Cooperative housing: a strategic sector for the generation of the social market

Interview with David Guàrdia i Mascó, head of Habicoop's cooperative leased housing section.

14/02/2022 - 14:25 h - Housing Ajuntament de Barcelona

David Guàrdia i Mascó, head of the cooperative leased housing section at the Catalan Federation of Housing Cooperatives (Habicoop) and the Solidarity Economy Network (XES), analyses the history, future and challenges facing leased-housing cooperatives. The integration of policies and the streamlining of processes can speed up access to housing for the working classes.

Housing cooperatives are not new, but they have evolved a lot in recent years. Why do you think the profile of the housing cooperative movement has evolved?

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the goal of housing cooperatives has been to respond to the housing needs of the working classes, under the logic of mutual aid. This has evolved in the same way that housing policies and society have changed. At one time, the main option was ownership, and therefore, people understood that it was necessary to guarantee access to an owned dwelling.

At a time when an owned dwelling may also be a speculation and investment asset, as we see today, we have evolved towards different models of ownership. And therefore, the cooperative leased-housing movement, which is a type of cooperative movement for long-term rental, came into being.

What advantages does this cooperative leased-housing movement have compared to ownership?

Unfortunately, and for many reasons, rented housing, which in theory should provide access to affordable housing, has generated numerous difficulties in terms of vulnerability and access. Many people believe that, if they have the ability to save, the way to guarantee this right is ownership.

This is where we say, “listen, leased, cooperative housing is possible; it is a very similar model to what could be called an old-style rental”. For life or a long-term agreement. We want to create a model with the positive part that, until now, we have associated with purchasing, which is stability, and the positive part of renting, which is avoiding speculation or regarding the dwelling as an investment asset for the person who lives there.

And how does it work?

The cooperative, a non-profit organisation with a democratic base, owns the properties. The members pay a monthly quota to the cooperative at cost price, as if they were paying rent. That is the important thing.

In addition to being the owner, the cooperative is responsible for investment and financing: if someone asks for a mortgage, that is the cooperative. Whether it is for a new building, for acquiring a building, or a farmhouse in a rural area. And this is covered by the regular monthly contributions paid by the members. The cost of these monthly payments do not vary according to market prices in the neighbourhood concerned, with a speculative logic, but according to the real cost. In terms of financing, we prioritise ethical and cooperative funding: Coop57, Fiare Banca Ètica, etc. Also public banks, such as the Catalan Institute of Finance (ICF) which performs a lot of operations of this kind.

Why have you embraced this model in recent years, and what are the future prospects?

In the case of the City of Barcelona, a key factor is not only that it is seen as a housing policy, but also due to the involvement of Barcelona City Council’s Directorate of Cooperative, Social and Solidarity Economy Services. This has made it possible to view cooperative housing as a strategic, trailblazing sector for generating the social market, and therefore, cooperatives of architects, green-energy marketers and also job-placement companies in the construction sector, ethical collateral and insurance policies, etc.

However, in order to become established, two or three steps are required. You need to ensure that, when public land is available, the relevant bodies are aligned with the social and solidarity economy (SSE), in order to preserve the non-profit model. You also need greater agility in the process of transferring land, because the processes are sometimes much slower than any of us would like. And lastly, you need you complement the housing policy and move towards integrated policies, as in the case of taxation and subsidies.

In the city, there are currently various initiatives up and running or close to being so. Princesa49, La Borda, La Xarxaire, La Chalmeta, Cirerers and La Balma. What can we learn from these initiatives?

They make it possible to have a social dimension that would otherwise be impossible. First of all, we see the community dynamics that have been created in some of these projects. Secondly, that many of them have opted for innovation and sustainability. Some of them have won awards and are innovative projects with features such as centralised installations with wooden structures or with architectural designs that have won various types of recognition; this should also be highlighted in the context of the climate emergency we are facing.

And furthermore, they also create a social market, through the cooperative establishments in the buildings. These projects foster an economic network that is different to the one we are accustomed to. They also promote shared self-consumption initiatives for photovoltaic energy production and shared self-consumption among the members.

At the Catalan Federation of Housing Cooperatives (Habicoop) and the Solidarity Economy Network (XES), you are having a political impact which, among other things, has resulted in a draft resolution in the Catalan Parliament for consolidating the leased-housing model in Catalonia and fostering the public-cooperative alliance. What can you tell us about that and other advocacy and awareness-raising initiatives?

Structuring is vital in order to have spaces for representation, exchange and advocacy at a general level. As the model is under construction, this has generated, and is generating, a major allocation of resources to this task of structuring, of advocacy, of work. There is still no global framework of integrated, coherent or complementary public policies. We are creating it. The good collaboration between the Federation and the XES, which between the two of them account for nearly the entire sector, helps to strengthen this work.

We are enjoying a sweet spot, because we are making significant progress. Various city councils are providing support, with the transfer of land and tax discounts at a local level. We are also holding discussions with the Government of Catalonia and the General Directorate for the Social and Solidarity Economy, the Third Sector and Cooperatives, while other departments, such as Housing and Economy are facilitating the implementation of various public policies. For example, this year there have been the HabitatCoop settlement and the social housing subsidies.

However, cooperative leased housing is currently penalised in taxes such as the property-transfer tax and document duties. We are working with the Department of Economy and others, trying to ensure that our activity is not penalised more than any others.

In November 2020, Barcelona City Council presented the alliance with social and cooperative promoters to build a thousand affordable dwellings. What is your assessment?

The City Council has made a powerful commitment. Leasing has been recognised, it has a role and a significant weighting in the framework of this agreement, which is meant to streamline processes for direct allocation, under an agreement with the Federation and the XES. It is also a long-term commitment, not a one-off public policy. However, the implementation of the agreement and land transfer has dragged on longer than we would have wished.

The Network of Municipalities for the Social and Solidarity Economy (XMESS) is also working on the promotion of cooperative leased housing. Why do you think this is relevant? Apart from Barcelona City Council, how many other examples are there?

In order for the model to grow, we need involvement at a local level and distribution throughout the territory. In this regard, the Network of Municipalities for the Social and Solidarity Economy is playing a leading role, as a municipalist organisation. In terms of the model, it is acting as a gateway for training, dissemination, and awareness-raising. City councils often need to find points of reference, and in this regard, the XMESS is doing a good job.

Other municipalities, such as Palafrugell, Lleida and Martorell are making a commitment to acquiring buildings through pre-emptive rights. Other councils have also opted for putting public land up for tender or adjudication, such as Manresa and Palamós. And there are unique projects for private land, like the one in Cardedeu, which is the biggest in the country on private land. And Calonge, where the Council has become involved in mobilising an empty building in the middle of the city; Sant Cugat, with a project based on self-construction; the recovery of heritage and fostering rural property with projects such as Can Carner in Castellar del Vallès, or the recuperation of heritage in the old town, like in Titaranya de Valls.

How do you see the immediate future and what is needed in order to continue and accelerate this progress?

The public administration needs to strengthen the sector as well. Therefore, we need representative organisations to monitor, and also to advise: cooperatives, municipal bodies, groups of people who want to promote this type of project, and other administrations. And we’re not there yet; we need to take that step.

We also need these public policies to be permanent, more stable, better-known and forward-looking. We have to consider that the promotion of a new construction project can easily take six years.

Meanwhile, one goal would be obtaining private land. The transfer of public land for construction is of prime importance, but public land is also very limited. The Administration needs to provide instruments and resources to help cooperatives acquire private land or assets. Incentives such as the right to first refusal, subsidies for cooperatives for the acquisition and donation of these types of property, and other public policies that help to increase the pool of social, affordable housing, which is not ruled by market forces.

And it is also necessary to develop the cooperative leased housing model much more, as well as regulating and protecting it. When private land is used, what is there to prevent this regime from changing in the space of 10 years, due to a change of cooperative statutes approved at assembly? In our sector, we are finalising a proposal to modify the Cooperatives Act and guarantee the general interest of all projects, whether they be on public or private land.