Community-led housing: What happens after Covid-19?
Our CLH team held a virtual social in May, the theme of which was what the future holds for the sector, in the aftermath of the Covid-19 epidemic.
This article is a summary of the discussions which took place at that social, which was a very enjoyable and stimulating event.
Many groups are finding community engagement in the context of social distancing a considerable challenge. The message was that online consultation is effective, but risks alienating certain groups. People who have limited access to devices or data, or who are uncomfortable using technology for whatever reason, may be restricted from taking part in virtual consultation events. People may also be intimidated to join a virtual meeting, compared to speaking to somebody on a stall at a community event, or attending a drop-in session.
A suggestion was therefore to use a variety of media, in order to catch everybody. Old fashioned methods are as good as ever, so posting newsletters through people's letterboxes, ideally with a free return form to encourage responses, remain a relatively reliable way of gathering feedback on a community-led housing group's proposals. The main drawback with these is that two-way discussion can be difficult. Partnering with representative bodies or with local mutual aid groups which have access to contact with target markets can also help reach a wider network of people, as can working with local representatives and ambassadors to promote projects.
The tone of online consultation also needs to be considered. If a website is too slick and professional in appearance, it can look more like a developer-led proposal. One group reported that their online consultation, led by a professional firm, received fairly negative feedback compared to their more usual home-spun approach. The suggestion was that retaining the community feel of any engagement process is important to demonstrate your credentials.
The overwhelming conclusion was that the design of housing in the future will need to be more flexible. It seems very likely that more people will be working and perhaps studying from home. Dedicated home offices, workshop space or living space which can be converted to a work/study space will become increasingly important, as will reliable Internet connections.
Outdoor space has become a hot topic over the last few weeks. Will there be a greater demand for outdoor space for every home in the future? Some people felt that prioritising outdoor community space would be preferable, as it would enable a bigger area to be used instead of allocating additional space to individual properties. However, this requires consideration of what steps can be taken to ensure social distancing can be maintained, if required.
Shared facilities are likely to be a particular issue for many community-led housing groups. Where developments have a common entrance or lift, they may need to think about contactless technology to access the properties. Where cohousing groups have common houses containing essential facilities such as a laundry or post room, what steps can be taken to manage interactions? There will be lessons to be learned from cohousing groups which have come through the current epidemic, about how to balance cohousing principles based on social interaction and intentional community, with a need for social distancing.
The picture overall is fairly positive. The economy has bounced back before, following the financial crisis in 2008, and it was felt that this will happen again.
Valuations are tricky at the moment, because of the high levels of uncertainty about what will happen to the property market. A question was asked whether this will make lenders nervous in the current environment, and so restrict lending. However, there were several lenders taking part in the event, who reported that they are continuing to actively lend to community-led housing projects. There were also reports that Homes England are being flexible in their approach to funding.
The growth of value-led investing could be an opportunity for community-led housing. This sector would be in a good place to fit with impact investment because of the potential for social and environmental return as well as financial. Someone commented that there are some large funds out there looking at this, with Legal & General being cited as example.
There is ongoing uncertainty about the future of the Community Housing Fund, and whether this will continue when the government already has so many other financial commitments to manage.
The participants in our virtual social were overwhelmingly positive about the future of community-led housing. A number of cohousing groups were beneficiaries of the previous financial crisis, taking on sites which developers had started, before going bust. Although the Wrigleys team is not yet seeing any fire sales or evidence of a property crash, the warnings are that this could be looming and this could offer opportunities for community-led housing groups to snap up cheaper sites.
There was concern that fewer large developments may mean fewer opportunities to take on the affordable housing obligations which developers are generally required to meet. Historically, this has been a common way for community land trusts to deliver their own housing schemes.
On the plus side, people felt that refurbishment would become a more attractive option, particularly if town centres become increasingly hollowed out with the decline of retail and office space. The current pandemic offers an opportunity to reshape our town centres, providing not just housing but also facilities to support that housing. Retaining the vibrancy of town centres was felt to be important, for example by including retail or workspace at ground floor level, with residential properties above. Services such as IT support and decent printing facilities will be important if people are doing more homeworking, and this is the kind of business which may spring up to support those living and working from home in a town centre.
Thecurrent pandemic provides an opportunity for temporary changes of use which could be for community purposes. Could this become more of a norm? The huge advantage of the community-led sector is that a community could control this repurposing of space, instead of it being controlled by a remote landlord or developer. Several people felt that this offers a greater opportunity for the community led sector to develop spaces which they really want to live and work in.
People are finding that the supply chain has slowed down and clearly in recent weeks there has been a pause, rather than a stop, with contractors moving off site. Some elements of the supply chain had got more expensive.
There were general comments that dealings with local authorities had slowed in relation to planning and contacting housing teams in recent weeks, which was perhaps understandable, but there was concern that going forward there may be less focus on community-led housing as local authority staff were redirected to other areas of priority.
Above all, the participants in our virtual social were overwhelmingly positive about the future of community-led housing, however the current crisis is resolved. This is a resilient and determined sector, which will find a way to re-orientate the housing market in a more people-centred direction.
If you would like to discuss any aspect of community led housing further, please contact Laura Moss or any other member of the dedicated Community Led Housing team on 0113 244 6100.
You can also keep up to date by following Wrigleys community led housing team on Twitter here
Specific advice should be sought for specific situations. If you have any queries or need any legal advice please feel free to contact Wrigleys Solicitors