New Economy Journal

Cohousing Australia: Exploring a new model of housing for the New Economy

Volume 4, Issue February 2023

February 28, 2023

By - Elena Pereyra

Article Theme : Connections to Place in the New Economy

Cover image by Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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There is a natural alignment between the work of Cohousing Australia and the New Economy Network of Australia. They are two ends of the same thread, curling back on each other so as to meet. At one end, the new economy represents a paradigm shift away from the competitive, consumptive, degenerative culture that has been cultivated under neoliberalism and now permeates all areas of life - particularly housing, which has shifted from a model of ‘home’ to an investment asset type.

Cohousing, on the other hand, represents what a ‘new economy’ model of living can look, taste, sound, smell and feel like; a portal into a relational, interdependent and collaborative future.

People are drawn to cohousing because of the collective community approach. It is the unique value proposition of cohousing to offer people a chance to really sit down and contemplate the values that are important to them and the things they want to prioritise in their lives. Unsurprisingly, that often begins with the type of relationships they wish to cultivate: relationships with other people, with the planet, and with themselves. These thought processes can open the door to ideas and actions which bring together a collective of like-minded people in a process of discovery and creation. Through the materialisation of social and physical infrastructure emerges the opportunity for a vast array of activities, resource sharing, care and encouragement that is hard to cultivate in our current housing-city paradigm.

Origins of what is now called cohousing stem from the feminist movement of the 1960-70's. ‘No fault’ divorce combined with increased work entitlements for women, resulted in the growth of single-parent households. In addition, older single householders, quite often widows, remembered the value of ‘the village’ as a model for women to come together and share the administrative, emotional, and practical load through co-located housing and collaborative social processes.

Today, many people feel the loss of the village concept, of a finite and hyper-local community where one can experience both privacy and autonomy, surrounded by ‘extended family’ or kin support.

In our current market paradigm of housing, planning and development processes are predicated on financial parameters. There is little innovation or creativity in the system. In cohousing however, we see a key focus on conviviality, relationality, and almost always, sustainability.

As a peak body, Cohousing Australia is committed to driving social justice, creativity and innovation in housing.

As most NENA supporters will understand, the so-called 'real' or ‘growth’ economy that we hear about everyday is in fact highly dependent on the unpaid, or ‘reproductive’ labour of the household or domestic sphere. This work is most frequently undertaken by women and includes - but not exclusively - the cooking, cleaning and caring for children and elders.

As household mortgage debt and private rental costs skyrocket, housing increasingly requires two full-time incomes, households in housing and economic stress. Living in precarious housing, whatever the tenure, creates both a mental and a physical load.

For example, having to constantly relocate to more affordable premises is an enormous financial, physical, and emotional burden. This burden is even greater for families, who often have to take children out of their school community, shift away from known services, as well as informal or familial support networks.

Precarious housing also comprises a protracted socio-spatial burden, as people are either forced to travel back to their known community, or establish new, often impermanent relationships. This takes time that they just don’t have and as such, exists as a sort of  ‘social-reproductive debt’, a shadow structure of the real economy; the price we pay for our growth society and market model of housing.

Within this context, people are seeking out new ways of living, and recognising the multi-faceted value of cohousing. As a housing choice however, cohousing development faces many barriers.

It is only on rare occasions that planning controls, land prices, and development finance align, and a cohousing project becomes ‘viable’. In general, cohousing projects are dependent on would-be residents devoting significant time and energy, and developing their community in an area where stakeholders, such as local council planners and councillors, are prepared to give it a go. In addition to planning constraints, would-be cohousers can encounter resistance from residents in the surrounding area, from builders used to focusing on financial principles over social design, and from banks and other lenders, reluctant to create and design co-lending 'products'.  Much of a cohousing group's energy is spent communicating this value and seeking support. Cohousers can experience engagement fatigue as a result.

To this end, Cohousing Australia is committed to ensuring that cohousing becomes a viable housing option in Australia, as it is already in many other countries.

To do this, we are currently exploring financial pathways which allow individuals to come together to finance their cohousing  development. This project is in collaboration with University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures and the University of Wollongong's Sustainable Building Research Centre, through a grant provided by the City of Sydney. It will see us reach out to housing developers and to the gatekeepers of construction finance, to troubleshoot the barriers, opportunities, and the potential for innovation.

In addition to this project, we are also looking at co-operative models of cohousing, with funding support from the Business Council of Cooperatives and Mutuals (BCCM). Currently, in Australia, the co-op model is most frequently employed by Community Housing Providers (CHP's). Yet around the world, the co-op model is successfully implemented more frequently and in a range of ways, and for diverse cohorts, including for mixed-income housing.

With the federal government developing a ‘National Housing and Homelessness Plan’, this is an opportune time to look at genuine innovation for the housing sector. Australia needs a diverse mix of housing and tenure models. Beyond for-profit ‘build to rent’, ‘rent to buy’, and ‘coliving’ spaces, we need secure and desirable housing options which support people who can’t, or don’t want to buy into the traditional market model.

The precarity of climate change and of our socio-political infrastructure demands innovation in housing policy and in Australia’s enduring narratives around homeownership. We need to support models that drive community building and which help foster social capital, qualities that bring a sense of belonging and meaning, and which can support resilience to social crises.

To support communities, Cohousing Australia is working with the Groupwork Institute to develop a program of social governance and support for residents in co-located housing. This final resource will not only support cohousing and other ‘intentional’ communities, but could also support CHP and co-ops and even those living in strata title to create positive and innovative ways of working together. Many residents in strata managed properties find this ‘contractualised governance’ to be divisive and dysfunctional. We hope this project will help improve their lives, support resource sharing, and the retrofitting of green technologies.

Cohousing Australia is run solely by dedicated volunteers. We offer working groups on relevant topics, a Facebook forum where people can find out about developments and available cohousing, and work tirelessly to advocate for improved and relational housing for all Australians. If you are passionate about fixing the housing crisis, addressing the climate and biodiversity emergency, about developing and rediscovering the power of relational living, then please reach out!

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