Ireland needs to fully embrace community-led housing

Irish meitheal tradition has potential to help solve the crisis – with State support

Cloughjordan Ecovillage, Co Tipperary. Photograph: Alan Betson

Cloughjordan Ecovillage, Co Tipperary. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The delayed Housing for All Strategy is supposed to guide the next nine years of housing policy in Ireland. If it does not have a strong focus on community-led housing, it will be a tragic missed opportunity. 

Community-led housing is an umbrella term for approaches where groups not only have a high level of involvement in and control over what is built but also have ongoing responsibility for managing their own community. It is about people living good lives together in affordable homes embedded in sustainable communities. 

Cloughjordan EcoVillage in Tipperary is one of the best-known Irish examples, along with Kildorrery in Cork.

Community-led housing groups often work with organisations such as Ó Cualann Cohousing Alliance, whose mission is to “Build communities, not just houses”. Community-led housing was mentioned for the first time in Irish legislation in the Affordable Housing Act this month, in a brief clause that mandates housing authorities to enter into “arrangements with a community-led housing organisation, a housing co-operative or a community land trust”.

It is a start, but doomed to failure unless infrastructure follows. Local authorities have struggled to engage with community groups because there has been no clear framework to date.

Self-Organised Architecture is a not-for-profit Irish think-tank that has been spearheading research on community-led housing. Earlier this year it launched important research, Roadmapping a Viable Community-Led Housing Sector for Ireland.

The research examines eight Irish projects and numerous European examples, particularly in the UK, Germany and Belgium, and sets out a number of roadmaps for Ireland.

For example, the state of Berlin decided that state-owned land would be disposed of via long-term leasing at a fixed price rather than on the basis of the highest possible price, aside from exceptional circumstances.  

When community groups tender for land, the successful bidder must demonstrate not only how it meets the local housing needs but also provides the most social value – that is, the most positive impact on society. Social value tends to focus on multi-generational living, social mix, art and culture, and sustainability. Germany provides very low-interest loans from the state bank, KfW, which are drawn down through local banks, which often provide significant mentoring as well.

Positive impact

Imagine the positive impact on Ireland of moving from focusing on the monetary value of land to focusing instead on the social value? Cash-starved local authorities often see land sales as a means of funding other projects. Moving beyond this understandable but short-sighted priority will not happen without significant State support.

Since 2016 the UK has allocated £223 million for community-led housing. This led to the establishment of community-led housing hubs, which work with groups at an early stage, offering essential advice, mentoring and project management. They also work with local boroughs, developers and housing associations.

A clear pathway with support and grants available at every stage, from planning to building, is beginning to emerge. A community-led housing fund like the UK’s is sorely needed to build capacity in the Irish sector. 

Targeted low-interest development and long-term financing are also needed, perhaps along the lines of the German model. Given that some of the schemes are rental, they could be brought under the aegis of the Housing Finance Agency and Cost Rental Equity loan scheme.

Community Land Trusts are one thought-provoking form of community-led housing. Ownership of the land remains with a trust, so residents pay only for their homes and an ongoing ground lease. While leases are inheritable, the conditions set by the trust prevent anyone from making a quick buck by selling the homes. They remain affordable in perpetuity. 

Self-Organised Architecture’s research profiles Community Land Trust Brussels (CLTB), where families with an income of up to €40,000 may become members and purchase their own home at 25-50 per cent of the market price. Residents receive a 25-year mortgage at 2 per cent from a social credit organisation. The ground lease costs €10 a month. 

Facilitating trusts

It would help to create a legal footing for Irish community land trusts if a statutory definition were inserted in the Housing (Regulation of Approved Housing Bodies) Act 2019, and would also facilitate trusts accessing public land.

The eight Irish projects profiled in Self-Organised Architecture’s research are diverse. One is a 25-home project in Callan called Nimble Spaces. It aims to enable people with disabilities to live in an inclusive and supportive neighbourhood. The project is a mixture of social and co-operative housing. The project involves Camphill Callan, Líonra Co-Housing, LiD Architects, Ó Cualann CoHousing Alliance and Tuath Housing, and the funding so far has come from the Arts Council, the Department of Housing, Kilkenny County Council and Kilkenny Leader Partnership.

It is a good illustration of the kind of hoops a group, no matter how dedicated, has to jump through to realise a vision. A number of pilot projects involving coherent finance pathways, mentoring and support would demonstrate how much this model has to offer. Nothing beats visiting and walking around a successful initiative.

The housing crisis is often presented as an intractable problem. While complex, difficult and multi-faceted, at least part of the solution lies in this modern version of the meitheal tradition that has always been an inspiring part of Irish society.

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