Community-led housing researcher Philippa Hughes at a protest about bad landlords with Acorn

What is community-led housing?

In this interview with Philippa Hughes we talk community-led housing. Philippa explains what community-led housing is and how it exposes problems in the housing sector. Plus what it can do for the housing crisis, politics and a sustainable future.

Philippa’s background in housing

Here Grantham Scholar Phillipa Hughes explains how working with people who are homeless sparked her interest in housing research. 

How did you become interested in community-led housing research?

I’ve always been interested in rich country homelessness. How can a system work so poorly when there are clearly enough resources to go round at a national scale?

I also lived in London and Manchester at the time when there were spikes in homelessness due to austerity. At the time I was doing research roles and also volunteering in homeless shelters. I was glad that we were there to help but it seemed very dehumanising.

All of that led me to work at Shelter where I learned more about how housing gets built.

What did you do at Shelter?

I was looking at the housing advice and support services that they provide and doing inhouse evaluations. Shelter is a homelessness charity, but it’s also a housing charity. For me it was an eye-opening experience to learn about that side of the problem. It taught me to ask questions like: Why do we have the housing we have? Why does it seem to be impossible to build enough homes? Not just the number of homes, but the quality standards, and location.

Community-led housing: power and politics

Community-led housing researcher Philippa Hughes
Philippa Hughes

Here Philippa explains what community-led housing is – and isn’t. And she shows us how it exposes the problems of business as usual. Plus we talk about the role of politics in housing. 

What is community-led housing?

Community-led housing can be lots of things, but essentially it’s housing that has been built or brought back into use by the local community or future residents. It’s for the overall benefit of that community rather than an individual’s profit. And I would expect that community to continue to have control over the housing, in some form, into the future.

Why do people do it?

It is often used to create more affordable housing, or support more communal ways of living like co-housing. A lot of community-led housing also has sustainability as a key value, so community-led projects are leading the way in terms of sustainable building practices.

So, in a way, it’s easier to define it by what it’s not! For example, it’s not renting from a private landlord and it’s not normal social housing. Neither is it straightforward home ownership. Community-led housing is not built by the big developers. Most of all, it’s not business as usual.

For my research, I have found community-led housing is a portal for exploring how and what gets built. When you start to think about what is – and is not – business as usual, it lays out the existing system in an interesting way. Because you see how people work with, or against, the system to build what they want.

It’s not all about building new houses is it?

Right. Some projects look at empty homes, and uninhabitable housing is turned into habitable housing. This type of community-led project has a few benefits beyond creating homes for the individual residents.

Firstly, it reduces the number of empty homes in deprived areas. Empty homes can create problems, especially if there are a lot of them. Bringing these houses back into use might not be a priority for other organisations as it’s not a profitable endeavour.

Secondly, from an environmental point of view it is great, because it takes advantage of the housing we already have.

Thirdly, you can skill people up through doing up their homes. This is the idea of ‘sweat equity’ where labour is put in by the resident rather than money. This approach can be better for future residents who are in acute housing need as it is likely to be much quicker than the housing schemes that are built from scratch. Those take years to get built, often around 5 to 7 but it could be many more.

Lastly, projects like this make connections between the life of a building, the people who live in it and the life of a community.

What’s the value of community-led housing research?

For me, what’s interesting is how this collection of ideas called ‘community-led housing’ interacts with the dominant system and is a tool for people to achieve things. From a political perspective I am interested in anything that’s a challenge and creates movement.

Because housing is integral to every part of your life, but most people have little to do with their houses. Something like community-led housing breaks down some of the acceptance of alienation from your housing. Specifically, it counteracts the fact that most people never expect to have a say in how their home is built, or to even know anything about it.

So your research into community-led housing is more about demonstrating alternatives than, say, solving the housing problem?

A lot of people describe community-led housing as prefigurative politics. Community-led housing demonstrates a future, it offers new ways of thinking. Not just imagined alternatives but ones we build and think through. At the same time it holds a mirror up to the current system.

Overall, it makes us ask questions like, why is it so difficult for a bunch of people who love their area to build something or maintain something? Why is everything being done at scale? Or for profit? Why is it easier to do things for profit than not for profit? And why is land used to hold value for investors rather than for the best use of the people who live there?

It’s about resident and community power over the places we live.

So community-led housing exposes the politics of housing?

I think the aspiration of community-led housing is to not just find technical solutions but also a political exerting of control, creating power through building.

These ideas do have really quite strong radical routes. A key antecedent is in America. Black Americans in the 1950s who were excluded from the racist economic systems and took land into control so they could manage it themselves, and created the community land trust movement. And there’s roots in land rights in Scotland, the tenant uprising and Right to Roam.

Housing crisis

For decades now there’s been a housing crisis in the UK. The pandemic, austerity measures, and a lack of social housing have all made it worse. Here Philippa explains political problems that lie behind this crisis – and how capitalism drives it. 

Has the housing crisis got worse recently?

Of course, in many ways there’s always been a crisis, because at no point in UK history has everyone been housed.

But, there is a particular sharpness that’s emerged in the last decade. This links in with a decrease in social housing and cuts to welfare benefits leaving people unable to cover housing costs. And these housing costs have been going up as house prices and the cost of private rents have risen dramatically.

For instance, about 20% of the UK population rent. And it’s going up, it could be a quarter soon. Renting is not bad in itself, however unfortunately rented housing has the worst quality compared to other sectors. Plus it tends to be quite insecure. Previously renting used to be seen as a stopgap before buying, but now people live their whole lives in rented properties. As a result, we have more and more people, including many children, in insecure and inadequate housing.

Why is the current UK housing system failing so many people?

I think it’s largely due to financialisation of housing and the enormous power of big developers.

‘Financialisation’ refers to this whole process of focusing on the exchange value of a house as an asset, instead of its use value as a home. When this is the focus, rather than the housing needs of residents, the wrong sorts of things get built.

Could community-led housing be a way out of the housing crisis?

Not on its own. It takes about 7 years to see a community-led housing project through and involves a huge amount of volunteer hours. People who are in serious housing need don’t have the time to get involved in a community-led project and wait for a house. Also, currently it’s quite a small percentage of the housing that gets built. Hopefully, as the sector grows this will increase and we will also start to see communities making use of their housing as an asset to expand.

However, right now, it’s still having an impact. Community-led housing is creating affordable homes for the future, often in places where this has been a struggle, like rural areas. It’s also building the sort of community focused developments that aren’t available in the mainstream.

Most importantly, it demonstrates what is possible outside of profit driven development practices, and from a sustainability point of view it really highlights that people want homes that are environmentally sound.

Can you explain more about financialisation?

Putting developers to one side, so much of what is built, especially in cities, may be bought off plan by investors to rent out or to keep as an investment.

Even normal people are bought into this idea of housing as an investment process. You almost can’t avoid it. You can’t afford to ignore – presuming you can afford it – the fact your home is a financial tool. Ordinary people who can afford it, usually because they already have property, will take part in buy-to-let and become landlords themselves, because housing is seen as an investment.

All this, combined with a lack of social homes driven by the Right to Buy and an anti-social housing government ideology leads to a situation where many people struggle to find safe and affordable places to live.

What are some other drivers of the housing crisis?

The tools we have to fight the crisis can be weak.

For example, the planning system. In theory it should protect local people and the environment through controlling development. But you can’t always protect against unwanted development in the face of companies with the time, money and expertise to get what they want. For example, companies can engage in predatory land banking or spend huge amounts of money on planning appeals.

On the other hand, if a Local Authority has granted planning permission, then they can’t make a developer build the homes they have said they will. A section 106 agreement is supposed to be the developer’s contribution to affordable housing. But they can get out of it in a number of ways. And why wouldn’t they? In order to maximise their profit from the site, it’s not usually in a developer’s interest to build affordable housing. Under the existing system they can avoid doing so in a few ways. By paying a commuted sum or by building it elsewhere. Or it can even be swapped for infrastructure on the site.

Worst of all, developers can argue it down by their rights to make a certain kind of profit. It makes me furious! Developers use the high cost of the land to say they can’t afford to build the section 106 housing. But the land wouldn’t be so expensive without the practices of the developers.

Do you think the housing crisis is driving a change in political thinking of people on the ground?

Philippa Hughes at ACORN meeting
Philippa Hughes at an Acorn meeting.

Whether you rent is quite a good indicator of how you will vote. And I think there is an emerging consciousness through places like Acorn or the London Renters Union.

In some ways community-led housing is a boring manifestation of these struggles! Some of my interviewees have come from radical backgrounds. They say they struggle working in community-led housing because it is fundamentally not radical. So some people find that it can lose its political edge. But I think community-led housing still has political potential to expand our collective imagination and to expand what we do.

Are you hopeful we might solve the housing crisis?

There have been moves towards there being more rights for the renter than the landlord. And there was action about homelessness that came out of people’s horror at seeing so many people on the streets. It looks like the number of rough sleepers is starting to come down now. Part of that could be about the public consciousness.

And it’s the same with the links between housing and sustainability. But whether I just see that because that’s what everyone I talk to is into, I’m not sure. And whether that is enough to combat the entrenched interests of big developers or landlordism is hard to say.

Community-led housing and sustainability

So what does housing have to do with sustainability? Here Philippa explains just how crucial a role housing plays in how sustainable communities can be. 

What about sustainability?

Sustainability is a bigger concern within community-led housing than without, but it’s not taken for granted. At the same time, community-led housing projects lead the way in terms of sustainable building materials. Overall, we find that when people have more control they want to build things that pass sustainability standards.

Also, community-led projects can shine a light on how you go about doing community-led projects in other areas of housing. So how do we create environmentally sustainable housing in the houses we have, without putting cost on private renters?

We need to get to carbon neutral by 2050. Huge amounts of the UK’s carbon emissions are related to the homes that we live in and their heating. About 15%. Most homes that will be lived in by 2050 have been built. So we need to think about retrofitting or improving the quality of the housing stock that we’ve got. Community-led housing can provide a roadmap for this sort of work.

The housing and construction industry is responsible for a huge proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions. Are there plans to address this?

There are people thinking about it. For example Ed Miliband spoke about it parliament recently. But the scale of what needs to be done is huge.

What alarms me is that housing being built now doesn’t have to meet robust sustainability standards. If new homes aren’t meeting the energy standards of even our old Victorian terraces, then that’s more to be retrofitted.

There’s a national focus on housing numbers. And numbers are important because we need new houses and they have to come from somewhere. But I don’t think it should come at the cost of environmental needs.

It seems that people in the UK are increasingly aware of both the climate and the housing crises

Yes, they’re increasingly non-abstract to most people. Perhaps it is something that happens to your children and relatives. Even if these crises don’t impact you directly, you know they could.

Philippa Hughes and fellow Grantham Scholar Nicole Kennard both volunteer at Foodhall. Find out how they helped people in Sheffield access food during lockdown. Read: Foodhall: Sheffield’s community hub responds to lockdown food shortages.

Interview by Claire Moran. Images from Philippa Hughes.