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University of Basel

New housing for social change.

Text: Samuel Schlaefli

Co-operative living is back en vogue. A Basel-based sociologist is following the development of new housing projects and researching their innovative and socially transformative potential.

Since the beginning of this millennium, community-oriented housing co-operatives have experienced a renaissance. LeNa and wohnen&mehr in Basel, Kalkbreite and Kraftwerk 1 in Zurich, Warmbächli in Bern, or the Giesserei in Winterthur – they all serve the same mission of creating affordable, needs-based, sustainable housing options. This is not a novel vision: The first housing co-ops in Switzerland date back to the mid-19th century. So what’s driving this new spike of interest at this particular moment?

This is the central question Sanna Frischknecht explores in her dissertation, which is part of the SNF project “Transformative Communities as Innovative Forms of Living?” at the Department of Social Sciences. The researcher is taking an in-depth look at several housing co-ops that all share an interest in “community-led, co-operative housing”. “Common elements of these projects are ideals such as democratic decision-making and self-administration, as well as architecture that meets the need for community and for privacy at the same time,” the sociologist says.

Her main interest is not so much the end product, that is living in the finished building, but rather the process of creating it, which can span years: “The negotiations about guiding notions, housing concepts, and cooperation convey the motivations, desires and predicaments of those involved.”

Actively fighting housing shortages

For many participants, the main incentive for their time-consuming and mostly volunteer-based involvement in community co-ops is the fact that an acute housing crisis in cities and rising real-estate prices make it impossible for them to adequately meet their housing needs, Frischknecht explains. Other important motives are creating stronger social connections and support networks to overcome a sense of isolation and a lack of social security.

For co-project manager Dietmar Wetzel, the concept is also about redefining our notion of community and challenging the boundaries of our willingness to share with others. People don’t sit through hours of meetings, engage in heated debates, and struggle through red tape just because social circumstances and economic or ecological crises compel them, Wetzel argues. Being part of the “alternative co-op scene” is also a way to live one’s own ideal of a sustainable lifestyle. This is why it’s no surprise that housing co-ops lean toward community-supported agriculture and other aspects of the alternative economy.

No substitute for the welfare state

A closer look at the composition of these active groups reveals that many members are around 30 or over 55. Most are socially and culturally relatively well-placed citizens with a stable financial base. “You have to invest a lot of time in the process of creating such a co-op; it can take years,” Frischknecht says. And yet, there are practical ways to also make projects and housing available to the socially disadvantaged, be it through partnerships with public authorities and institutions, or by co-ops raising their own solidarity funds.

Yet, Wetzel feels that private efforts to assume public tasks also entail certain dangers. For it is a key neoliberal strategy to harness private initiative to allow the state to back away from its social responsibilities: “Such housing projects are not supposed to be an opportunity for the welfare state to retreat under the pretext of individual responsibility.”

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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