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Mutual Housing

Cooperative Experiments in France

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Over the last decade in France and Europe, in a context where access to housing has become increasingly complex for low- and medium-income populations alike, we have seen a growing number of projects that offer new means of producing and managing housing. In this series of articles, Metropolitics reviews these innovative practices.

On the fringes of the two dominant traditional housing sectors – private housing and public/social housing – a whole host of initiatives have also developed, which seek to finance, build and/or experience housing in a different way. In recent years, a number of small developments (typically comprising 10 or so homes), which very often not only meet the strictest environmental requirements in terms of their construction, but also include shared spaces (communal living areas, laundry rooms, shared gardens, etc.), have been created. In France, several well-publicised operations are currently under way, and 200 others are currently under consideration. Although each project is different, their guiding principles share obvious similarities, the most prominent being the participation of residents in the design and management of their homes, a desire for neighbourly relations that encourage solidarity, the invention of means of consumption and construction that are considered more environmentally friendly, and an effort to move away from a property market that now bears little relation to average income levels.

These are not, strictly speaking, new ideas in the field of housing. In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of initiatives came to the fore, particularly within the self-managed housing movement, whose values and methods are close to those of current projects. But these initial experiences remain marginal cases and have not been reproduced since the 1980s, unlike the tendency observed in Northern Europe and certain anglophone countries, where experimentation has continued to the present day. Today, the loss of legitimacy of the common space of politics, rising land and property prices, cuts in public funds earmarked for social housing, and new demands on the part of citizens are all factors that have given a new character and meaning to such experiments and initiatives.

In this newly (re)opened arena within the housing sector, every project is very much an opportunity for innovation and experiments, even with the recent development of national and international networks to federate different initiatives and capitalise on skills and knowledge. These experiments take many different forms, as evidenced by the variety of expressions used to describe them: “mutual housing”, “cohousing”, “alternative housing”, “participatory housing”, “cooperative housing”, “grouped housing”. The legal and financial structures (self-building, cooperatives, etc.), the objectives defined and the socio-economic profiles of the populations concerned vary considerably from one operation to another. Furthermore, these initiatives are led by a wide range of groups and organisations, typically residents’ groups/associations or architecture and construction professionals, but sometimes also social landlords and local authorities – the latter seeing these initiatives as a means of diversifying their housing stock and bringing a participatory aspect to eco-neighbourhoods (many of which are created at the initiative of local authorities). The time is ripe for intense experimentation and a comparison of different models, in order to find the best way to promote and widen access to new forms of housing.

In this series of articles, Metropolitics proposes to explore – via a selection of past experiments – the specificities and stakes surrounding the current fervour for alternative forms of housing in France. A number of questions are raised throughout these articles, in particular concerning the aims and the homogeneity (or otherwise) of current initiatives. Should we be talking about a unified movement, or rather an array of related experiments? Who are the actors and beneficiaries of these operations, and what are the social, collective, real-estate or professional projects that drive them? Finally, to what extent can these experiments be reproduced and multiplied, in a context where federation among project proponents, on the one hand, and cooperation with public bodies, on the other, appear to be the essential conditions for bringing alternative housing out of the shadows and creating the necessary legal and financial provisions to establish a “third way” in the housing sector?

Articles in this series:

See also on Métropolitiques (in French):

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To cite this article:

Claire Carriou & Olivier Ratouis & Agnès Sander (†) & translated by Oliver Waine, « Mutual Housing. Cooperative Experiments in France », Metropolitics, 17 October 2012. URL: http://www.metropolitiques.eu/Mutual-Housing.html
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