Real Utopias: Switzerland’s Housing Co-ops

Do Switzerland’s housing co-ops offer a solution to Britain’s housing crisis?

Hunziker-Areal cooperative housing development, Zürich.

Ideas about how to deal with the housing crisis in the UK often get caught between two opposing problems. On the one hand, the absence of the state as a major provider is still keenly felt nearly forty years after it was barred from the sector. Increasing public affection for the ambitions of post-war council estates fuels dreams of somehow returning to a situation where the provision of quality housing was a relatively non-partisan national goal.

But on the other hand, the fact remains of the near-total dominance of the large housebuilders, who produce around 80 per cent of the new homes built each year, and whose stranglehold on the market after local governments stopped building means that they can manipulate supply almost at will. Complaints about planning ‘red tape’ notwithstanding, they are in the position where they almost completely control the market.

Because of this, there is great hunger for alternative methods of procurement. Yet despite the media prominence of a trickle of self-builds, creative re-use, and collectives, these are so rare that their real impact is negligible compared to the interest that they generate. Non-profit housing in the UK is dominated by charitable housing associations but their role is controversial, especially concerning their involvement in ‘stock transfers’ where council estates were taken off government books in recent decades. Recently, even the housing association’s position as builders of nominally affordable housing has been eroded by moves into the market by for-profit providers.

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