Top-down Collaborative Housing?

Members of the self-management teams

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.

Carla Huisman
Postdoctoral researcher at Co-Lab

May 2019

 

References:

Czischke, D. & C.J. Huisman (2018) ‘Integration through collaborative housing? Dutch starters and refugees forming self-managing communities in Amsterdam.’ Urban Planning, 3(4), 61-63. http://www.cogitatiopress.com/urbanplanning/article/view/1727

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