No-one does a housing crisis quite like the Brits. A perfect storm of rising population, privatisation of council housing, failure to build, long-term decline in incomes for the majority, a culture of home-as-property-investment, diminishing inheritance tax*, and the Great British refusal to consider apartment living outside of the most central parts of cities – has led to where we are now.
Whenever alternative models are suggested, they often point to continental European models, not least from Berlin, a city that’s got a lot of form in this area. But there’s a tendency to jump to the ‘most alternative’ of the alternatives – I came across an Owen Hatherley piece from a while back which suggested (in the headline) that we forget stereotypes, but went on to talk about a specifically LGBT communal living project, “dom kommuny” in the early USSR, and OAPs squatting a community centre. All good stuff, but what it perhaps fails to convey is that in Berlin (and across Germany), some form of communal approach to the acquisition of housing is entirely normal, even for the most straight-laced of the middle classes.
Opposite my apartment on the canal in Kreuzberg (where I was a perfectly happy renter**), a group of like-minded burgers from Munich had jointly invested in building an additional storey on top of an existing apartment block. The new floor level contained twelve en suite rooms, but with a single huge kitchen/diner communal space. The age range was from 60 up to 85. Full height glazing allowed me to see that they were clearly having much more fun than the rest of us. Obviously, it takes significant cash to do such a thing (the whole project, not just the glazing and the fun) and there’s a whole issue here about those with money moving in to an area and forcing up prices. But in a sense that’s my point: people with money also consider communal living.
Further, the concept of communal living doesn’t have to mean a commune. Legal models are well established in Germany for groups of people (who have the money) to act as Baugruppen (in effect, as their own developer); they employ both architect and builder to build developments that meet the group’s requirements. A few years back I went to Experimentdays, an annual Berlin-based event for community and self-build projects. There were some hippy outfits, to be sure, but a majority of the groups presenting projects and looking for new members were serious commercial ventures, who had formed their groups for some pretty ambitious developments. One of these is underway on a prominent site on the Spree (sadly the former location of my long-favorite strandbar ‘Kiki Blofeld’ but I won’t hold that against them) – something about it here: a tale of two condos.
Of course, such projects are not a panacea, and Berlin is currently suffering a tsunami of overseas investment in private speculative development, potentially crushing any more socially-minded alternatives. And such alternatives do little for the very poorest, who are increasingly trapped in low-quality private rental, if they can to find anywhere at all. (Perhaps – deep breath – the state should be allowed to build some housing for those who can least afford it.) But the discussion of such projects might at least slightly temper the mantra of ‘there is no alternative’ to the unfettered free market provision of speculative housing.
* Really? Are you sure? Will try and write about this soon.
**Although also a very lucky one, likely well beyond my means by now.