This post, authored by Tom Moore and David Mullins, discusses how community-led housing sectors are developing their role. This piece was first published in Evidence, a newsletter that promotes housing research to practitioners. It summarises the authors’ recent paper of the same title published in Voluntary Sector Review, and is linked to presentations given by David in Seminar 1of the series and by Tom in Seminar 3.
Scaling up or going viral? How should community-led housing be supported?
Community-led and self-help housing has a long history in England. But it has become more prominent in recent years in response to entrenched housing problems such as homelessness, undersupply of affordable housing, and neighbourhood decline. Community-led housing organisations innovate by prioritising local needs and emphasising community leadership and engagement. This has led to a groundswell of support for community land trusts (CLTs) and self-help housing organisations, providing some substance to policies promoting localism and community empowerment.
Yet to take root these organisations require more than just pledges of support. They need practical and ideological strengthening in order to secure flows of resources, legitimacy, and to ensure local objectives are not overwhelmed by government priorities or partnering organisations. Both are also heavily reliant on the contribution made by volunteers who form, run and manage the organisations. Our new research paper explored the recent growth of CLTs and self-help housing to see which forms of support and partnership have been effective in helping them flourish.
CLTs are set up by local people to increase the supply of affordable housing in communities affected by issues such as gentrification and undersupply of homes, while self-help housing organisations are created to bring empty homes back into use, as well as to tackle neighbourhood dereliction. There are now around 160 CLTs and 110 self-help housing organisations in operation across England, with a total of around 300 CLT homes constructed or in planning. The self-help housing sector aims to bring an additional 1,600 empty homes back into use by 2015. There are, however, key differences in the way each sector has expanded.
The CLT sector has developed a formalised network of umbrella bodies operating at national and regional scales. These professional umbrella bodies can reduce burdens on local projects by providing technical expertise, training and support for housing development, identifying resources, and assisting with organisational management. This institutional support has been critical to the expansion of CLTs and there are now six umbrella bodies in different regions, supported by a National CLT Network – a membership body that lobbies for CLTs nationally.
While such expansion is sometimes referred to as ‘scaling up’, this term has an unfortunate nuance that implies a shift from the community-based local focus that many participants see as the key advantage of these organisations. For instance, some of the professional CLT umbrellas adopt a property development role in their own right, which meets local housing need but alters our understanding of community ownership and control within the CLT sector. CLTs may also form partnerships with technical experts such as housing associations in order to overcome practical problems, gain access to grant funding, and mitigate risk, but the nature of these partnerships may shift decision-making and the economic benefits of schemes away from local communities.
Self-help housing has expanded differently, following an approach known as ‘going viral’. There is a loose network of support, led by a single national intermediary – Self-Help-Housing.Org – that aims to reproduce local projects in different places by brokering partnerships and facilitating local networking and shared practice between projects. This peer mentoring approach aims to preserve local leadership rather than creating larger scale support structures, but also risks overburdening local projects and diverting them from their own work. The framework for bringing empty homes back into use has also begun to incorporate a range of roles and local partners such as local authority empty homes officers, housing associations and other third sector partners, suggesting that self-help housing may begin to follow the pattern of expansion set by the earlier growth of CLTs. This involves the development of new institutional structures and partnerships to provide intermediary support regionally and locally.
State support for self-help places significant faith in the capacity of volunteers, yet support and resources are required to construct an environment in which community-led housing can thrive. This has largely been achieved by CLTs using an active network of intermediaries, housing associations and local authorities involved in their development. Led by their national intermediary, self-help housing groups have largely developed through a blend of peer mentoring and professional support. However, the shift to partnership approaches raises concerns that the interests of local community groups may be incompatible with, or overwhelmed by, those of larger partners such as asset-focused housing associations.
This is not inevitable and the role of partners and intermediaries has clearly been important; however, a key challenge in scaling up community-led initiatives is that professionalisation may threaten the very objectives and values that small-scale local providers were created to preserve. At a national level both sectors place a strong emphasis on their members being community-led and maintain a commitment to peer mentoring. It will be interesting to observe, as these two sectors evolve, whether similar or different solutions emerge to the common dilemma of harnessing external resources and support, while maintaining the local scale and accountability that provides the unique added value of the community-led housing sector.