Residents of Ipswich’s first housing co-operative have moved into their new home. Sheena Grant paid them a visit and found out about an event being organised to help others form similar communities

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SHE lives in a house which currently has no working central heating, half-plastered walls and looks like it’s lacked any real TLC for a good many decades. But as far as Gemma Sayers is concerned, she is living the dream. This house represents more than just bricks and mortar; more even than a home. It is the embodiment of a set of values held dear by Gemma and the seven others who took up residence in Foundation Street, Ipswich, just a few months ago.

This, you see, is Ipswich’s first housing co-operative, which members hope will blaze a trail in Suffolk and beyond for a different, mutally beneficial, style of living.

Yes, it may be chilly now if you venture far from the solitary wood-burning stove and there may be a list as long as your arm of work to do, but that’s part of the joy of the project as far as Gemma and the others are concerned.

Since the £220,000 house purchase went through last year there has been extensive work carried out on the roof, a total re-wire, a new damp-proof course and underpinning work to deal with subsidence.

“Because of all the work that needed doing many purchasers would have walked away from the house,” says Gemma. “But it fitted our needs so well that we were sure it was the house for us.”

The house is actually a group of three two-up, two-down terraces in a row, two of which have been knocked into one, with the other as a self-contained entity. There are three separate kitchens and three bathrooms, along with two cellars. Each member has their own room and they share communal living spaces. Outside there are rose and honeysuckle-clad gardens and, although in the centre of town, it feels secluded. Most other buildings on the street are offices and there are also some almshouses for older people.

On the day I visit, Gemma is the only resident at home. The others – an ecletic mix of artists, therapists, gardeners, crafts people and a single parent with two children who stay on alternate weekends – are all out working. Gemma, 26, who until recently worked as an adviser on food co-ops in the region, has taken on the role of informally project-managing the new housing co-op.

The members want the house to act as a community hub and to showcase eco-renovations and low-impact living.

Since they took up residence in September they have learned lime plastering and have started to insulate the building using hemp fibres. In the longer term they would like to use a 29ft-long garage at the side of the house to stage workshops, classes and training courses on their eco-renovations.

“One of our missions is to demystify all of these eco-refurbishments,” says Gemma. “It can be so difficult for people to figure out what their best options are and hopefully here we can actually show them what we’ve done.”

And next week the experience of setting up the Random Camel Housing Co-op, to give the venture its full name, will be at the heart of a Living Together conference Gemma has helped organise at Old Hall Community, East Bergholt, where a group of families has lived communally since the 1970s. The event will look at how to set up a housing co-op and maybe even help match-make a few people who are interested in starting their own projects.

“It is really taking place off the back of us getting this place,” says Gemma. “I’ve spoken to so many people who say they would love to live in something similar, so we thought this would be a good way of getting people together. It’s a chance to say to people ‘This had never been done in Ipswich before, so there’s no reason why you can’t make it happen elsewhere’.”

She is passionate about promoting co-operative housing projects as the way forward for people who either don’t want or can’t afford the traditional mortgaged home or private rental route.

“It’s getting increasingly unaffordable for people, whereas living in a co-operative is accessible to those on low incomes as well as those who want a more ethical, ecologically oriented way of life. It’s one of the more possible options at the moment. It’s hard to get money for a mortgage as an individual but mortgages for housing co-ops are a growing market.”

But Gemma readily admits co-op living wouldn’t be for everyone. It involves consensus. When the members moved into Foundation Street they each listed their first-choice bedroom and then engaged in negotiations to reach agreement.

“There has to be negotiation about a lot of things but it has been lovely to have the support of people in things that each of us feels strongly about,” says Gemma. For instance, one of the residents did not want to move in until her own room had been decorated. The pristine white walls of her personal space are a stark contrast to the peeling, ancient wallpaper and bare plaster on view almost everywhere else.

Balancing individuals’ competing priorities must be a never-ending task in every kind of housing co-op but, in many ways, the same could be said of more traditional family homes.

In between carrying out their renovations, members have already managed to organise a couple of community events – a neighbourhood day and film-showing – in their spacious “events room”.

“The lime plastering was interesting,” says Gemma. “We put out a call to our friends to borrow tools and expertise, spoke to some people who knew what they were doing, watched a DVD and had a go. It was interesting to see people’s reactions. Some said ‘How could you do that yourselves?’ but I really enjoyed it.”

In fact, her emerging love of DIY has been a revelation to Gemma, who never considered herself the most practical of people before moving into the housing co-op.

“I have always had a lot of motivation for the project and it has been exciting for me, setting up the company and financial stuff, but I never thought of myself as terribly practical.

“I never really had many DIY skills but the last few months have been a real eye-opener – I can do these things and I am relatively good at them. I am even interested in going into one of these ecological refurbishment trades more formally now because I really enjoy the physical work.”

Of the eight permanent residents in the house, the youngest is 24 and the oldest in their 40s – a broad age range that Gemma says works well.

“We have such a specific situation here and we are very different from other housing co-ops, many of which are lived in by people actively working in the realms of social change, so they don’t necessarily focus on their house as anything more than their dwelling. Their focus is more outside with issues affecting the world, but because we’ve had so much to do here, our attention has had to be more internally focused, making this more of a social centre,” she says.

Group members are all acutely aware of the history of the house, which was in the same large family for the best part of a century before Random Camel bought it.

“A couple of us come from big families, so it feels very much that is the right place for us,” says Gemma. “Quite often, when we’re working on the house we will uncover a little piece of its history and we like that.

“Although none of us owns it directly, we still feel a sense of ownership, perhaps because we are the first to be living as part of this co-op.”

The purchase of the Foundation Street building has been funded through a mortgage and loans made by individuals, organisations and community supporters. All the loans are actually investments in what the Random Camel venture co-op considers to be an attractive ethical enterprise.

The building itself was bought by the legal entity that is the co-op and cannot be sold on, so members can move in and out without being tied financially to the project – all they have to do is pay rent.

As well as the loans from individuals and a mortgage, a fixed-rate loan was provided by Radical Routes, a network of radical co-ops working to bring about social change. In 21 years the network has not had a default on a loan.

The mortgage and loans used to buy the property are being repaid by the co-op through the rent paid by tenants.

In many ways there couldn’t be a better time to be embarking on such a venture – last year was designated the International Year of Co-operatives (IYC) by the United Nations in recognition of the fact that co-operatives drive the economy, respond to social change, are resilient to the global economic crisis and are serious, successful businesses.

The International Co-operative Alliance, which represents co-operatives worldwide, says the IYC celebrated a different way of doing business: one focused on human need, not human greed, where the members, who own and govern the business, collectively enjoy the benefits instead of all profits going just to shareholders.

The ethical element to the project is the driving force for Gemma and all the members. It is about something bigger than them as individuals.

It is an alternative to a status quo they feel is proving unsustainable and will house people now and in years to come.

“Buying as a co-operative is taking the house away from the fluctuations of the market place and putting it in control of its tenants in perpetuity,” says Gemma. “It is different from social housing or private housing. It is at no-one’s mercy. It is empowering.”

To find out more about the Ipswich housing co-operative visit www.randomcamelcoop.blogspot.com. To book a place on the Living Together event, which takes place on Saturday, January 26, from 9.30am to 4.30pm, at Old Hall Community, East Bergholt, call 07946529642 or email livingtogetherevent@gmail.com

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