About the housing crisis, the commons, cooperative living, Barcelona, Sweden… phew!

While the cooperative housing model has a long tradition in some regions of the world, such as Quebec and Canada, Northern Europe or Uruguay in Latin America; in others, it is a rather emergent phenomenon. This is the case of Catalonia, where especially the city of Barcelona has seen this form of cohabitation grow over the past ten years. Researchers, such as Vidal (2018) in a publication by the think tank CIDOB (Barcelona Center for International Affairs), observe a parallelism between the promotion of these housing cooperatives and the growing difficulties of access to affordable housing in the Catalan capital. This ‘housing problem’ – which is moreover global – would be intimately linked to the “incompatible” functions of housing buildings, since they simultaneously have values of use (residence) and, in deep detriment of the previous one, of exchange (profit). With the provision of public rental housing also having its own challenges, which has caused their overall decline, co-operative housing models would be particularly attractive as non-market, autonomous alternatives. They would therefore be situated under the paradigm of ‘the commons’, characterized by intellectuals like Dardot and Laval as “the practical activity of men” which makes things common or non-state public, thus outside of the appropriation by the market or by the State.

In many cities resurfaces an interest in housing models that follow this logic centered on use (not on ownership), and on the collective (not on the State) – housing cooperatives, housing associations, collaborative housing, community housing or even co-living, they all refer to this model. It should be noted however that, especially among housing cooperatives under longer term legal frameworks, there may still be the risk of becoming another form of ownership and financialization of housing – a fairly common trend in Sweden, for example, where, although its large cooperative housing sector can limit speculation around rents (residence obligation for its members), it operates after all, following a deregulation, on a system of trading housing use rights at market prices (or almost).

In the face of this, it becomes all the more important to continue the support and innovation around these experiences, so that they can make a real contribution to the socio-ecological transition of cities. For example, given that the aforementioned international processes of privatization or commodification of cooperative housing are sometimes promoted by States and implemented by users themselves, an innovation to consider is that of providing the cooperative housing sector of their own alternative institutionalization (meta-commons?). In Germany, the second-degree organization Mietshäuser Syndikat retains a right of veto over the prices of its affiliated housing projects. Another angle of action, more technical, lies in integrating into cooperative housing other elements that are also collective in terms of the use of energy and resources. The organization Sostre Civic in Catalonia, for example, takes advantage of the construction or complete rehabilitation of a building for new housing cooperatives to install systems for the reuse of “grey waters” (from sinks or showers) for serving toilet buckets and watering plants. The practice, underlines the organization in a report by Catalan public television, must be collective: beyond individual users, but also at the scale of the city and therefore in coordination with the public administration and the companies supplying the water.

To learn more about the balance between the public support necessary for the emergence and recognition of this type of ‘commons’ initiatives, and their equally important autonomy, please consult, for example, the documentation of the Research Collective on Initiatives, Transformations and Institutions of the Commons (CRITIC for its French acronym).