by Rowan Gavin
A couple weekends ago I was lucky enough to find myself a guest at the wonderful Edinburgh Student Housing Co-operative. Outside, the outlines of all my hopes and beliefs in the good student co-ops can do stood tall before me, made visual, physical as two blocks of flats facing a green expanse. Up steps, inside, and the lines flashed full with the colour and life of possibility made real. A brief first encounter – tea with friends, then out again for an evening social.
I’ve been involved with the student co-op movement since I joined the UEA Student Food Co-op three years ago. Like many others around the country, the food co-op purchases ethically-sourced food in bulk to sell to its student members at cost-price. In my third year, a fellow member introduced me to Students for Co-operation (SfC), a national network of student co-ops which works to help its members develop co-ops on their campuses, spread awareness of the power of co-ops through the student population, and get new student co-ops up and running. Together we organised and ran SfC’s 2016 winter conference back in February. We had a lot of momentum behind us coming out of the conference, enough to pick up the long-considered idea of setting up a student housing co-op in Norwich and run with it, forming the group that has become the Norwich Association for the Co-operative Housing of Students (NACHoS).
It was the SfC Autumn conference that led me to Auld Reekie and the beautiful ESHC. Between conference sessions I got a better look at the place. Every wall was draped and daubed in bright colours; quirky illustrations and campaign slogans leapt out at each turn up the stairwell. Inside my hosts’ flat, protest posters, inspiring ideas and international art hung all around, and in the morning the view was out over an old misty green to the sun rising beside Arthur’s seat. The basement of one block has become a DIY wood workshop and skill-sharing space, with a bike shed out back the co-op members made for themselves. The basement of the other is storage space and a free shop, with a board of big diagrams leant against a pile of amps – grand plans to make it into a communal social area. It’s quite the experience coming face-to-face with the concrete reality of ideas you’ve been talking about for months.
Privately run student housing offers us little to no control over the conditions we live in. When things go wrong, it’s up to others whether they get sorted out properly, and if they aren’t we have little recourse to hold anyone accountable. And for this, we pay through the nose, with as much of our money going to line the pockets of agents and landlords as goes to keeping up our houses.
Student housing co-ops are run democratically by their members, through consensus decision making, so ultimate control over a co-op property always lies with the people who live in it, and no-one’s views are ever excluded. When things go wrong, members can draw on the host of robust processes that the co-op movement has developed over the decades, to communally find the best solution. Perhaps most importantly, the members of a housing co-op collectively own or lease the buildings they live in as an independent legal entity, so they can set their rent levels to cover just what needs paying for – and no more. As well as solving all these problems, student housing co-ops offer delightful opportunities for skill-sharing and connecting with grassroots projects of all kinds, from activist groups to creative collectives to other small local co-ops.
ultimate control over a co-op property always lies with the people who live in it, and no-one’s views are ever excluded
Across the pond, this model has seen considerable success – thousands upon thousands of students live in similar co-ops across North America. There are just three student housing co-ops currently active in the UK – as well as Edinburgh, Birmingham and Sheffield are each home to one. But SfC are on the verge of a breakthrough which we hope will rapidly increase those numbers over the next few years – the National Body of Student Housing Co-ops (NBSHC). When up and running, it will be a secondary co-op made up of individual student housing co-ops, which will use their collective financial heft to secure more funding than they could hope to amass alone, and put that funding towards helping new co-ops (like NACHoS) get on the property ladder.
Unfortunately I’m stuck using the future tense – we’re breaking new legal ground to create NBSHC, and that takes a fair bit of funding. Which is where you come in. No, I’m not asking for your money, just a few minutes of your time. SfC are in the running for a grant from the Aviva Community Fund, which would cover all £15,000 of our remaining startup costs. To get the grant, we need to get more votes than the 400-odd other projects in our bracket. We’re currently hovering around 17th place – not bad but not good enough. So, if you like the sound of student housing co-ops, and if you think as I do that having more of them around will help create a better future for students in this country, then please please go and vote here, and get your friends to vote as well.
Onwards, friends, into a fairer, funner, more co-operative future!
Featured image via Edinburgh Student Housing Co-op