"We see these co-housing projects as amazing building blocks for creative sustainability."
Housing is a major issue in most European cities due to housing shortage and lack of affordable houses. In this series, Co-Housing in Europe, we shed the light on community-led housing projects as alternatives to traditional social housing or purely market-driven real estate. So we present the experience of City Makers involved in this type of project.
After discovering La Borda, a social housing cooperative in Barcelona, the Vrijburcht community in Amsterdam, now it is time to discover what happens in Berlin.
In Germany, the baugruppe is a typical model of community-led housing which consists of a group of people who form a cooperative in order to design, finance and build one or several multi-storey buildings. This model is very popular accross the country and especially in Berlin, where about 1,000 buildings and co-housing groups have been developped over the last 40 years. Thus, we had a conversation with Michael LaFond, an American architect, professor and urban activist who has been living in Berlin for more than twenty years. He is the director of id22, Institute for Creative Sustainability, which is a non-profit organization based in Berlin and he co-founded, together with Winfried Haertel, the platform Co-Housing Berlin.
First of all, what does ‘creative sustainability’ actually stand for and how is it connected to community-led housing ?
“The idea of ‘creative sustainability’ is Berlin’s approach of urban sustainable development based on democracy and local culture. It means that we place great emphasis on people, their interests, their possibilities for participating and organizing themselves.
Therefore, with the Institute for Creative Sustainability we look at all kinds of projects and bottom-up initiatives in Berlin and sometimes internationally. Quite a few years ago we decided to put a focus on housing and especially community-led housing. Why? Because it is a political issue connected to the right to the city, the right to self-expression, and the right for all human beings to be involved in shaping their local environments.
We see these co-housing projects as amazing building blocks for creative sustainability. People learn not only about housing but also about communication, project development, democracy and so on. There is a lot of potential.”
How do you explain the popularity of community-led housing and the baugruppe model in Berlin ?
“Until recently, the availability and affordability of land combined with a surplus of apartments have created a lot of possibilities for experimentating new forms of housing.
Berlin is the biggest city in Germany and it has been, in the last century, a broken city. Half of the city has been destroyed during the Second World War and then it was divided by the infamous Wall. But after the fall of the Berlin wall, self-organized communities turned vacant lands and buildings into squats, housing cooperatives, communities of students living together etc. Therefore, the city became a fantastic field of play for alternative projects, which cemented the local co-housing culture.
There is also an old tradition of housing cooperatives. In Berlin about 200 000 apartments are part of housing cooperatives, which represents about 10% of the housing stock. Since the nineties, we’ve got a new generation of cooperatives that emphasize the idea of a community, participation and affordability.”
Has the typology of co-housing projects evolved over the last decades ?
“If we look back in time, 30 years ago the usual project was a newly built or renovated building of 30 to 40 apartments, that housed about 50 people. For the past 5 years, we observe the development of larger projects. This phenomenon can be explained by the growing professionalism of these housing communities that involve architects who have a very good understanding of how to build such projects these days. They also realized that to build larger developments enables them to explore new forms of participation and develop interesting projects around that. One good example is Spreefeld, a baugruppe project where I have been working and living for the past 2 years. This 64-apartments-building in the centre of Berlin creates a lot of opportunities for self-organization, community life, ecology etc. It is not just a nice place to live, but it also integrates the whole neighbourhood through community gardening, co-working etc.
There are other similar projects under development but it is getting more dificult.
What is the role of the platform Co-Housing Berlin ?
In the Berlin region, for the past 10 years we have been doing some communication and networking around this topic. We reach out communities, make an inventory of the co-housing landscape in the city, connect people who are organising projects and people who are looking for this type of initiatives.
First we do it online with our platform Co-Housing-Berlin. It is a collaborative website where people can publish their own projects, events, articles, news. We have more than 150 co-housing projects in Berlin’s region, involving about 50 different architects, featured on the website.
We also promote co-housing by organizing every year since 2003, an event called “Experiment Days”. This is like a market or a fair, where we bring together 30 to 40 projects in Berlin, that are in the development phase and are looking for partnerships or help. We bring together about 500 people including alternative banks, foundations, governments that can give them advices or finance these initiatives.
Besides that, we do some research, we publish articles and books. In 2013 we published the book Co-Housing Culture. One of our main goals was to extend the idea of co-housing. The term cohousing was created by an American architect in the eighties after he travelled to Denmark, where the original concept was invented. The Danish model is a combination of single family homes, in low density areas, not really urban. It is a nice term, an international concept easy for people to remember, but if we talk about people living in big cities, like Berlin, we need a diversity of options. So in the book we presented co-housing (for community-led or collaborative) projects from 9 different cities, showing different types ownership models, structures, architectural designs.
Around that, we organize workshops, guided tours, seminars, public communication to draw attention to this topic.”
City Makers we interviewed in Barcelona and Amsterdam told us that financing their co-housing project was one of the most difficult aspect. Is that the same situation in Berlin ?
“Financing this type of project is not a problem in Germany. We are quite lucky because we have a number of banks and foundations that are strong now, and have enough resources to support alternative projects that might be considered risky.
So what is the main challenge for community-led housing groups here in Berlin ?
“The most difficult part in Berlin is to get access to the land.
In the nineties up to the last six or seven years, it has been relatively easy going here. We have been a city of renters up until today, where no more than 15% of people own their home. Recently, things have started to get more difficult; the city is gentrifying and global capital has discovered Berlin. People come here to make money and buy the last pieces of available land, squizzing profit out of our city. This means rents are going up, the land price is going up which make it harder for inhabitants to find an affordable place to live and start new projects.”
In this context of gentrification, does the city actively support community-led housing?
“In Berlin, unfortunately, there is big gap between the civil society and the local government. We have a very strong dynamic population, willing to start and run projects for themselves, a fantastic civic society but the local government is fairly slow and not that creative.
Right now, local authorities are focusing on building a large quantity of housing as quickly as possible. They are not seriously considering small-scale participatory projects as a viable option. The big danger is that the city repeats the same mistake we made 40 years ago, when a lot of big public housing projects were built in the edges of the city. This type of development often turned into ghettos or slums, dangerous areas.”
What do you do to influence policy makers, promote alternative housing solution ?
Our point is : even if we have to build housing quickly, we cannot forget about the quality of the housing, we cannot forget about the people, we cannot forget about integration, inclusion and so on.
“We are talking about this on a regular basis, and do everything we can to change the government’s strategy. The theme of the upcoming Experiment Days (that will take place from 26th of May to 3d of June) is ‘Integrated housing projects for everybody’. We are trying to make the point, through conversations with local government, that we need affordable, integrated housing for everyone, locals and newcomers including refugees.
We still see a lot of possibilities if we can improve the cooperation with the local government so we could help the next generation of co-housing projects to start up. The city, public companies and the federal government own a lot of land in Berlin. There are some signs of hope but we’re coming out of several years when public authorities were privatizing and selling off a lot of their properties to the highest bidder and it was impossible for affordable housing projects to compete.
So we think that the city and local government shouldn’t sell their properties. They should follow the example of Amsterdam that instead gives long term lease for this type of alternative projects. They could also give or sell the land to some kind of non-profit foundation that could manage the land on a long term and support project.
There are alternatives, it is not like we don’t know what to do but it is a political question.”