Living together, but apart: what can we learn from a pandemic that took over the world?
Since the outbreak of the COVID19 pandemic last March, people across the world have seen their lives turned upside down, not only by widespread disease, fear and death, but also by radical changes in the way we live. Words like “lockdown” and “quarantine” have entered our daily conversations; the 1,5 metre distancing has become a new canon that measures our movement; invisible corona-shaped particles dictate our every action. Working from home, previously shunned by employers, has suddenly become the norm. While those of us who are fortunate to live in adequate housing have welcome the opportunity to avoid lengthy commuting and spend more time with our partners and children, homeless or inadequately housed people have seen their situation worsened by the pandemic. The already stark inequalities and structural deficiencies in the housing market have become more acute. At the scale of the city, advocates of compact cities and density have started to rethink the viability of these principles in a post-pandemic world. Overall, scepticism towards anything that reeks of social proximity and physical contact is becoming the new discourse. So, where does that leave living forms that rely on sharing spaces and activities, such as cohousing, coliving, and other forms of collective living arrangements? We set out to answer this question by asking the residents of these housing projects about their own experience. From informal exchanges, we have heard about common challenges they face, but also about new opportunities to show solidarity and mutual help, and come up with creative solutions.
In this blog series, we will present short accounts from residents of collaborative housing projects in different parts of the world. They will reflect on challenges, opportunities, solutions but also about what we can learn to improve the planning, design and management of collaborative housing in the future.
How we could maintain a decent social life in cohousing unit Slottet in the midst of the Corona restrictions
By Bertil Egerö*
Slottet(“the Castle”) in Lund is a building created in 1924 to give good housing to poor households with four or more children. Over time the need for this type of social housing disappeared, and in 1984 it was bought by a group of people and converted to a cohousing unit. With sixteen flats, there are currently eleven adults in working age and seven minors. We, the remaining twelve persons, are retired and aged 70+ years. On the groundfloor we share a common kitchen located next to a dining room and a living room. We have two guestrooms, washing machines, a workshop, bicycle store, TV/film room, sauna etc. On the top floor there is a big room useful for table tennis and other activities, which also serves five small rooms to rent.
Slottet is ours, in the form of cooperative ownership by the 16 households. An annually elected board handles the economics of maintenance, loans etc. In addition, every adult has to be a member of our ‘social association’, where we in monthly meetings deliberate and decide on how to live, keep common spaces clean, cook and other joint matters. Joint cooking is on average done four times a week.
In early March 2020, the Corona virus began spreading over Sweden. One of the decisions taken by our government was to strongly recommend all people 70+ to isolate themselves, i.e. to go into quarantine.
Our normal meeting routines consist of monthly house meetings plus, when need appears, open “sofa” discussions that would not lead to any decisions. Now, however, we needed to find a good answer to what our government had recommended. Until then, common dinner had been served four times a week, with people sitting close to each other and enjoying the food. The dining room was also used for house meetings, where we had to sit close to each other. What to do? A few of us decided to call an informal meeting where we could exchange over how to adapt to the recommendations. Two such meetings were held, one week apart. The second was intended to verify – or not – what we had agreed in the first meeting.
My rough guess is that around two thirds of us adults were present in the first meeting. A few questioned the need for such a meeting, probably meaning that it was up to each one to change according to what that person (or family) saw best to do. But the majority felt the need for such a discussion. One person offered to take note, and a lively discussion took place. These were the guidelines finally adopted, to be followed by everyone:
1.Those working etc. outside of Slottet, called the migratory birds, and their children, should no longer use our common kitchen, dining room or living room (common washing machines etc. excluded). We 70+, the stationary birds, were free to cook for each other and generally use the sitting room for reading papers or watching TV.
2. We, the stationary birds, took it upon us to keep the interior of the house clean, the migratory birds should take care of outdoor space. The stationary should clean all banisters and door handles once a day, on a voluntary basis.3.
3. In order to minimize risks, we were not allowed to use our two guest rooms for visitors, and the stationary birds should keep their contacts with friends etc at a minimum, and always outdoors. Even the migratory birds were encouraged to see friends etc outside the house.
“Today, the system appears to work. The stationary birds occasionally cook for each other, and generously allow the migratory birds to check in to get a share of then food.”
At the end of the first meeting we who were present decided that those who hadn’t attended would still have to accept our decisions. Interestingly, no objections were heard from those who had been absent. Today, the system appears to work. The stationary birds occasionally cook for each other, and generously allow the migratory birds to check in to get a share of then food. A trampoline has been purchased to the enjoyment of all the kids who no longer are allowed to play around in the house. However, the challenge we hadn’t discussed was: how to hold the next house meeting?
The TV in the living room is a kind of computer. Our master of all technical issues arranged for a meeting with the stationary birds sitting by the TV and the migratory birds using another TV (or was it a computer?) in the common space existing on the top floor. Personally I tested using my laptop or my smartphone from a different room (in principle what the majority of us could have done but many would not master). The arrangement did work sufficiently well, but wasn’t perfect. Why not try to have the meeting outdoors, on the lawn? Two annual meetings should be held during the Spring, one by the social association (see above) and the other by the cooperative ownership association (in Swedish called bostadsrättsförening). Fortunately, weather served us well when we held them outdoors and back-to-back (see picture). The only problem was how to hear what the chair person or a member said, surrounded as we were by birds and children playing around us.
Today, three months later, we all feel that we have found the best possible arrangement: we who have to isolate ourselves can still enjoy the company of the other stationary birds, the migratory birds have to keep their risks of contagion low when they move around in our little town. One stationary couple has decided to avoid all contacts, i.e. they stay isolated in their flat. There are always migratory birds available to support them with food shopping.
The Corona period in no way affects the economy of our cohousing unit; those who work are lucky enough not to be dismissed. We have all found a way to live with the restrictions, and I see no signs that this will be changed. What will happen if one of us falls sick and dependent on support from the health system (a few elderly could be the first) is nothing we have touched so far. Perhaps it is too sensitive to raise?
Reflecting on how we live, I realise that our organizational model is highly dependent on the spatial organisation of Slottet: there are two sets of stairs (and no lifts) serving the flats on either side of our common space. They are connected either through the basement corridor with washing machines etc., the ground floor where the collective kitchen, dining room and living room are found, or the open ‘corridor’ – in fact a big common room – at the top floor. This allows all stationary birds to make use of the ground floor common rooms, while all migratory can check in to get a plate from the occasional common stationary meals.
“…it also matters that we, the 70+, can enjoy the sound of children who play on the lawn and jump on the trampoline. A substitute to absent grandkids, their presence confirms how well we are in our cohousing unit, compared to all those living alone in the flats.”
Luckily, we are not very anxious about the Corona, and haven’t allowed it to completely dominate our lives. Perhaps this sentiment, shared by I believe all in Slottet, reflects the fact that southern Sweden unlike for instance Stockholm has very few cases of Covid19 sick or dead. But I think it also matters that we, the 70+, can enjoy the sound of children who play on the lawn and jump on the trampoline. A substitute to absent grandkids, their presence confirms how well we are in our cohousing unit, compared to all those living alone in the flats surrounding our common yard, where contacts with neighbours so often are nil.
* Bertil Egerö, born 1936, social scientist, since the early 1980’s activist in and former board member of the Swedish cohousing movement Kollektivhus NU; since 1986 living in a cohousing unit, whereof since 1990 in Slottet Lund. Member of the group that organized the First International Collaborative Housing Conference, held in Stockholm in 2010.
Talking about the resonance of the instruments and the musicians playing in an orchestra, how they join with one another in a symphony, and in the notion of sympathy, professor of anthropology Tim Ingold in a recently held conference about architectural anthropology, used two words for such a musical experience: ‘together apart’. He was not only talking about the notion of human beings and things (instruments, etc.) coming together, assembling, but also about the human activity of gathering and commonality: the feeling of togetherness, of going along together and at the same time, the knowing that each individual is on his or her own with each their instrument. This is the doing and sounds of the instruments, the collaboration, doing things together. The thoughts Ingold presented are connected to human dwelling and the making of a community. The proposition ‘together apart’ can have both positive and negative connotations, depending on whether one prefers to be together or apart, but there is something essential about it. We cannot run away from this condition of human life; maybe the best is to try to balance how to be on individual terms and at the same time being together, respecting both the need for privacy and the need for commonality.
I was born into a large family with aunts, uncles, and cousins, and a grandmother, who was in many respects the center of the family, as she was taking care of all us grandchildren. We lived quite nearby each other. At one point, I remember that two of my aunts were living with their families in the same small village as my grandmother. Therefore, we saw each other on a regular basis and did everyday activities together, for example, we were often drinking tea or dining together. When my grandfather died and at the same time, my parents got divorced, we were staying with my grandmother in her house for half a year. Helping and caring for each other on a daily basis was a natural thing in my large family. I think it was a gift of my childhood to be part of this commonality, and that it formed me as a person. I know the fun and the benefits of commonality. The motivations for researching co-housing is rooted in these experiences from my childhood. Today, we still care for each other but we live much more separated, further away from each other, and we do therefore not see each other on a daily basis anymore. This is also the case for many other people in our society: we live separated in each of our small households, with distance to our relatives and friends. Our homes, workspaces, and shopping facilities are separated. This separation of functions and spaces for living, working and other activities in daily life, is something we have got so used to that we mostly do not even question this way of living. However, people in co-housing do ask questions like this and many dissociate themselves from residential areas, where people live in detached houses divided by fences and hedges not having much to do with each other. For residents in co-housing, an important notion is to know the neighbours and have a social life connected to the dwelling, while still having space for privacy and life in each household. In one way, they seek to live together apart.
By Anna Falkenstjerne Beck
Industrial Ph.D. fellow at Danish Building Research Institute and Kuben Management
The project is two weeks in and I hadn’t had a meaningful conversation with Binyam. Should I ask him to do something together, maybe? I want make sure he feels comfortable enough around me to ask for help. Saturday, I spend the afternoon in our living room. Kind of on purpose, hoping for a chance to casually hang out with my other cohousers. Binyam wakes up in the afternoon, prepares some Eritrean food and without even asking, I’m invited at the table for a late lunch.
Apart from the fact that it’s the perfect setting for our first meaningful conversation, I’m also having my first Curant-epiphany: integration is a two-way street. When joining the project, my most important motivation was to ‘welcome the refugees in our Belgian society’. I was going to show them that not all Belgians are racists, that they are welcome, and help them integrate in society. Instead, the opposite happened. I moved into a house where Binyam and Qadir were already comfortably living for more than a year. Habits and rules were already established, and I was the new girl in town. And by simply offering me half of his meal, Binyam welcomed me in his home. Our home.
The extra one
After a birthday dinner party with friends, I’m calling it an early night. I have to work tomorrow. I’m slightly tipsy, so I hope I don’t walk into Qadir and his friends in the living room. They are muslims and even though they never judge me for drinking alcohol, I find myself being very aware of how silly it is to get drunk on the slightest celebration when I’m around them.
They’re in the living room, drinking tea. I tell them about the great birthday I had, show them the presents I got, let them taste my Leonidas pralines (I warn them just in time that some of them might have alcohol in them. Seriously, that rubbish is everywhere!). They wish me a happy birthday and I drink some tea. Especially on birthdays, quality time with cohousers is more important than having a fresh mind for work. Oh, and by the way: I’m perfectly capable of hiding the tipsiness, yes!
One week later, there’s a huge cake in the fridge. ‘Last week we didn’t know it was your birthday, but now we do.’ A week after my actual birthday, I’m having an extra one. Sher and Kahraman come over and we have cake, play cards. It’s one of the many moments during this cohousing where the unexpected moments are the best ones. I’m having a great time. And again, I feel so welcome.
The party pooper
‘I don’t have the energy for this.’
After an exhausting week of working and social obligations, I was really looking forward to my night rest, before I had my family coming over to Antwerp to visit me the next day. Yet in the hallway, it’s obvious there’s an Eritrean party-something going on in our living room. (Two months in the project, I’ve become a pro in recognizing the differences in ways of talking and background music between the Eritrean and Afghan friends, so I’m pretty sure it’s Binyam and his friends.) I oblige myself to go say ‘Hi.’ for just a second.
I don’t know any of the people in my living room, but they all seem very happy to see me. I sit down, have a beer – and while I’m at it also some Indzjerra food – and talk for a while. Even though everyone is very sweet to me, I can’t help but think about the mess this party is going to leave behind. I feel like a party pooper when I mention my family coming over the next day. ‘Not a problem’, Binyam says.
Turns out, there was never a problem indeed. Binyam’s friends start cleaning the kitchen and the living room the next morning. With water and everything! Cohousing is a learning process. Maybe to save ourselves some stress, next time I will announce my family visits a bit sooner. And Binyam his parties. Communication is key.
Holidays are great: visiting new places, meeting new people and meeting old friends to catch up on each other’s lives. And in between all that, there’s our home. Six months in the project, and our house has become a real safe haven for me. Somewhere along the road, it began to feel like home. The people you come home to, are the ones you don’t have to ‘catch up with’. They are always there, there’s nothing to catch up to. And you do the exact stuff with them you do by yourself when you’re completely comfortable.
So now after another great, yet tiring holiday, I come home to Qadir. He makes me some tea, we sit on the Afghan carpet, and watch some YouTube videos together.
I’m Paulien, a 24-year-old journalist/teacher/Digital Storyteller, working in Brussels and living with Qadir (Afghanistan), Binyam (Eritrea) and Hannelore (Belgium) in a four-bedroom house in the South of Antwerp, just outside the centre. Qadir and Binyam had already lived there for more than a year with other Belgian buddies, and Hannelore and I moved in December of 2018. The four of us pay equal rent (335 euros per month all inclusive: internet, water, electricity…) and we share a kitchen, bathroom, living room… We basically share everything, except for our own bedroom.
Curant exists for more or less four years by now. I joined the project in December 2018, out of a feeling of ‘now or never’, because it stops in October 2019. The way we are handling the refugee crisis is a shame, most of the time. So whatever small things we can do as an individual, we should. Curant makes it so easy to do something useful in this context, that joining the project was an obvious choice. Without minimizing the commitment it takes to live in a diverse living situation like ours, I’m very happy with the decision I made to join. Of course it’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. I’m learning, growing and – most importantly – I’m having a great time.
By Paulien Caeyers
The CURANT project; “Co-housing and case management for Unaccompanied young adult Refugees in ANTwerp” brings together young refugees and Flemish young adults. When unaccompanied minor refugees, those who are underage and fled on their own, turn 18 and legally become adults, much of the help and care they received earlier falls away. The goal of CURANT is to make their transition into adulthood go smoother by housing such refugees together with buddies and by providing intensive care and training. Since the project started in November 2016, approximately 80 refugees and 80 buddies have been sharing apartments. CURANT is a project of the City of Antwerp with the University of Antwerp and local welfare organisations as partners, cofunded by the European Union’s Urban Innovative Actions Fund. CURANT will end this coming November.
Members of the self-management teams of the Startblok Riekerhaven and the Startblok Elzenhagen (source: facebook.com/startblok.elzenhagen)
I define collaborative housing as all forms of housing where residents by design interact more than in traditional forms of housing. This interaction sometimes already starts when the homes are developed, at other times it begins when people move in. Classical examples of collaborative housing include living groups and co-housing projects where individual households share some collective spaces. Often, it is assumed that such collaborative housing projects spring up spontaneously from a group of like-minded people that join forces to realise their ideal homes together. And when it is not assumed that this is the way collaborative housing comes about, it is often implied that this is the way that it should. But when I started studying the Startblok, I found that here was a collaborative housing project that was initiated by the landlord, a not-for-profit housing corporation, in a rather top-down manner.
The Startblok Riekerhaven is a project in Amsterdam that houses 265 recent refugees and 265 Dutch young adults. The tenants have access to common spaces, and for the large part, they manage the project themselves. The idea is that through close interaction by means of the shared space and by managing the project together, the recent refugees and the Dutch can learn from each other. In this way, better integration outcomes for the refugees might also result (Czischke & Huisman 2018). However, perhaps contrary to expectation, the tenants in organisational roles are not volunteers, but are part-time employed by home-owner De Key. The Startblok Riekerhaven is not a bottom-up democracy. While the tenants are more involved in and have more of a say about their own living environment than in traditional rental homes, the home-owner still retains quite some executive power in the project.
This might clash with images of bottom-up initiated social change, that many involved in collaborative housing cherish. I invite you to consider the advantages. Starting your own collaborative housing projects takes a lot of time and energy. Not all people have these resources readily available, and even if they do, they might not be inclined to use them in this way. They might need to spend the time earning money to provide for their family, or they might want to devote their time to, for instance, advancing climate justice, or watching all the episodes of Game of Thrones. The set-up of the Startblok allows for people to have more interaction with their neighbours than in more traditional estates, without having to undertake the gigantic task of developing a project housing over 500 people. If they want to become more involved in the management of the project, they can, and they will sometimes even be reimbursed for it. As such, the threshold for participating is much lower than in more autonomous self-organised projects, making it easier for tenants with other obligations or inclinations to take part.
Recently, the first tenants moved in to a second Startblok project, the Startblok Elzenhagen. The home-owners, housing corporations De Key and Eigen Haard, are implementing lessons learned from the first Startblok to improve the concept. The average number of people that share a communal living room has been decreased, for instance. While smaller, completely autonomous collaborative housing projects can inspire and pave the way for other such projects, we should not dismiss the power of more top-down initiatives. Precisely because they are not completely set up and ran by residents themselves, they can be more inclusive, giving access to people that would otherwise not be involved in such projects, and so giving tenants more of a say about their direct living environment.