Lilac co-housing: How they did it

lilaccroppedCo-housing developments are built around community and sustainability but can they also be affordable? Susan Downer visits Lilac in Leeds to find out.

The housing sector has a reputation for many things, but rarely is it lauded for its principles. Lilac, in Leeds, is an exception.

To describe the 20 properties comprising Lilac as a housing initiative is to do it a disservice. Home to 35 adults and 10 children it is equally rooted in three core values: affordability, sustainability and community.

Lilac stands for Low Impact Living Affordable Community and the values implicit in its name permeate everything from the straw bale walls of its houses to its solar and photovoltaic panels, communal house, public park, children’s play area and allotment gardens. Everything that can be shared is shared, including tools, cars, washing machines and twice weekly communal meals.

The land and flat-roofed buildings are owned by the company itself which is a type of co-operative known as a mutual home ownership society (MHOS). The company sells shares to members when they move in (the number of shares equates to the size of their property and a proportion of the common house) and buys them back when they move out. This means no one can sell their house on the open market for a big profit and the homes will remain affordable for future generations.

Home to 35 adults and 10 children Lilac is equally rooted

in three core values: affordability, sustainability and community.

Standing at the edge of a small pond surrounded by flowers, with volunteers putting the finishing touches onto a dipping platform for children, it is incredible to think that all this is the work of a handful of people who came together in 2007 to create something beyond traditional home ownership or renting.

Fran Lee, a resident and founder member, says the group had no special skills, friends in high places or deep pockets. ‘You just keep going and learn from who you can.’

Fran, then a semi-retired teacher living on a narrowboat, was charged with finding out how to acquire land on a shoestring. Initially, they asked Leeds Council to gift them some land. The council refused.

Sitting in her bright, spacious first floor flat Fran recalls going to auctions to see how people went about buying land. ‘Even the thought of putting my hand up and saying I’ll pay a million, even a few hundred thousand for a piece of land was ahhh!’ But after going to the meetings for a few months she learnt that plots of land belonging to Leeds Council were always included in the auction.

In 2008, as the nation’s economy began to collapse, the group again approached the council and asked to be given the heads-up on land before it went to auction; this time they said yes.

‘We set the criteria we wanted: to be near houses, schools, transport, in a nice position if possible. We wanted to build beautiful properties in the city that everybody could afford.’

Susan Downer is a freelance journalist
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