Residents set to bid for a new kind of communal living

YorSpace plans for Oliver House York
YorSpace plans for Oliver House York
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A bid to create York’s first co-housing scheme has attracted scores of small investors but more are needed to beat off mainstream developers. Sharon Dale reports.

When the for sale sign went up on a prime site in the centre of York developers heard the sweet sound of “kerching”.

But what should have been a straight forward bidding war for a former council care home in Bishophill has been turned into a battle for hearts and minds by YorSpace, a group of residents searching for a new kind of communal living.

While developers want to knock Oliver House down to make way for new apartments, YorSpace wants to create York’s first co- housing scheme. The plan is to buy and refurbish the existing building at a cost of £1.8m and turn it into 12 homes with affordable rents and a mutualhomeownership model that includes a share scheme that gives tenants cash back when they leave.

The group was formed in 2012 and has taken inspiration from the LILAC, Low Impact Living Affordable Community, in Leeds.

YorSpace member James Newton, who works in architecture, says: “We have been looking for a suitable site since 2012 and we think Oliver House is it. This project aims to help members of our group and others to find a permanent home while addressing the affordability gap in York.

“This is the least affordable city in the North of England and the average house now costs six times average earnings. We feel that this threatens York’s sense of community as it becomes ever harder for those on low and middle income to put down roots.”

The group, which includes Quakers, founders of social enterprises and community volunteers, aged between 20s and 60s, have comes up with a design that includes shared spaces. Allotments, a communal laundry, kitchen and common room will help bring the community together.

Their funding model has already attracted a mortgage providing they can raise a deposit of £450 000. Members have pledged £75,000 and YorSpace is offering ethical savings bonds to the public, with fixed terms of either five years at up to 2% APR or ten years at up to 3% APR. They already have pledges of £100,000.

“If our tender on Oliver House is accepted by the City of York Council we will begin the process of creating a mutual company structure that will be able to issue the bonds, so at the moment we are looking for people to pledge their commitment to investing should we win the bid,” says James.

The mortgage and bond interest would be financed by rents on the properties, starting at £350 a month for a one bed unit. Unlike conventional renting, residents would become shareholders in a mutual benefit company and accrue shares with each monthly payment. If they chose to leave the community, YorSpace would buy back the shares.

“Unlike renting you are building up savings up and can leave with money in your pocket, though the real aim is to create a stable, sustainable community,” says James.

Despite these impressive fundamentals, the YorSpace plan can only go ahead if the council doesn’t sell to the highest bidder. This has left the cash-strapped local authority wrestling with its conscience.

“We are offering them a fair price but we can’t compete with developers. However, the council is not bound to accept the highest bid if there is social value attached to a rival bid,” says James.

One of the most persuasive arguments is that YorSpace would be following in the footsteps of chocolate and social housing pioneer Joseph Rowntree.

“February 13 is the deadline for the bid submission,” says James. “We have proved it is viable and now all we can do is hope the council will support it and that investors will pledge to buy our bonds.”