2016; the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Acts 2004 to 2016; the Non-fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997; the Children’s Acts 2001 to 2017; the Control of Dogs Act 1986; the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992 and the Courts Act 1986.

An analysis of training for local authority staff dealing with anti-social behaviour, cited in a Community Mediation Works 2010 report, ‘The State Of “Anti-Social Behaviour” In Working Class Communities’, found that “training focused on ensuring that the correct legal procedures were followed”. Equipping staff with skills conducive to impartial investigations, community mediation and tenancy support were peripheral considerations. Bureaucratic rigidity seems still to prevail, though there is a greater emphasis on rights. The report criticised “housing management policies that make enabling tenant purchase the priority”, to the detriment of quality, amenities and relationships. It blamed the 1997 Housing Act for splitting anti-social behaviour into two categories: first, drug dealing, and then, serious intimidation and threatening behaviour, suggesting the latter was less important. The 2003 Norris report faulted the Act for pushing eviction without due process as the solution of choice to anti-social behaviour. While eviction is very rare now, anti-social behaviour is not. Providing only the draconian measure of summary eviction as redress for the widespread torture of peace-loving citizens is uncivic. While not dealing directly with community conflict, management could arrange “cost effective programmes proven to help families in difficulty live peaceably with their neighbours”. These measures could include mediation, family support, monitoring, liaison and above all, real tenant participation through their own organising initiatives. However, such resources are rarely made available.

The Free Legal Aid Centre (FLAC)’s 2018 Annual Report drew attention to “the vague and imprecise nature of the legislation dealing with Garda vetting prior to the allocation of local authority housing and the huge disparity between local authorities in relation to the assessment of disclosures made by Gardaí and more worryingly the nature of certain disclosures being made by An Garda Síochána itself”. The lack of standards is causing social collapse.

Tenants of housing associations or Approved Housing Bodies (AHBs) report much higher levels of satisfaction than those living in either the council or private sector

Residents’ suggestions for beneficial amenities are routinely refused, leaving many with nothing to do but reconcile themselves to their own containment. As anger spills over, the risk of harsh measures like fines and curfews goes up, even though research by bodies like ‘Preparing for Life’ shows that humane steps including early intervention and education are what really work.

A wideranging 2017 survey by the Irish Council for Social Housing discovered that tenants of housing associations or Approved Housing Bodies (AHB) report much higher levels of satisfaction than those living in either the council or private sector. Regular property maintenance, reasonable hands-on management, tenant focus and a sense of community were advantages cited. AHBs tend to have strict anti-social policies facilitating fast, effective action. An internal audit of local authorities conducted by the National Oversight and Audit Commission (NOAC) in 2017 referenced policies and procedures meant to be followed for similar challenging situations, but they are mere aspirations. The responsibility of local authorities to co-ordinate services for citizens of varying needs, in such a way as to balance the rights of all, appears diminished.

The Housing Agency, whose remit is to facilitate national housing policy, has published papers by the Centre for Housing Research shedding light on approaches taken internationally to ameliorate friction between neighbours. While taken for granted in many places, community safety is a new notion for Ireland. Clearly there is much scope to learn from elsewhere.

Compounding the impact of anti-social behaviour, isolation and loneliness are currently diagnosed as public health epidemics, with urban areas seeing higher instances of loneliness despite the physical presence of more people. Loneliness is more than just being alone or isolated; it’s a lack of connection to surroundings and community. So how can we begin to think about combatting anti-social behaviour, isolation and loneliness? One answer to this question may lie in ‘alternative’ models of living: models that encourage community building and solidarity, and often have a zero-tolerance policy on anti-social behaviour. But where should we begin to look for inspiration? Is there any country that has a population without social issues, without housing issues, without anti-social behaviour?

In the late 1960s ‘Cohousing’ began to spread in Denmark, and later to the rest of Scandinavia and Europe, and more recently to the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. Cohousing – which can be thought of as intentional communities of persons living in individual homes, with common spaces and resources shared by the community – is estimated to house approximately one per cent of the Danish population (over 50,000 people). Residents of cohousing developments often eat evening meals and partake in various other activities, together; share a wealth of resources; display greater ecological consciousness; and have participated in the architectural design of their dwellings. At least some members usually exhibit strong bonds predating the cohousing projects joined. Healthy relating is crucial to collaborative housing approaches. While multigenerational communities are the most common form, cohousing is particularly beneficial for those older people who don’t require an excessive or intrusive level of care, and who benefit from engaging in social situations and maintaining their independence.

At this point we must clarify that ‘Cohousing’ and the now commercially voguish ‘Co-living’ are not the same thing – where cohousing stresses the importance of community, mutual support and shared activities, co-living is a profit-maximising form of short-term rental, with common workspaces, and often a host of services (laundry, housekeeping, etc) included in the rental price. Co-living can also be conceptualised as a combined live/work space for the so-called digital nomads, lacking the degree of self-organisation and long-term vision implicit in cohousing.

Another alternative model of living, common in much of Europe, is ‘Co-operative Housing’. In this model, a prospective resident would join and receive shares in a housing co-op, and be considered a tenant in their home which is provided by the co-op. The individual can sell their shares at any point, but the co-operative normally has the right of first refusal. By re-buying the shares, the co-operative can ensure that the house never enters a speculative market in which the current shareholder could specify an above-average asking price for their shares. Although instances of co-operative housing occurred in Ireland, and agencies like Cooperative Housing Ireland keep the movement alive, the proportion of Irish housing co-ops is small. To understand why this model, as well as cohousing and other community-led or community-supported models, have not had the same success in Ireland as they have in Europe, we must look to historical housing policies in Ireland and how they have affected the Irish population. An analysis of historical housing policy in Ireland reveals a common thread which has left us all with the housing crisis – and subsequent rise of anti-social behaviour that we are facing today: the reliance on developer-led housing provision.

Since the establishment of the first Irish government, which inherited appalling housing conditions, with tenement blocks collapsing and killing numerous people, the country has relied upon private developers to solve a government problem. Only once in the state’s history has the number of new social housing units surpassed the number of private developments, and that was in the 1950s. Since then, the government has maintained a close relationship with private housing developers and has allowed and encouraged these private companies and individuals to build to their heart’s content. As Eoin Ó Broin mentions in his recently-published book Home, government subsidies and incentives have always favoured the private homeowner. The 1966 Housing Act consolidated all pre-existing housing legislation in Ireland into one Act which continued to provide incentives for home ownership, while also extending a right of purchase to all local authority tenants. From the introduction of the Act in 1966 to the end of the 1960s, over 60,000 social homes (70% of total homes) were sold to tenants, reinforcing the dogma that homes are to be owned instead of rented, and ignoring quality.

Poor housing policy is rooted not just in the reliance on private development. In the late 1960s, following the 1966 Housing Act, the government had a newfound optimism in the housing sector and embarked on the first largescale housing developments, including the 3,000-unit Ballymun development in Dublin and the 1,000-unit Moyross development in Limerick. But as Ó Broin says in Home, this optimism and confidence was not matched by long-term investment, and what appeared to be iconic projects in the late 1960s were realised as avatars of poor housing policy by the 1990s, with anti-social behaviour becoming a defining feature.

The preference for home ownership, consistently overvalued and over promoted in Ireland, has led to a vicious cycle of a desire for homeownership and subsequent reliance on the private sector to provide homes for people to own. This has also boosted a driving element of the Irish psyche – that a home should be an owned commodity, demonstrative of ‘success’, and not simply a place to live. Despite the normality of lodgers in the past, and a growing acceptance of shared amenities in multi-unit developments, Irish society in general still frowns upon long-term rental, and almost everybody still wants to own a home. A shift in this historically-rooted cultural attitude may be necessary before society openly considers the aforementioned ‘alternative’ lifestyles driven by a desire for community over commodity. Developers cannot currently supply housing in adequate quantities to meet increased demand, particularly since the economic recovery. This growth in demand and overall private property investment, coupled with land hoarding, has driven the price of property to a point where the United Nations called housing in Ireland “unaffordable”. But rather than being a commodity in a speculative market, housing should be a human right, a place for people to live and raise a family without having to worry about losing their home because of a shift in precarious economic and market conditions. Once that principle is acknowledged, optimum planning is the next step. While the law guarantees lawful occupants the right to privacy and the exclusive enjoyment and use of their property, it is increasingly difficult to assert this right once infringed. Since conventional ownership is vulnerable to decisions made by others about the immediate neighbourhood despite potentially devastating impacts, options involving more choice and negotiation about the future of the environment and community where people live lend themselves better to lasting amity and autonomy. While ideological change is needed to promote social housing, and multi-agency efforts are needed to successfully tackle antisocial behaviour, models such as Cohousing and Co-operative housing seem best.

Art by Nuala Whitty