‘Cooperatives are powerful actors in the sharing economy, playing a lead role in community welfare policies.’

One of the most promising events of the International Social Housing Festival is the Collaborative Housing Workshop, organized by Italian organizations Fondazione Housing Sociale (FHS) and Legacoop Abitanti (LA).

We interviewed Giordana Ferri (architect and executive director of FHS) and Rossana Zaccaria (president of Legacoop Abitanti) about their organizations, housing in Italy, and their collaborative housing workshop at the ISHF. There was a lot of interesting information to share. Enjoy!

What are FHS and LA? Why should people know about your organizations?

Giordana Ferri: The Fondazione Housing Sociale (FHS) was established in 2004 in Milan to develop the social housing program already run by Fondazione Cariplo. FHS is a private, non-profit entity with a mission to experiment with innovative solutions for structuring, financing, constructing, and manage social housing initiatives that are economically sustainable and not dependent on grants.

People should know about FHS for two reasons. First, it aims to offer affordable housing units to people unable to meet their housing needs on the marketplace. This has been expanding over the last ten years.

Second, the FHS program targets people with a higher income than those entitled to public housing, but nevertheless at risk of poverty and social exclusion. The results are interesting by a “social” point of view. It contributes to a reduction of inequality in at least two different ways: by providing access to the housing ladder and by responding to new, changing, and more diversified housing demands (e.g. mobility of young adults, immigration, different family arrangements).

Rossana Zaccaria: Legacoop Abitanti (LA) is the Italian association of housing cooperatives founded in 1961. It represents the cooperatives throughout the country that, since the beginning of the 1900s, have responded to the universal necessity of a house. Crossing the history of housing policies of an entire century, Italian cooperatives moved from prioritizing the building of cooperatives to prioritizing their inhabitants, putting at the center the individuals, their social relations, and their connection with their locale.

Cooperatives have been an important part of the Italian housing tradition – the essential aim is to organize access to housing in a mutualistic way in order to offer better conditions than those in the market.

I think people should be interested in our association because, at present, the challenge is to innovate the cooperative model in a changing economic and cultural context: at a time when sharing economy is growing and new ways of creating economic value through horizontal exchanges are developing, the Cooperative of Inhabitants is proposing a potential “enabling platform” with a democratic approach for housing and living needs.

Can you describe the status of social housing in Italy?

Giordana Ferri: First, let me say that the expression “Social Housing” in Italy is broadly used to refer to affordable housing, to distinguish it from public social housing, which is targeted for low-income households and is dependent on grants.

In the 2000s, social housing policies changed considerably due to the gradual regression of the State in its competence and stake holding. Thus, one of the first tasks of FHS was to generate an effective and sustainable business model for social housing initiatives. It did this by creating the first real estate ethical fund in Italy based in the Milan area (FIL).

The successful experience of FIL set up the basis for the Integrated Funds System (SIF) introduced by a National Housing Plan Act in 2009. The act formally started private social housing in Italy: an innovative way of developing projects and programs aimed at expanding the supply of social housing units using resources and means of implementation formerly a prerogative of the private real estate market.

The SIF raised a total of €3 billion and currently consists of a national fund of funds, the Fondo Investimenti per l’Abitare (FIA) with an Asset Under Management of €2 billion. FIA invests in local real estate funds, providing up to 80% of equity with the balance funded by local investors.

As of April 2016, there are 30 approved local funds spread throughout Italy and there are about 140 approved or acquired projects, with 8.790 dwellings and 3.885 beds in temporary or student residences. SIF has in its sights the construction of about 20.000 social housing units at affordable prices by 2018.

Rossana Zaccaria: In Italy, cooperatives have delivered a segment of Social Housing in the last decades, providing 330.000 units, still with 40.000 units of rental housing, with a mix approach: market + welfare, houses + services.

At present, public housing policies are almost disappearing for different reasons (lack of public resources, an excess of unsold units in the real estate market), and it is essential to push private investors towards this sector with an approach of social impact investment and low profit, while at the same time lobby for public resources that can support and leverage such initiatives.

Given all the different definitions, the Social Housing sector in Italy counts for 5% of total housing stock, while in The Netherlands, just to give a well-known example, in counts for 32%. On the one hand, this gap is likely an alert of the “pressure” on the sector but, on the other, we should focus on the fact that a number of different actors have been emerging on the scene. Beside local and regional authorities, foundations, cooperatives, non-profit organizations, and even private developers today are involved in social housing initiatives. There is clear evidence that the sector is pressing not only in terms of housing demand, but it is also pushing for different organizing models and planning tools. And this is almost the track of our joint work with FHS.

In return, how do you regard the status of social housing in the Netherlands?

Giordana Ferri: The Dutch Social Housing has always been one of the most significant references for us, as architects first, as professionals of the sector afterwards. The Dutch case is very interesting for us because, by a certain point of view, it is the “mirror image” of the Italian one.

From what we have learned, the Netherlands’ government influence increased, the Housing Associations gained progressively larger and operational autonomy being hybrid organizations with strong ties with the State. Recently, however, this autonomy has been restricted due to cases of mismanagement.

Therefore, the discussion on-going in the Netherlands about private investment models in affordable housing, considering the pressure generated between social purpose and commercial logics, seems to be crucial. As far as we are concerned in Italy, these are issues that we have to deal with as well, being the public/private partnership one of the main pillars of our Social Housing program.

We are also very curious about another topic of the Dutch on-going debate on social housing: the role of Housing Associations in neighborhood regeneration projects.

You are bringing a very promising workshop to the ISHF about a topic that we in The Netherlands discuss a lot: collaborative and cooperative housing. It seems that this form of collective housing has developed much further in Italy. What can we learn from cooperative housing practices?

Giordana Ferri: We are going to ISHF precisely to discover how much further we have gone! The economic crisis impact is leading people to find new ways to improve their condition, seeking collaborative and sustainable solutions that can guarantee a satisfactory quality of life: a new “culture of living” is emerging. Throughout Europe, researches and studies have observed a shift from the demand of houses to the demand of housing services. Within this perspective, offering a house means not only producing efficient buildings, but also providing people with tools to build a supportive neighborhood and a collaborative community.

In FHS experience, among the examples studied both in Italy and abroad, two have had the most impact: co-housing and the Italian housing co-operatives’ experience. What is certain is that they are very different approaches, but they are united in the empowerment of the residents.

Co-housing can be seen as a bottom-up intervention that is completely in the hands of the residents and is found where there are homes for sale, although recent trends have shown that there are also some rental cases.

Co-operatives with single ownership have adopted a collaborative management model too, but with a top-down governance. The proposal that we like to call “FHS model” is more similar to the co-housing option in its outcome, but not as far as strategy of development and management are concerned.

Thus participating to ISHF is a step forward in FHS plans to join the debate and link to other existing international networks on Collaborative Housing. The issue of “conceptualisation” (i.e. what we talk about when we talk about collaborative housing), is crucial in our event. This is why, after being engaged in ENHR Working Group on Social housing institutions, organisations and governance, we have started a new collaboration also with the recently created ENHR Collaborative Housing Working Group that is our partner, jointly with TU Delft, in the event at ISHF.

Rossana Zaccaria: Maintaining their organization based on democratic delegation and mutual support of people, cooperatives are powerful actors in the sharing economy. That is the reason we think cooperatives can play a lead role in community welfare policies.

Moreover, the “practice” developed in our projects seems to provide a meaningful example of how a virtuous intersection of three crucial policy dimensions – housing, urban, and social policies – can help redraw the boundaries of local welfare.

However, being not only a local issue, collaborative housing has to be put to the test of scaling-up: creating a connection among innovative cooperative experiences, sharing practices and knowledge to build up a new perspective of the cooperative action in the field of social housing. These might all be ways, and tools, to outline innovation opportunities in the field of collective housing.

In one of the two parallel sessions of your event, you will present the outcome of a lab on cooperative housing that was organized early 2017. Can you tell us more about what we will learn?

Rossana Zaccaria: With FHS, we set up an itinerant laboratory on the construction of a “Cooperative Service Level Agreement shared model”, the lab involves members and workers of Legacoop and Federabitazione cooperative associations. The lab started in February 2017, and it is still on-going until the end of May 2017. After the four sessions held in Rome, Florence, Bologna, and Milan, a number of facts have already come to light. It appears that the cooperative competence in the field of Social Housing can guarantee the construction and maintenance of the community in the long run, an element that represents an opportunity for the territory and a factor for the security of investors. The cooperatives have thus developed a shared protocol outlining the strategic role of the Social Manager, the required resources and skills, the integrated management approach through three critical areas – Property, Facility, and Community Management – the development of processes to manage particular project phases. These outcomes will be useful for all those who intend to operate in Social Housing Property Management and are willing to set up conditions to offer services in those areas where other development initiatives are under way.

What other ISHF events are you planning to attend yourself and why?

Giordana Ferri: I am interested in attending “Residential quality in Amsterdam, past present and future” by the Municipality of Amsterdam Department of housing; I will not miss the “Social housing cinema party” by the Union Sociale pour l’Habitat.

Then I would like to attend “The role and future of social housing in Europe” by OTB and ENHR as part of our joint effort in disseminating Collaborative Housing new approaches and initiatives.

 Rossana Zaccaria: I will attend the event “Social Housing: looking back, moving forward” by Housing Europe and Aedes, because I think it will give us useful elements to know the policy frameworks and new practices.

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