Obituary: Trevor James, housing co-op pioneer

After moving from the UK to the Netherlands, the architect continued his involvement in the co-op sector and was nationally recognised for his efforts

The Dutch housing co-operative movement is mourning the loss of Trevor James, who died on 29 April at the age of 74 following a cardiac arrest, while on a nature walk in the UK.

A consistent ambassador for consumers in the housing market, James was born on 5 April 1949 in Boscombe, Bournemouth. He pursued a degree in architecture at Portsmouth School of Architecture. He received his accreditation from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1976 and registered with the Architects Registration Council of the UK.

His involvement in the housing co-op movement began in the 1970s when he worked for five years as an architect and process supervisor at Solon Cooperative Housing Services, a former Industrial and Provident Society in London.

After moving to the Netherlands in 1981 he joined the country’s Housing Experiments Ministerial Steering Group (SEV) where he supported 23 resident groups in researching the possibilities of and setting up self-management projects.

He continued his involvement in the establishment and supervision of several self-management projects throughout the 1980s and 1990s, particularly through Platform31, the successor of SEV. He served as an expert of Platform31’s Klushuur Program and partner on its Housing Cooperatives Program. He contributed to and wrote several publications for Platform31.

In 1985 he established Abakus, a consulting company advising policy makers and social housing providers about resident participation and empowerment. In 1998 he became a consultant for Vannimwegen, where he worked until his retirement in 2021.

In 2020 he was involved in setting up Cooplink, a secondary co-op for housing co-operatives. As chair of Cooplink, James dedicated almost all his spare time to the apex pro bono to help support the current wave of small-scale resident-led mutual housing associations in the Netherlands.

Cooplink colleagues say he was “an exceptionally warm-hearted person, socially engaged and passionate about his vocation” who “put his heart and soul into creating better opportunities for housing co-operatives”.

“He taught me and many others that residents can also be at the helm themselves, that the biggest pitfall is to organise ‘for’ and not ‘with’ residents,” said former colleague, Erik-Jan Hopstaken, who described him as someone who “ensured that everyone was heard, and showed warmth for each person he interacted with compassion, rather than pity.” He chose to let things happen and avoided taking the stage if it was not necessary.

James’s important contributions to the growth of the Dutch housing co-op movement brought him royal recognition in 2022 when he received the Knight in the Order of Orange Nassau for the introduction of “right to management” within the Dutch housing sector, and his role in the emancipation of dwellers. He received the honour from Utrecht mayor Sharon Dijksma, who said at the time “The royal family has great appreciation for how Trevor James has been committed to society for many years. That is why it has pleased the King to give Trevor James a royal decoration.”

She added: “The way in which he influenced the emancipation of residents throughout his life is unique. He impressed with his tenacity and held on where others let go.” The mayor praised James for being able to bring together residents and public housing representatives, acting as a bridge between the two groups of stakeholders.

“It’s all true: Trevor James was an exceptional human being. We will continue his work, live his passion and realise his dream. Our thoughts are with his wife Annemiek, his daughters Dora and Lianne and his family,” Cooplink said in a statement.

Ahead of helping to set up Cooplink, Trevor got in touch with the UK’s Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH) to exchange experience. 

Blase Lambert, CEO of CCH, said: “He contacted us because they were looking to set up Cooplink and get the co-operative housing sector up and running in the Netherlands.

“I attended a couple of online meetings with him and his colleagues and I met him over in Helsinki at the International Social Housing Festival where we were both speaking in different sessions, and again in Zurich at the International Co-operative Housing Symposium. We continued to have contact over the time and I introduced him to colleagues at Cooperative Housing International with a view to try to link what the Netherlands were doing into the sort of broader work of the international housing co-operative movement. 

“I was really sad and shocked to suddenly hear of his passing from one of his colleagues over there. It is a real loss to the people who knew him, and to the housing co-op sector in the Netherlands, in which he has been very active.”

James’s family set up a page for colleagues and friends wishing to leave their tributes and condolences messages