Affordable, community housing in York

An organisation that helps facilitate housing in the city of York that is affordable, environmentally-friendly and community-orientated? Welcome to YorSpace, writes co-founder James Newton

HOUSE prices in York are incredibly high; if the same trajectory continues over the next 20 years as the previous 20 (which includes the ‘financial crash’ of 2008), a four-bedroom house might cost as much as £700,000 in 2041.

As an antidote to that and the climate crisis, the foundations of our ‘community company’ were put in place in 2013, to find plots of land around the city and assist individual, affordable housing projects on them.

It would be fair to describe YorSpace as a housing ‘facilitator’. Technically, we are a Community Benefit Society and also a Community Land Trust.

There are three guiding principles required of any project we might support: high environmental standards, community cohesion and, of course, the provision of affordable homes, and in perpetuity.

We are beginning with a pilot project called Lowfield Green – a 19-home scheme in a corner of a much larger plot being developed by the local authority.

Lowfield Green will be run by a co-operative that we set up, as a separate legal entity.

We set up the co-op to help demonstrate the approach. But we don’t imagine having to set up every co-op we might work with.

Lowfield Green received planning permission in March 2019, including for just 12 car parking spaces – meaning there will be car sharing – just one of the many low carbon features guided by Bioregional’s ‘one planet principles’.

Co-ops allow their members to decide their own future, including the design of their homes, on an one-member-one-vote basis.

Whichever co-op we work with – set up by ourselves or otherwise – the model involves us owning the land and leasing it to the co-op. They own the housing, collectively, and so will oversee the house construction and who is eligible to live in them.

Because the co-ops will not be registered social landlords – receiving government funding to provide social rent housing – there is no obligation to take people off the housing waiting list operated by the local authority for people in housing need and the homes are not subject to the Right to Buy.

That said, an allocations template which we have drawn up – for co-ops to use – places a strong emphasis on housing need (including isolation), local connections and willingness to be ‘good neighbours’, such as volunteering either for the co-op itself or YorSpace.

Plus, you’ve guessed it, affordability.

Because we own the land, that allows us to determine the type of community we want to see develop. We are able to provide co-ops with a spreadsheet to help them calculate how to afford the building of their housing.

YorSpace has reached a point in its evolution where it is well-versed in how to access grant funding, and how to raise money via issuing community shares – the income from which can be essentially fed into the system.

Helping pay for Lowfield Green is a community shares issue that raised £422,000. It was promoted to investors as an opportunity to be part of ‘the community bank of mum and dad’.

There is the also the distinct possibility that our credibility is such that we are, in the future, offered land as a gift or at a reduced price (Lowfield Green was sold to us by the City of York Council at below its market price), which would make it even easier to achieve affordability.

In simple terms, the co-ops we support will be structured as so-called Mutual Home Ownership Societies.

That will involve residents collectively owning the co-operative rather than individuals owning their home outright. They pay into a common fund – firstly with a deposit and then monthly in order to accrue equity which can be purchased by subsequent generations of residents, but at an affordable price set by the co-op.

Each new generation of residents will have the opportunity to buy into the MHOS at an affordable level, and must be reconciled to the fact that they (or their estate) will have their equity re-imbursed also at an ‘affordable level’ – most likely calculated using the annual rate of inflation or local wage increases, which is well below house price inflation.

The co-op will allocate the housing, none of which – under the terms of the lease agreed with YorSpace – can be sold on the open market. In other words, we are an alternative to the scourge of house price speculation, which is making it so hard for so many people nowadays to find suitable housing.

It would be fair to say our target group are those who can afford to rent, but cannot afford to buy.

Incoming residents purchase, up front, a minimum ten per cent of the equity value of the property they are seeking to move into. It’s a ‘deposit’ percentage well below the national average.

Whatever they pay thereafter is a mix of paying back, pro rata, whatever loan has been set up to the pay for the house building and also paying YorSpace – for any loan it has had to take out to buy the land, issuing returns to those folk who have invested in a community shares scheme and any management and professional fees incurred (albeit YorSpace is run entirely by volunteers).

It might sound a contradiction in terms, people paying essentially a monthly rent and somehow being rewarded for that when they leave. But, believe me, it is possible. And we have the system to allow co-ops to make the numbers add up.

Crucially, the homes developed by a co-operative are not subject to Right to Buy legislation – which allows people to purchase, at a discounted rate, their council or housing association home, and potentially to put it on the open market.

I know Right to Buy has been abolished in Scotland, but it remains in operation, here in England.

These last 20 years, house prices in York increased by around 99 per cent. Our model envisages that, over the next 20 years, a YorSpace home will increase by 48 per cent.

That will be achieved by a deep understanding of the grants eco-system, tapping occasionally into the general public’s generosity to support community-led housing and being not-for-profit and almost entirely voluntary.

Even if 48 per cent is not quite how it actually ends up, it’s going to be a lot lower than 99 per cent.

And in the meantime, we will have hopefully helped turn York into a series of housing developments that are not only affordable, but massively environmentally-friendly and secure places to call home. 

James Newton is a co-founder of YorSpace and director of designdwell, a design studio with a particular interest in low-carbon architecture, bio-based construction methods and community-led projects. He rents in York and the volunteer time contributed by both him and his partner make them eligible to be a resident of Lowfield Green Housing Co-op.

James was a guest of Action Hampshire during its day-long conference, on January 19 2021: ‘Developing new affordable homes in communities’