For the seven people living in The Rising Sun, a former pub in south-east London, eviction has been a constant threat.
When Tom Stiedl, a nightclub manager and DJ, moved in three years ago, the hulking ex-Truman’s pub had already been listed at £1.2m, advertised as an opportunity to develop flats between fast-changing Peckham and New Cross. But the group lived contentedly in the building, which was divided into individual rooms with a common kitchen, living area and workshop.
“Eviction was always looming, but in a very distant way, and we tried to focus on doing creative things with the building. I hated the thought that the place would be bought and turned into another block of unaffordable flats,” says Stiedl.
Then, last December, the looming threat became a reality – the landlord told them their final rolling contract would end in July with potential buyers already arranging viewings.
The housemates decided on a solution – they would buy the building where they also made music and ran arts events. It was an ambitious task, but they are now three-quarters of the way to taking the house off the market and putting the alternative option of costly private renting and owner-occupation behind them.
If they pull it off, it will be a rare success story for the cooperative living movement. It comes as an increasing number of people are looking for alternative forms of accommodation outside the private market, according to Community Led Housing London, a non-profit organisation that supports the development of alternative housing models.
The seven “flatmates” – among them musicians, bar workers, and touring crew who have faced difficulties with work since the pandemic began – were told that their bid of £950,000 was successful in May. They have secured a £720,000 mortgage from ethical lender Ecology building society and a £150,000 loan from Co-operative & Community Finance. The total cost of buying and redoing the home is £1.1m, including stamp duty and fees.
When applying for the loans, they submitted a 60-year business plan that proved they could afford payments on the debt, with the mortgage paid off over a 40-year term while keeping rent below market rates.
“For a lot of people, a lot of their work was lost during the pandemic, and we could have easily all dipped into depression,” says Jessi Quinlan, a fashion pattern-maker and one of the residents.
“Despite our own personal ambitions being stunted over the last year, buying the property has been an opportunity to do something collectively and it has kept us going.” So far, the group has raised £60,000 of the £230,000 left.
This has been through agreements, mainly with other veterans of community-led housing, who will lend between £1,000 and £20,000 for a 3% rate of return. If they can raise a final £170,000, they will establish at least nine affordable homes in perpetuity and a new arts hub for the community.
Rents are currently £600 a month per room. Under the new plans, the property would be split into nine rooms with a rent of £650 each. The loans are in the name of the co-operative and none of the residents will get equity in the property.
Levent Kerimol, director of Community Led Housing London, says the pandemic has emphasised the value of community-led accommodation. “Where residents are their own landlords, they can control how the maintenance is done, without having to take a profit margin, or evict people for no reason, and just create more fulfilling ways of living,” he says.
“This has been an unexpectedly active time … when we might have expected things to slow down, we’ve actually seen lots of adventurous projects off the back of the mutual support groups and volunteering, which have shown people that alternatives exist alongside the conventional structures.”
Kerimol says the main barrier for would-be co-ops remains raising the equity, which could be better supported through a programme like help to buy. Specialist lenders like Ecology, which lend “green mortgages” for environmentally friendly residential property and community-led housing, are increasingly filling the gap.
Newer projects include the Plum Tree Co-op in Croydon, where a group of property guardians are living in a disused children’s centre and now want to take over management of the council-owned building.
In nearby Ladywell, Sister Midnight, a music venue that operated in a record shop in Deptford before closing during lockdown, aims to purchase the former Ravensbourne Arms pub as a community-owned live music pub. It would be run as a community benefit society, a not-for-profit business that returns profits to the community.
But the Rising Sun tenants still face an uphill battle. They are well known among their community, hosting events for local artists or online sets for DJs, and making art and records.
Among creative gambits to raise the final £170,000 is a compilation of music from resident artists and friends’ bands, and a gig on 8 July.
Steidl says that having a home that doubles as a creative workspace has more than made up for the uncertainty during lockdown and given the seven an added incentive to succeed. “We’ve built a community here that has showed its worth, especially during lockdown, when we’ve just had each other for company.
“Everyone looks after each other. We know how hard it’s going to be to raise the final money, but we know we can do it if the alternative is losing it all.”