Nathan Bower-Bir is a PhD student researching co-ops, the housing crisis and decision making. Originally from Indiana, he has lived in Edinburgh for six years, and recently spoke at Co-operative Congress on reimagining housing.
How did you get involved in co-operatives?
I came to Edinburgh for an MSc in sustainable energy systems and was supposed to be here for just a year, but Edinburgh has a way of capturing people. I’ve been a student on two continents and lived in all sorts of housing conditions, many of them not great. Students today face their own version of the housing crisis, with most student housing either run down or outrageously expensive – or both. Student housing is now a lucrative ‘investment opportunity’, with government-backed buy-to-let schemes and internationally financed private student halls driving up costs and disrupting communities. But students deserve homes over which they have control and that are integrated into wider society. I was involved in setting up the Edinburgh Student Housing Co-op (ESHC) to empower myself and other students to provide our own, good housing. Now for my PhD I am exploring this further, looking at the daily life and routines in the co-op, how residents work together to meet their needs, and rethinking democracy not as a chance to vote but as a way of living and conducting ourselves in relation to others.
What do student housing co-ops offer that ‘regular’ student housing doesn’t?
The first thing you might notice at ESHC is the amazing community of people. A new member moving in immediately has 105 neighbours ready to show them around, have a chat over tea, and help them get settled. You’ll likely also notice the 60-bike storage, sheltered by a green roof we built – and the workshop in the basement. And it’s like this because we the residents control our own housing. Whereas in standard halls or student lets, residents have almost no control over the material space of their housing, in the co-op, residents are putting up new shelves, replacing shoddy carpets with high quality flooring, and painting their walls something other than off-white. We are the stewards of this place for ourselves and future residents. Today’s hyper-commodified housing is not about providing good homes in strong communities – it is solely about making other people profit. In the housing co-op, we turn all that on its head. Residents have power over their home, and the responsibility for its upkeep. We want to be involved in our community and engage the Edinburgh beyond our walls. It seems to surprise a lot of people, but we’re actually responsible people who know things and have diverse skills.
What is the best thing about living in a housing co-op? And the hardest?
The co-op is a huge laboratory. The high turnover of membership (we’re all students) means we’re always educating ourselves and each other how to do all the work needed to run this place. Members carry out repairs and renovations, keep our finances in check, recruit new members, lobby politicians, and maintain a strong social atmosphere. Where else would we learn these things!? I think we’ve all come to recognise that co-operation is not an inherent skill, but a craft each of us must learn and nurture. This whole place, just like any anywhere, is a continual negotiation of ideas, of being challenged to work together. It can be frustrating, but it’s hugely rewarding, and I think we’re all better for it.
Where would you like to see co-operative housing in five years time?
Housing co-ops could play a huge role in meeting people’s needs for good quality, affordable housing. Already more than 67,000 people live in co-ops across the UK, but to build on that, we need better networks that help existing co-ops expand and support new ones. We also need to find a way to communicate that co-operative housing isn’t just for students or people who want to live an ‘alternative’ lifestyle. Ultimately, each co-op is whatever the residents want it to be. Not every housing co-op will be the right place for every person, but the beauty of the model is its flexibility to resident needs and aspirations. When people see that it can be the same housing they are living in now, but cheaper and more responsive to their actual needs, it becomes much more tangible and attractive.
What does the future hold for ESHC?
We’re working towards two big goals for ESHC in the near-term: housing more members, and forging a stronger connection with our local community. With 106 members, we benefit from economies of scale that yield a healthy financial surplus. Right now, we’re investing a lot of that back into our buildings, planning for flat refurbishments and renovating our basements to be open to the community for concerts, workshops, dinners, plays, or whatever interesting things people want to put on. But we also want to invest in other properties to help more students take control of their housing. Demand is huge, with around 10 applicants for every available place, so we know the idea is catching on. But most of our income goes to rent for the buildings, so to expand we need financial support from the wider co-op movement. If we owned our buildings outright, we would generate a surplus of over £300,000 annually – enough to make a down payment on a similar-sized property every few years. That’s the kind of self-propagating investment that could secure the future of the UK co-operative movement.
How can the co-op movement get involved?
The movement needs to recognise the profound role that housing co-ops can play in transforming society, and to re-think how new and growing co-ops are supported. ESHC is subsidising community-accessible spaces that wouldn’t exist otherwise, and we’ve also proved to be a nascent co-op incubator. Former residents have taken their first-hand experience of this way of living and organising to start, for example, the Mutual Artists Studio Co-operative and the Edinburgh Brewing Cooperative. But perhaps the greatest hurdle to any new or expanding co-op is access to financing. We need to reimagine what it means to ‘invest’ in the movement, and that ‘returns’ on our investment are not just financial, but come in stronger, more diverse, more empowered communities that carry the movement forward.