Cohousing grows as people look for a caring sharing place to live

The historic house was a hospital before being bought by the Shirle Hill cohousing group
The historic house was a hospital before being bought by the Shirle Hill cohousing group
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Cohousing projects in Yorkshire are creating a happier and healthier way to live but funding them is not easy. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures by Paul Horobin.

Fed-up of waiting for politicians to fix Britain’s “broken housing market”, innovative DIY’ers have been busy building their own small-scale solutions. Among them is cohousing, a property panacea gaining ground in Yorkshire thanks to its ability to create caring sharing communities.

One of the spacious apartments within the house at Shirle Hill

One of the spacious apartments within the house at Shirle Hill

Often misinterpreted as a kind of commune, cohousing has reinterpreted some of those hippy ideals while ditching others that clearly did not work. Now each household has its own self-contained private home, along with community space, where residents can come together, share activities and occasionally eat together. The UK Cohousing Network, which promotes awareness of this new way of living, says this reduces isolation and living costs.

LILAC, the Low Impact Living Affordable Community in Bramley, Leeds, is one of the best examples. It opened in 2013 and funding for the £2.7m development of 12 apartments and eight houses came from members’ investments, a £400,000 government grant and a mortgage from a sympathetic Dutch bank, as mainstream British lenders rarely fund the unconventional. LILAC works on a system of mutual home ownership and a share-based scheme. It’s a hybrid of renting and buying. Residents put down a deposit of ten per cent of the property’s value and then pay 35 per cent of their income each month. This buys them shares, which they can redeem when they leave, which means they have an investment that allows them to move on.

Over in Sheffield, the Shirle Hill Cohousing project runs on a different financial model. The legal framework makes it a limited company with members having leasehold ownership of their own properties and joint ownership of the grounds and communal space at an average cost of £200,000 each plus an annual maintenance charge. If someone wants to sell their home, the other members of the community can choose who gets to buy it to ensure that they share the same values.

After almost four years, Shirle Hill is nearing completion and includes the conversion of a large Victorian home turned NHS mental health unit into five apartments with a communal lounge, kitchen and laundry area. Five new-build houses are being constructed in the grounds. It began when members of a cohousing network spotted the former Shirle Hill Hospital for sale. By February 2013, 12 people, now aged between 57 and 72, agreed to go-ahead with the joint purchase.

An artist's impression of the five new houses being built in the grounds of Shirle Hill

An artist's impression of the five new houses being built in the grounds of Shirle Hill

No lenders were prepared to back it, so the scheme was funded by a combination of savings, loans from family and three people selling their homes and moving in immediately while others prepared to follow suit. The historic property was in need of renovation and restoration, and conversion work has gone on around the first occupants. Work on the new-build home started later.

Although the scheme wasn’t aimed at older adults, it has attracted those who want a new way of living in later life and the benefits are already apparent. “Loneliness and care needs are key concerns and our project addresses these issues in an innovative, supportive and nurturing way. We prioritised renovating the communal lounge, which enables us to have meals and fun together and we have already been able to support each other through illness and injuries,” says Steph Howlett.

While Shirle Hill was funded by members who sold their own houses to raise the capital, Chapeltown Cohousing has found another way of financing a scheme to turn derelict land into 33 affordable homes and a shared common house and garden. ChaCo got a £360,000 government grant and raised £650,000 in short-term loans from investors. This, plus buyer deposits, should see the scheme to completion by the end of next year. After this, ChaCo can apply for a conventional mortgage to pay back the investors with interest.

Most homes are available to buy on a shared ownership basis and two thirds will go to existing Chapeltown residents. There will also be eight rental properties, including five rooms in a shared house. The project grew out of a small housing co-operative and was inspired by LILAC. ChaCo’s co-founder Bill Phelps says: “You have your own home but you’re also part of a community that meets and shares. It’s a better way to live and although it takes time and creative funding to get schemes like this off the ground, I think they are the way forward.”

*You must be a member of the Chapeltown Cohousing group to be eligible to buy or rent and that means a four-month vetting process to make sure you will fit in, hold the same values and are prepared to help with the shared workload. Two thirds of the properties have already been sold off-plan with ownership shares ranging from 25 per cent to 95 per cent and there are ten homes left to buy. A £104,000 two-bedroom flat will be £26,000 for a quarter share and mortgages are available. Work on site should start this Autumn and the homes should be complete by the end of next year. For details visit chapeltowncohousing.org.uk