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Lessons from a London community land trust

The Rural Urban Synthesis Society (Russ) is a community land trust in south London, about to embark on its first housing scheme. Founder Kareem Dayes tells the story

I grew up in Walters Way, a small estate in Lewisham, south London, designed by innovative architect Walter Segal. It was a council-run self-build project built in the 1980s.

My parents, who at the time lived on a council estate, and had no building experience, were given the opportunity to build their own home as part of the scheme. It took them 18 months, working evenings and weekends, and they created a home that was adaptable and perfect for the needs of our family. From a very young age I was aware that it was possible to build your own home, to create your own housing, even if you are not skilled or wealthy.

As a young musician I found that the mainstream housing market, offering either to buy or privately rent at London prices, had nothing for people in my situation. As the housing crisis progressed the chances of someone like me being able to afford to live in the city in which I grew up was becoming remote.

So with a small group of friends and family I decided to set up a community-led housing project. At first my band played gigs to raise money to get it off the ground. We held public events so people could learn who we were. We set up an open membership policy – it only costs £1 to join. We became a community land trust. We applied for and got grants, eventually enabling us to hire a part-time project manager.

It took five years of work to get to the stage we are at now. Our volunteer-led group is currently applying for planning permission for our first housing scheme: 33 genuinely affordable, mixed tenure, sustainable, homes with a self-build element.

We have had many challenges along the way. Maintaining the momentum of the group can be tough, when things appear to be moving slowly. We use many methods to keep the group engaged – such as regular meetings, community events and fundraising campaigns.

We spent several years building our credibility with the local council, eventually winning a competitive procurement process and signing a delivery agreement. Our relationship with the council rested on us making the homes available to all in housing need in the borough, not just our friends and members. The future residents were chosen at a public ballot at the town hall. Once the group had formed they worked with architects to co-design their homes, which ensured that the finished building will reflect their needs and lifestyles.

Along the way there has been great interest in the way we operate from academics, housing professionals and community groups. In response to this interest we have set up our School of Community-led Housing.

We ran a pilot workshop back in November and the feedback was very positive. There is a real demand for information on community-led housing and it is a privilege for us to be able to share our experience.

Community-led housing is a vital part of the housing mix. Because it allows people to take control over their housing and create better homes and sustainable communities, something the state and market are not achieving.

I can’t claim that RUSS has all the answers – we still have a long way to go. However we have acquired some insights into the process that we are keen to pass on. As well as reaching out to people who want to set up a group, our workshop appeals to architects and other housing professionals who are keen to know more about the growing community-led housing sector.

Our next workshop is at the Building Centre in central London. In addition to me and RUSS members, we will be joined by two architects who led our co-design process: Jon Broome of Jon Broome Associates and Zohra Chiheb of Levitt Bernstein. We will also hear from John Struthers who formed the Headway Self-build Collective, a community group that built their own houses in Walthamstow, north London. For more details click this link.

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