The National Centre for Early Music was full for the YorSpace Community Share Offer last week. A mixture of local people of all ages came to get the low-down on bringing affordable, sustainable, community housing to York.
The atmosphere in the room was one of anticipation. There was a buzz of excited chatter between people, even before the event began.
Jane Hustwit, Chair of York CVS opened the evening enthusiastically explaining this was an event about ‘promoting something new and important for York’.
She told us her interest in community led housing had stemmed from a story of ‘Auntie Jessie’ who had emigrated to Sweden many years before. Following the death of her husband, Auntie Jessie had moved to a housing co-op there. She talked of good housing, sustainability, intergenerational living and good mental health. On a visit to the UK in her 80s she was high spirited and very well, something Jane took to be largely because of her positive community living experience.
Jane stated “That’s what Lowfield Green will be like”, setting the scene for the event.
YorSpace Co-founders James Newton and Sue Bird took to the stage. Smiling and relaxed ready to tell their story.
How did we get here? This is the sort of thing that can only happen when you have a group of passionate people; volunteers, professionals and time-givers.
He explained how he and Sue first met in 2014 when they were both living on Lewisham Street in Fishergate in York. They had a shared interest in community and were inspired by the community gatherings and spirit of the street.
But they were both renting, essentially short term tenants, and even though Sue had been there for 8 years, when she was asked to end her tenancy and leave her home, she very quickly missed the vibrant community. She wanted to know ‘How can I live like that?’’
At the same time James dreamed of living a sustainable life and having a straw bale house, alongside straw-bale-housed neighbours! He questioned whether he needed to actually buy a home, he didn’t mind renting, but it needed to be affordable, and offer long term security.
A visit to LILAC (Low Impact Living Affordable Community) in Leeds inspired them further.
“Why can’t we do this in York?”
James explained that York is prohibitively expensive to get on the property ladder. There has been a 300% rise in house prices in the last 20 years. This, the boom in buy to let, high rents and a high cost of living, has seen a ‘housing crisis’ in York.
Both Sue and James knew there had to be a different approach to housing and between them, they established the three factors that they felt needed to be considered:
In 2015 Oliver House, an old care home in the Bishophill area of the city, came up on the open market. James and Sue felt this would be a perfect site for an affordable community housing of mixed tenure. They engaged with the council and the community, attempted to buy it, but unfortunately didn’t succeed.
Although unsuccessful, this was the catalyst for the start of a serious community housing journey.
What started as two neighbours on Lewisham Street is now a 200 member strong group of active volunteers. Meetings are held regularly to discuss ideas, fuelled by shared meals, tea, cake, endless pasta dishes and a little beer.
“No longer just a small group of lunatics.”
After Oliver House, the group started to talk to grant bodies and funders, putting together a business plan and worked out the best model they could use to deliver it.
The model was that YorSpace became a Community Land Trust, who buy the land for a community housing scheme and then leases it to a Mutual Home Ownership Society (Society), a co-operative made up of the residents of a site.
How do we keep the homes affordable forever?
The homes are owned by the Society and the residents own the Society. But importantly, the residents do not own the homes directly. This means that the homes will never be available on the open market and will always be available for generations to come.
A resident would pay a deposit, pay a monthly ‘fee’ of around 80% of current rent or mortgage costs, and then have equity in the Society.
It took a considerable amount of time, and much research, to establish this model – but it is one that can be used again throughout the city for future community led housing schemes, and indeed all over the country.
So with the model in place, YorSpace now needed a site.
In October 2016 the council were proposing a housing development of 165 homes on an 11 acre old school site in Acomb, some of which would be available to YorSpace.
The YorSpace plot has 19 homes, of mixed sizes, a communal house, shared facilities, limited space for cars with community living and affordability at the heart. House prices are only 60% of the average house prices in the area.
This is what the money from the Share Offer will enable them to complete.
James ended by saying:
Can we fix York’s housing crisis? Yes we can. We are providing innovative, exciting, affordable housing and starting a housing revolution across York, and the UK. Our strength lies in being community financed and cooperatively owned – housing truly fit for the 21st century. This is revolutionary. Come and be part of it.
Next on stage were a group of young residents-to-be. The big question for them was:
Why do we want to be residents at Lowfield Green?
Johnny, a father of one admits that the thought of having a home he could afford drew him in initially. He wants more children and he felt it would be good for the family to start off in an affordable way.
Once he started meeting everyone at YorSpace he realised the real benefit would actually be community. He pointed out that two working parents trying to raise a child isn’t easy. But having amazing people around you who will help out, feels incredible. He loves the idea of everyone supporting one another and growing together.
He went on to say that before joining YorSpace he was lacking in self confidence and just the other day found himself sat in the back of a car about to meet a contractor to discuss the build.
This is a huge change for me. I am changing. I am becoming a more confident person, because I am part of this project. This model is a great balance giving people private space, but with other people around to keep you sane and happy.
For Alice, her interest in cooperative housing started twelve years ago. She had visited LILAC in Leeds and dreamt of something similar in York.
A few years on and the affordability became relevant. As a young professional it was impossible for her to buy in York. So the dream and the realisation brought her to YorSpace some 18 months ago.
The community is why I am still here. A group of people with a shared vision.
Rebecca, a single Mum, has a young son and was drawn to the community aspect – the ability for someone else to look after her boy for an hour or so sounded great and she loved the idea of a communal launderette where everyone could get together for a chat.
We are not connected anymore, screens are taking over. This is the opportunity to redress the balance and be part of a bigger thing. It is really exciting.
Tabitha cites sustainability as the main driver for her. As a single person, she sees lots of friends buying their own home, but she herself is still in shared housing and finds it prohibitively expensive to buy.
I love the process of YorSpace, and doing things with other people is fun.
After hearing the stories it really feels this housing project is more about ‘a way of life’ than bricks and mortar.
Explain to us the share offer
Next up was the money man, Phil Harding.
He explained, as simply as he could, how the share offer worked, with nifty diagrams that helped to simplify quite a complex model.
YorSpace are essentially trying to raise £475K through community shares. The minimum value of shares you can buy is £250 and they offer a competitive 2.5% return. Any investor can withdraw after 3 years, and be paid back in full, plus 2.5%.
Buying shares sees you also become a shareholding member of YorSpace, so you can influence the way future community housing schemes happen and there is only 1 vote per shareholder no matter how many shares you buy.
Money raised from shares will buy the land, pay professional fees, planning fees and enable Lowfield Green to happen. Any investment will also be a seed for future developments, not just Lowfield Green.
YorSpace will then lease the land to the Mutual Home Ownership Society made up of the residents of Lowfield Green.
– An investor buys shares in YorSpace. With the money YorSpace buy land that they lease to the Mutual Home Ownership Society.
-The Society offers individual leases to the residents, who then pay monthly contributions back to the Society.
-This enables the Society to repay the loan and interest to YorSpace, who then repay investors over 20 years.
Phil ended by saying
York is pioneering a new model of housing, just as it did in the 20th century. The share offer is a bit like a ‘community bank of mum and dad’ enabling a good outcome for all.
A panel then took to the stage comprising of Co-founders James and Sue, Jim Read – YorSpace Project Manager, Emma Ridley – a property lawyer from Wrigleys, and Helen Graham and Phil Bixby who have been part of the public engagement team in York for YorSpace.
Questions flew from the floor, including finding out how the houses would be sustainable, how the council might help YorSpace on future developments, and more details for investors.
Denise Craghill, Green Councillor for Guildhall said:
I like that YorSpace are ‘disrupting’ the housing market. How can the council help the process to spread to other areas of the city?
James stated the council needed to consider how they dispose of buildings and land and not just sell to the highest bidder. And to start thinking along the lines of community value, not capital value.
People asked if they could get involved without investing of which there was a resounding ‘Yes’.
There was also a question on the intergenerational side of the project and we learnt the youngest resident would be around two and the oldest a grandparent.
The final word on the the Share Offer was a poignant observation by Project Manager Jim.
All over the country, housing is built by people who don’t care about who they are building it for and why. Community led housing is different. It is the only housing where people really think through how people want to live.
Coming away from the event you couldn’t help but be swept up by the excitement and vision of a committed group of people and to passionately want housing in York that is affordable, sustainable and about the community.
Time to buy some shares