Joe Atkinson explains how the LILAC cohousing community came together and why their project is affordable for everyone.
Interview with Joe Atkinson
Around 2005, Joe got quite interested in fuel depletion and climate change. At the time, Joe had a nice job in IT and was getting paid well but felt that his life wasn't very fulfilling. He was looking to get involved in something that would provide this fulfillment, and be in line with his ethics.
Eco-building Can be Really Simple
Joe did a Masters in Architecture at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, at Machynlleth which he found absolutely fascinating. Being a bit of a techie, he really liked the technical side of the course and the physics behind how buildings work. This got him really interested in eco-building and he feels that a lot of it is actually really simple and backed by common sense. Instead of constructing thermally leaky buildings, we should be building sensibly.
How Joe Got Involved in LILAC
Joe went to an event where some of the members of LILAC (it was previously known as Leeds Eco Village) had a stall and were trying to recruit new members. Joe was at a point in his life where he was looking for somewhere to live. LILAC appealed to him as it was community of people who were building eco-houses that he would be able to afford. It was a no-brainer for him from that perspective and he got involved.
Being on the Board
When Joe joined, the group was really keen to recruit people on to the board. As Joe is the kind of person who commits totally to something new that he gets excited about, he decided to join the board.
Being on the board meant taking legal and financial responsibility for the project collectively with the other board members. Once Joe joined, he found his own little niche as the person who is a good team-builder. The board at the time was populated by lots of people who were really dynamic and making stuff happen, and his supportive role on the board really helped things along and played to his strengths.
Making Community Decisions
The board needed to think about how the whole community functioned and to avoid a two tier decision making system between the board and non-board members of the community. To address this concern they had an away weekend where an external facilitator came in and they did a whole community visioning and strategic planning exercise. They discussed the whole community's goals and looked at different options for how to get there. Smaller task teams were set up to look at particular aspects of the project such as their relationship with the existing community, recruiting members, publicity and so on.
Joe joined the group that was to liaise with the professional team- the quantity surveyor, the project manager and the main contractor. The group went through a tender process to appoint a contractor.
Developing a Relationship with Leeds City Council and the Existing Community
The group had been in discussions with the Asset Management Team at Leeds City Council about various sites around the city and looked at two that were very suitable. It took the group a while to develop a relationship with the Council because when they first approached them, they probably came across as a bit of a rag-tag bunch of optimistic, well-meaning do-gooders who wanted to build some eco-topia. It wasn't until they came back to them with a project manager and a serious business plan that the Council started to really take them seriously as a credible group who they could sell the land to.
They ended up choosing the site in Bramley, where they did a community consultation with the local residents. The community really liked the idea of what they were trying to do which gave the group a really good feeling about choosing that site.
LILAC- (L)ow (I)mpact (L)iving, (A)ffordable, (C)ommunity
LILAC is an acronym and stands for three main elements- Low Impact Living, Affordable and Community. The Low Impact Living element comprises of buildings built using the fabric first approach, an airtight construction with mechanical ventilation with heat recovery and the use of renewable materials such as timber, straw bale, lime render and lime plaster and triple-glazed windows. There is solar PV on the roof and solar thermal for the houses but not for the flats. They have used the Passivhaus approach, and are not far off from it, but haven't spent the extra money to get the accreditation. They also have fewer car parking spaces- there is half a car parking space per home and two secure bike parking spaces. They have also set up community agreements for lots of other different aspects like sub-letting agreements, the car policy and the installation of electric car charging points.
The LILAC Mutual Home Ownership Society
Joe explains how the affordability model of LILAC is achieved through their legal and financial structure which is called The Mutual Home Ownership Society. It is essentially a housing co-operative and it uses a new financing model unique to Britain, as each member is effectively buying shares in LILAC Mutual Home Ownership Society Limited.
The total project cost is divided proportionally between each of the twenty homes, with each home representing the notional build cost for each unit, e.g. where the four bedroom units are more expensive to build than the three, two and one bedroom units. The amount that people pay to live there is related to their earnings. So all the members pay thirty five percent of their net income and the amount that relates to determines the exact size of their home size.
Once the debt associated with your flat or house has been paid off, you drop down to just paying ten percent of your net income. At that point you're just paying a small amount as a service charge or ground rent. If you had a normal leasehold, you'd always be paying a small amount for things like insurance and management fees, etc.
The group is decoupling the value of the homes from the housing market, and that's intended to keep these homes affordable in perpetuity. So they will always have the same ratio to earnings. Living at LILAC isn't about investing in property; it’s about creating affordable housing as a legacy of the project and about buying the service of a home. It's about homes as shelter, not as a nest egg or an investment.
LILAC is about Creating Good Quality Affordable Housing
According to Joe the process has worked so far and they are keen to support other groups who are interested in this model. At LILAC, they are not creating social housing, but affordable good quality housing. Joe can't imagine anywhere else where you can get to live in an eco-house with all this amazing community and it's affordable and you get to own it. This is potentially a model for anyone who is excluded from home ownership for whatever reason.
They have an active waiting list and they are receiving new applications all the time. This gives the current members an added level of security. If a member were to lose their job and couldn't afford to live there anymore, there's a whole process that takes place before they have to move out. And if at the end of that process they still have to move out, there is a waiting list of people that already want to buy your shares and move in.
Membership by Consensus
Everyone who lives at LILAC- apart from a couple of the very early founders – has had to apply to join. Because the group operates a consensus decision making model, everyone in LILAC has the right to veto someone applying. When Joe’s partner moved in, she had to write an application too and there was a period when somebody could've voted against her moving in. She sailed through with flying colours, recounts Joe happily.
Living in Cohousing Comes with its Own Challenges
Joe feels that it has been quite interesting going through a process where you have to prove that you can afford to live at LILAC because the affordability model relies on everyone declaring their financial situation. Although they now have a finance task team who look at all the finances, previously applicants had to submit their application with their financial information to their future neighbours which could be quite uncomfortable.
Living in an intensive cohousing community requires you to adapt and change the way you think. It can be really nice and sociable, but at times overwhelming. One of the real strengths of the cohousing design is that you have got your own place and you can retreat to it if you need to. But when you're ready to come out, you've got a whole community there waiting.
Everyone at LILAC has been very supportive and open minded and have a real willingness to learn about living in a community and to learn about themselves as well. Living in cohousing challenges you in ways that you might not expect- it is a bit different to living in a traditional street in Britain. Joe admits that there have been a lot of challenges so far and there are likely to be more in the future, but they look forward to them.
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