Choose your neighbours and build a house together. The Participatory Housing Manual will guide you through the whole process, say its co-authors Jana Kubcová and David Tichý

You don't get along with your neighbours and once a year you suffer through a meeting reminiscent of the Czech movie Vlastníci? Participatory housing can be an alternative. Neighbourhood groups are already emerging in the Czech Republic, too, who want to influence how their house will look and are not afraid to share, for example, a common library, sauna or garden with others. The Participatory Living Manual, one of the outputs of a large-scale project in which the Faculty of Architecture of the CTU also participated, will help them. However, experts also point out the shortcomings of Czech legislation. How do Vienna's non-profit developers work? Solidarity funding from Leeds in the UK can also be an inspiration.
Projekt LILAC na předměstí Leedsu je inspirativním solidárním financováním. Nízkopříjmové rodiny mohou svůj díl úvěru splácet déle. Součástí areálu je samostatný dům se společenskou místností, jídelnou, kuchyní a terasou otevřenou do dvora. Najdeme tam i pokoje pro hosty.  | © LILAC MUTUAL HOME OWNERSHIP SOCIETY LTD

Why would you recommend participation to people thinking about new housing? And what kind of housing is actually participatory?

DT: Participatory housing will probably never be mainstream, but it is a relatively common option in the world for some people who can coordinate and want to influence the shape of their home. Participation is an alternative to buying an anonymous apartment in a traditional condominium. Interested people get together with their friends, colleagues, or just other people who want to live in a similar way and actively start to design their housing.

JK: Housing affordability is a huge issue for cities across Europe today. The actual provision of housing is a big task, whether it's done by citizens or by the state. It's just an expensive and complicated process. Those interested in participatory housing can also be great partners for municipalities. An active group of people can participate, for example, in the use of land and buildings that the municipality does not know how to deal with and does not even have the finances to build municipal housing.

Does the project always have to be started from the bottom, or can the municipality start the participation directly?

JK: If municipalities understand that this is an important piece in the puzzle of affordable housing, they can support participation by giving advice and by conducting workshops when a group of interested parties is being assembled. But elements of participation can also be applied to rental housing. In Austria, there is a model where the house is owned by the municipality, but the tenants form an association and also rent and look after all the shared spaces.

V Lipsku využili aktivní občané relativně nízkých cen v chátrající čtvrti. Domy obyvatelé postupně a svépomocně rekonstruují. Výsledkem je dostupné bydlení ve společném vlastnictví, podpořené příjmy z pronájmů. | © Markéta Káňová

How is the Czech legislation prepared for participatory housing?

DT: Not very much. Abroad, these projects are often set up as cooperatives. In our country, however, cooperative housing is traded in the same way as privately owned flats. This is due not only to the desire to own, but also to mistrust because of some failed projects from the 1990s.

But there are other forms that participatory housing can take. There is a lot of talk about different forms of non-profit housing, association housing, and it is also possible to use a joint stock company or an Ltd. Our manual includes an overview showing the pros and cons of different ways. The optimal solution is sought for each project, which is closely related to the possibility of obtaining a loan. Financing for participatory projects is still in its infancy, banks are still getting used to it and interested parties may not be able to access it. The project of the Shared Houses Association, aptly called the First Swallow, was primarily supported by a loan from the German Umverteilen Foundation and partly thanks to crowdfunding.

JK: The basic requirement of the founding members is usually long-term sustainability, so that the project does not turn into a classic SVJ. Another desirable element is the possibility to influence the entry of new members. You cannot choose your neighbours in a housing cooperative today. That is why the form of a social cooperative is interesting, where members can influence who else joins the community. The aim of the project was also to show moments how to improve the laws so that we can support groups interested in participation.

What are the biggest problems preventing more projects like this from being set up in the Czech Republic?

DT: So far, probably mistrust. Hardly anyone will tell you that they would like to go into a project like this, but they are worried about how other future neighbours will behave. We have tried to describe what causes mistrust. If all the procedures are more clear, the legislation improves, the banks get a grip and recognise that it makes sense to finance a housing sector that they did not even know about yet, the situation could improve significantly.

Does a classic developer have a place in the whole concept? How can private investors get involved?

JK: In the manual, we mention several examples from Vienna, where a group of interested parties hired a developer who prepares the entire construction, communicates with the construction company and oversees the whole process. However, it differs significantly from traditional construction entrepreneurs. In fact, the definition of a non-profit developer is anchored in foreign legislation.

In the manual you often mention that a group planning participatory housing should not be afraid to ask for help and to invite an expert into the process. You are very careful about the structure of the negotiations and recommend that the initial workshops be led by an independent facilitator.

JK: Absolutely, we have included appropriate meeting scenarios in the manual. The guides are inspired by the structure of the workshops we have held as part of our research. We pilot tested the procedures during meetings with people interested in participatory housing from the partner cities. Also the experience from abroad shows that expert help is needed, because each group of people has limited capacities. I myself have experienced projects where regular meetings of interested parties did not lead to implementation. Negotiations were ineffective and the same topics were repeated over and over again. That is why the role of an experienced facilitator is very useful.

Pokud se chcete vyhnout nedorozumění se svými budoucími sousedy, musíte si pravidla vyjasnit už na začátku. Kdo bude mít byt v přízemí? Chcete mít společnou prádelnou nebo radši tělocvičnu? S hladkým průběhem diskuze vám může pomoci zkušený facilitátor.  | © Foto: Jakub Koumar

Has the cooperation with partner cities transformed into real projects?

DT: In Liberec, for example, we managed to connect our research with an architectural competition for the site of Paper Square. It turned out great, a number of new houses will be built there and the city would like to use the potential of participatory housing for part of it.

JK: It's a site on the edge of the historic centre, partly brownfield, with huge potential and a great genius loci, which can attract people interested in new forms of housing.

Do workshopů autoři zapojili zájemce ze šesti partnerských měst. | © Jan Koumar

But participation can take many forms.

DT: It's a range of possibilities. And there's no need to force yourself to one extreme or the other. We have named five dimensions of participation, which are actually areas that residents can share. As architects, we immediately think of sharing different spaces, such as a community room, laundry room, library, sauna or garden. But you can also share the preparation of a project and its financing. Some communities help each other out by babysitting, shopping together or sharing cars.

You also describe various common funds, not just the classic repair fund. For example, a reserve that can help individual members if they run into problems due to illness or job loss.

JK: In addition, a group may decide at the outset that it wants to provide more diversity and allow people on lower incomes to participate. In a suburb of Leeds in the UK, a project called LILAC (Low Impact Affordable Living) has been set up with a unique model of solidarity funding. Households send 35% of their monthly salary to repay a joint loan. Higher-income people pay their share more quickly, while low-income households pay for several years longer. However, this model will allow them to enter the project and get good quality housing at all, as they would not be able to get a conventional mortgage.

DT: And we're back to trust again. But it cannot be boundless. We have a lot of experience with the abuse of trust and people are afraid of new challenges. Most of us are probably familiar with the Czech movie Vlastníci. Actually, the idea is that you don't have to experience its scenario in reality. If you have everything clearly discussed and professionally managed from the beginning, cohabitation can work out very well even in a difficult group.

JK: The group interested in participatory housing also needs to be clear about what happens if one of the residents wants to leave the project? How will someone new be able to join? Setting detailed rules helps to build trust and give projects a chance for long-term sustainability.

Řadu úspěšných projektů participativního bydlení můžeme najít ve Vídni. Na výstavbě se podílejí neziskoví developeři. | © Hertha Hurnaus

You advise those interested in participatory housing quite strongly to think about the possibility of renting part of the building. Why is this important?

JK: It's very beneficial for the long-term affordability of housing if the apartment building has some space that the group can rent out to help with financing. It could be a long-term lease of a shop on the ground floor, or residents can share a community room with the local community. This means that housing costs are reduced, which does not put pressure on lower income residents to move elsewhere, and there remains social diversity in the area.

You have visited many international examples that have been operating for many years. What challenges did the residents of these projects not anticipate and had to tackle on the fly?

JK: I think it was communication. They agree that they learned to communicate very effectively and conduct joint meetings. After ten years of living together, they are masters of negotiation.

DT: In one of the houses we visited, we also asked how much turnover there is. The locals told us that when they were putting the project together, after a while they started to have an overflow of applicants. So they created a waiting list in case someone moved out. But after five years, they abolished the waiting list because it was unnecessary, no one was leaving the community. Eventually, other groups of people were recruited from these waiting lists.

JK: As in other countries in Europe, the first project that is implemented is the key, and it paves the way for others. Once it is implemented, its example inspires others who want to live in a similar way. In addition, residents of working projects put a lot of energy into spreading the idea of participation to other people and give their time to those who ask them for advice. We hope that the Manual and Methodological Guide to Participatory Living will also help pioneer projects in the Czech Republic. Thanks to them, it will be possible to see how to start on this path.

Součástí společného projektu Fakulty sociálních studií MUNI, Sociologického ústavu AV ČR, spolku Arnika, Fakulty architektury ČVUT a Fakulty umění a architektury TUL byla i závěrečná konference na FA ČVUT. Zdroj: | © Jiří Ryszawy

You can read more about the publications - the Methodological Guide to Participatory Housing and the Participatory Housing Manual - in a separate post.

Interview led by Pavel Fuchs

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