The innovative role of housing cooperatives

The world of cooperatives (considered as public utility owners) is vast, rich and pioneering in many areas related to housing. By rejecting speculation, the model allows affordable rents and, by involving residents, it aims for democratic management. Cooperatives are microcosms founded around common values, where decisions have a direct impact on social, economic and ecological life.

Being a cooperator means having a status halfway between that of an owner (of the cooperative) and that of a tenant (of his apartment). A cooperative, which can bring together a few apartments or thousands, promotes solidarity, mutual aid and participation. And for those who want to create such a structure, nothing could be simpler: all you need to do is bring together at least seven people, write articles of association, hold a constitutive assembly and register it in the commercial register. Members should then meet at regular intervals during assemblies.

If the primary goal of a cooperative remains access to affordable rental housing, Patrick Clémençon, editor-in-chief of Habitation (magazine of the Association Romande des Masters d’ouvrage d’Outtes Publique — ARMOUP), notes however that «there are almost as many cooperatives as there are goals set by people.» Because this is one of the strengths of the approach: being able to shape the place where you live according to your sensibilities, your needs and your desires. And although still minimal, the number of cooperatives is increasing with the current challenges. «They now represent 4.8% of the Swiss real estate stock,» he explains. But with the housing shortage and the lack of affordable rents, their number has been on the rise in recent years. We also feel more and more social and ecological concerns. »

«Green» cooperatives

A growing number of cooperatives attach importance to ecological and energy problems and aim for sustainable buildings and living spaces. In 2018, the Federal Housing Office carried out a statistical evaluation of the energy standard of projects supported under housing assistance since 2004. It was found that just under one tenth (9.5 %) of all projects have a Minergie label or other sustainability label. For new buildings having benefited from a working capital loan, this proportion is much higher and amounts to 37%.

In terms of exemplarity, Patrick Clémençon cites the Soubeyran project (Servette district, Geneva) of the Luciole and Equilibre cooperatives . The latter asks its members (24 housing and commercial premises) to give up the private car to turn to a car-sharing offer developed for the place. In addition to this specificity of the Equilibre cooperative , the inhabitants of the two cooperatives have taken ecological considerations much further: insulation of the facade with prefabricated caissons filled with straw bales (produced in the canton of Geneva), earthen coating for the interior coating, roughcast lime for the exterior cladding, direct consumption photovoltaic panels, heat recovery for heating and hot water.

«Research has also been carried out on the issue of wastewater treatment, and more particularly the management of toilet evacuations,» specifies the Equilibre cooperative. . We ended up with a system which uses very little water (4 l for faeces and 300 ml for urine), allowing a large biological filter with vermicomposting to purify this black water. These then join the gray water (showers, kitchens, etc.) in a sand filter to, once purified, complete the roof water in a rainwater collection tank. The building’s toilet flushes, as well as the garden watering, are supplied by this tank, thus ensuring the principle of a closed circuit ”. The Soubeyran example is a perfect illustration of the way in which cooperatives can participate in sustainable housing efforts.

It should also be noted that occupancy guidelines apply for most cooperative housing, with rooms often allocated according to the number of people. Thus, and according to a study by the Sotomo statistical institute, which is based on figures from the Federal Statistical Office, cooperative apartments consume 1/4 less land per person than conventional rental apartments and even 60% less than apartments occupied by owners.

The advantages of cooperatives

While cooperatives are making their contribution to ecological questions, they also offer answers in terms of housing (demography, aging), household structures (single-parent / stepfamilies, households without children), lifestyles and of values ​​(dual activity, ecology, collective life). And the advantages are numerous:

— Cheaper rents: cooperatives are bound by the principle of public utility and therefore do not seek profit. They permanently remove buildings from speculation and calculate their rents at cost price, with profits reinvested in the cooperative. If, due to the price of construction and land, starting rents may seem relatively high, over the years they become on average 20% lower than market rents.

— Lease security: In the open market, a landlord can terminate tenants’ leases, do work, and then increase the rental price. In cooperatives, tenants are better protected: in the event of heavy work they are relocated, then return to their accommodation with a reasonable increase in rent.

— Participation and investment: each cooperator has one vote at meetings (and regardless of the number of shares he holds). Each one influences the general orientations of the cooperative, sometimes even already during the housing design phase.

— Diversity and integration: by offering moderate rents, cooperatives attract very different profiles (families, single people, seniors, students), promote social values ​​(intergenerational, mixed, collective spaces) and mutual aid (self-management, solidarity) . Several of them are also involved in the integration of people with disabilities from immigrant backgrounds.

— Building maintenance: cooperative members, concerned about where they live, generally maintain buildings better. The renovation rate in cooperatives is higher than the average for all housing units, since the goal sought by cooperatives is not short-term return, but rather maintaining the value of their stock in the long term. .

— Innovation and sustainable development: it is not uncommon for cooperatives to offer constructive techniques or innovative housing types. They are carrying out tests, such as the Mehr als wohnen (“more than living” in French) project in Zurich, built on a derelict wasteland and for which some 55 cooperatives have joined forces to construct 13 buildings. «Sustainable». To document the project of this “super cooperative”, a scientific collaboration was carried out with the EPFZ (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich) and the OFL (Federal Office for Housing).