Small and Shared vs McMansions and Slums

Anitra Nelson

Housing and its deficiencies is a key topic, especially in cities around the world. Affordable, conveniently located, well-designed and environmentally sustainable housing seems further and further out of reach. Where and how we live, our home and household, are acute realities each of us face 24/7. Most of us have a rich history of living in different dwellings and relate to housing issues in various ways. ‘Home’ is a special place and it becomes challenging if that place is in poor condition, our rights to live there are precarious, we confront threats to our physical safety or when co-residents require lots of support from us.

Housing difficulties are linked to growing inequalities, rapacious land grabbing and real estate developments, the failure of states to provide adequate infrastructure and regulations, and deepening environmental crises. On the one hand, housing is the key contributor to household indebtedness and, on the other, buildings have been contributing around 30 percent of carbon emissions globally. Typically, such housing is provided by developers and investors via real estate agents whose primary concern is to make a profit. Banks and other credit providers of mortgages enable many citizens to purchase housing but this often comes with a debt burden which can prove crippling. Governments tend to identify private housing developments with growth as ‘good’. The housing crisis is a multi-headed monster.

But, could housing struggles be the place revolutions start? This is the premise of my sole-authored book on eco-collaborative housing Small is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet (2018, Pluto Press London — also available open access through Knowledge Unlatched) and a book that I have co-edited with François Schneider Housing for Degrowth: Principles, Models, Challenges and Opportunities, due out in hardcover soon in the Environmental Humanities series of Routledge (London). Cheaper paperback copies will be available from the co-editors.

McMansions are terrible resource sinks and environmentally unsustainable.

Small and Shared

The ‘small’ in Small is Necessary refers not only to the need to address perverse growth in the size of mainstream housing in the Global North during the twentieth century (the same period in which households shrank), but also to remedy the swelling per capita household space, especially in North America and Australia where McMansions are common sights. Massive houses on smaller and smaller lots typify suburban developments on the fringes of cities, where infrastructure is poor, private transport demands are high and the operating costs of heating, lighting and cooling such houses means they are neither affordable nor environmentally sustainable.

In Small is Necessary, I look at apartments, which many city governments promote as key to sustainable living in compact urban futures. But the history of apartments reflects social inequalities, with penthouses for the rich and overcrowded small urban housing for the poor over the centuries of capitalism. So, today, we have ‘micro-apartments’ and tiny houses, even bed cabins in Tokyo. Living alone in a tiny space means duplicating all the facilities for each person and promotes loneliness. In this context, sharing — making our households larger — is often a better way to approach small ecological footprints. One planet living and low impact living are ways of the future for housing. They would offer more affordable and sustainable options, especially by minimizing space and facilities through sharing.

Public housing for the economically underprivileged has become overcrowded and increasingly devoid of basic facilities.

The ‘sharing’ in Shared Living on a Shared Planet refers to ‘eco-collaborative housing’ – from sharing a house and/or land with non-kin either as owners or as tenants, through to cohousing (clustered private dwellings whose households intentionally share co-governed common spaces and facilities), politicised squats, eco-communes and ecovillages. Cases of all these types of housing and households sit at the core of the book.

Sharing spaces, facilities and services are ways to economise on per capita household space, effectively meaning small ecological footprints. At the same time, collective sustainability is, arguably, easier to achieve than individual household simplicity. Such models draw on traditional forms of living, with community and neighbourhood-oriented household activities, including more work close to home.

This is especially the case with ecovillage settlements purposely designed to be collectively and locally sufficient, producing organic food, implementing permaculture and appropriate technologies, minimising transport, regenerating landscapes, following the principles of low impact developments and adopting a communal orientation with substantial activist outreach and networking.

Eco-collaborative housing can be more affordable and more sustainable than multiple small nuclear family households because residents of eco-collaborative housing benefit from mutual support, collective effort and a greater diversity of skills and knowledge to apply in forms of self-building and co-managing their community- and neighbourhood-oriented settlements.

Growth or Survival?

There is no doubt that housing crises that have erupted in cities are linked with specifically capitalist trends, neo-liberalism and inequality. “Surely the people must rise up against this,” you think. In reality, housing experiences are replete with ties that bind as well as offend. In fact, they are now referred to as ‘housing careers’ in the contemporary era, saturated as it is with market-based thinking.

Owning a single family home has become a costly, unattainable mirage for most people.

Typically, the owner-occupier purchases a house by way of a mortgage paid off over decades. Generally, they take some time to save a deposit. Mortgages are housing loans arranged by banks and other credit providers. Owner-occupiers might talk about buying a house for say ‘$200,000’ but, if they had saved $50,000 for a deposit and repaid their loan over 30 years at 5% interest, their house will really have cost them more like $300,000. In other words, their lender has earned $100,000.

While saving and paying off such loans, workers are likely to be less prepared to take industrial or other political action, fearful they might lose their house if they lose their jobs and income. We can see that easy access to credit means workers don’t worry so much about falling real wages, especially given that they are likely to leave the education system with a debt for unpaid tuition fees. Lots of factors bind even young adults to a system that they are fearful to resist or rebut.

The conditions for tenants are often worse, which is another factor that pushes people into home ownership or makes them feel worthless if they cannot. In many countries tenancies can be as short as six to twelve months, meaning renters move a lot. Because rent levels are determined in the market, rents can be very high.

With the growth in tourism, many landlords find it more lucrative to rent on a nightly rather than yearly basis, pushing out permanent tenants. The environmental sustainability of rental properties can be low, translating into high energy costs living for renters. Renters who fall behind on paying their rent are evicted, so having a regular monetary income is crucial. In short, people are tied to capitalist practices seemingly making them as anxious as their managers and political representatives that the system does not falter. The mantra of this politic-economic system is ‘growth’ when, in fact, capitalism actually grows against natural and human limits.

Degrowth

While both books draw most of their case studies from the Global North, many themes are applicable to the Global South, especially where the drivers of development in the Global South mimic modes of growth and consumption in the Global North. These are some of the arguments made by three of the 25 contributors to Housing for Degrowth, who look at housing in Vanuatu and Southern India, namely Bengalura (Bangalore).

Degrowth is a political, practical and cultural movement for downscaling and transforming society beyond capitalist growth and non-capitalist productivism to achieve global sustainability and satisfy everyone’s basic needs. Australian architect Wendy Christie and John Salong open their chapter with this insight:

“In Vanuatu, an independent nation spread across an 83-island archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean, there is no consciously labelled degrowth movement. The typical way of life for most people, however, is very compatible with grassroots concepts of degrowth. Rather than a collective decision to consume and produce less, people do so as a continuation of their self-sufficient, agricultural-based economies.”

Christie and Salong report on formal international aid and national recovery activities following the destruction caused by winds greater than 280 km per hour associated with Tropical Cyclone Pam (mid-March 2015). The resilience and collective self-reliance shown by the ni-Vanuatu community all through the rebuilding process was “overwhelmingly autonomous and independent of centralised services”, in effect “illustrating the value of the intergenerational building knowledge in Vanuatu that has evolved over centuries to suit the local climatic conditions.”

Chitra Vishwanath in Bengaluru, India has also shown how developing on certain traditional building forms, techniques and processes is key to reversing the neo-liberal approach that ‘implies a large ecological footprint’ and has meant that ‘the city’s ecosystem now verges on collapse’. For instance, Vishwanath outlines how compressed stabilised mud blocks using Bengalura soil as a primary base material are substantially environmentally better than country-fired bricks. Using soil on site, by digging a useful earth-temperature controlled basement under the area of the new urban house, leads to economies. In fact, such sites typically deliver enough earth for another dwelling and can be shared locally. Erstwhile waste materials — such as computer keyboards — are incorporated into the building. This kind of customised and intelligent building offers a builder a better experience than working on mainstream housing sites where work is fast, precarious, standardised and relies on materials such as concrete with high embodied energy.

Grassroots vs Market and State

Small is Necessary identifies three drivers of future eco-collaborative housing: governments, markets and grassroots groups and networks.

Government

Northern European governments have been at the forefront of developing policies and models for cohousing initiatives. Typically, cohousing is an intentionally designed and co-governed cluster of private dwellings with shared spaces and facilities. Cohousing residents might be owner-occupiers or tenants.

Certain city governments have recognised the benefits of cohousing for affordability, sustainability, inclusive and accessible developments, and the roles cohousing can have in urban regeneration and the preservation of historic precincts — even making calls for groups with cohousing proposals to tender for government released land, guaranteeing cohousing project loans or allowing such developments on land sold more cheaply or more slowly to account for the long build times of such projects.

R50 Baugruppen Cohousing project in Berlin is supported by the city government.

The German government, for instance, not only allows for cohousing in planning regulations but, in fact, led by a government bank, it also offers financial models for supporting them. There are state-funded information and skills sharing hubs and stakeholder forums for such housing.

In contrast, most urban planning regimes are based on preserving individual private property even if these dwellings are attached as in an apartment block. Unless planners enable, and policy makers encourage cohousing, groups will be stymied by efforts to amalgamate water and energy infrastructure whether off-grid or delivered by an independent provider. They’ll also face problems minimising car parking space and in introducing appropriate technologies for low impact living.

Nevertheless, the cohousing model has been quite successful in housing for the aged as it offers a supportive living environment for older singles and couples who prefer co-governance and independence. This kind of cohousing is offering a successful template for government supported public or social housing

 Market

One of the key characteristics of cohousing and ecovillages has been their grassroots driven nature but, in highly market-oriented societies. It is no surprise that architects, developers, sustainability entrepreneurs and investors have seen an opportunity to jump on this bandwagon. However, selling sustainability and community is a hard task; my chapter in Small is Necessary on market-driven initiatives reveals that they tend to be neither as dedicated to environmental sustainability nor as community-oriented simply because entry and exit is primarily a monetary rather than community-approved affair. Moreover, the entrepreneurs who founded them often remain involved in management, weakening the essential requirement of co-governance in the process.

Grassroots

In the 1990s, I lived in two eco-collaborative housing communities in Victoria (Australia) for around a decade, and have stayed in such communities in the United States for weeks, even months, at a time since then.

First, I lived in a cooperative called Commonground that functioned pretty much like a commune. It also aims to support social and environmental activists and self-help organizations along with non-government and government agencies with welfare missions. With this intention it offers a unique venue, facilitators, financial advisors, teachers and other specialists with complementary skills, knowledge and resources for workshops, yearly reviews, forward planning, conflict resolution and cultural gatherings.

Cohousing projects put an emphasis on shared facilities and common spaces.

Second, I lived in the less intense Round the Bend Cooperative, a residential community whose mission has been to ecologically preserve 132 hectares of box ironbark woodlands within which its inhabitants have established detached low impact housing. This settlement of 22 households with room for 10 more, was very much like cohousing except for its low-density spread. My personal experience has made me a passionate advocate of such living and a strong believer in the necessary autonomy of cohousing communities. While I was always attracted to the idea of direct grassroots democracy, my experience with women’s liberation activism and the encounter with collective and more consensual decision-making of eco-collaborative housing has given me confidence that it can work. Such communities and allied movements have developed techniques that make horizontal direct and local democracy a living fact. In the final substantial chapter of Small is Necessary I offer a series of cases to show this, including: Twin Oaks, UfaFabrik, Freetown Christiania, Calafou.

Elsewhere I have argued that eco-collaborative housing is a strategy for achieving an ecosocialist revolution where grassroots, direct democracy thrives. Ecosocialists focus on meeting everyone’s basic needs within the regenerative potential of Earth. That housing struggles can be the place revolutions start is also a theme pursued by many contributors to Housing for Degrowth. After all, capitalism relies on growth whereas degrowth, arguably, means some form of post-capitalism.

Contributors to Housing for Degrowth show people collectively re-inhabiting and refurbishing old buildings, creating alternative housing with re-used materials and living simply. They explain how squatters, cohousers and ecovillagers offer alternative social centres for everyone to use and go on to argue that it should be a right to inhabit otherwise empty housing and to self-build small adequate housing. The writers, finally, advise against demolition of inhabitable buildings just to make way for new profitable developments of unaffordable housing.

Eco-collaborative housing and other forms of degrowth housing experiments with simple and convivial living within the regenerative limits of Earth demonstrate a different future, of challenging the stranglehold that state and market have over housing as institutions. Furthermore, they beg the next step — of a socio-cultutal, political and economic revolution within which we reach global agreement to make fundamental human and planetary needs the basis of our future.

Anitra Nelson is Associate Professor in the Centre for Urban Research School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

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