How cooperative housing gave me the peace of mind I thought I’d never find

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Like many of my millennial peers, I believed that I would be stuck in a doom-loop of precarious housing for ever, handing over huge portions of my income every month to a landlord who happened to own the floor I was sleeping on.

Across many countries, and big cities in particular, the prospect of homeownership or access to socially rented housing is a pipe dream. Median house prices have risen to more than seven times median incomes in the Anglo-Saxon economies. In the UK, the proportion of 25- to 35-year-olds on middle incomes who owned a home plummeted from two-thirds to just one-quarter between 1996 and 2016. Meanwhile, the costs of renting, from Sydney to San Francisco, have soared.

Then, in July 2021, I moved with my Danish partner into one of Copenhagen’s many andelsboliger, a cooperatively owned block of flats where we neither have a landlord nor pay rent, and which is not subject to market prices. Today, about 7% of the Danish population live in a form of cooperatively owned housing – and it accounts for one-third of the housing stock in Copenhagen. It soon became clear to me that there’s a lot that other countries could learn.

Rather than buy an apartment, people who live in andelsboliger purchase a share in an association that owns the apartment building, equal to the value of the apartment. The prices of the 158 apartments that make up our cooperative have not increased much since it was founded in 1975, meaning we could afford the deposit and subsequent mortgage instalments without support from our parents – even though we together were earning below the median income when we moved in. We don’t expect to make money on our apartment in the time that we live here, but we aren’t losing anything through rent payments either. If we move out, we will leave with roughly what we have put in over the years.

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As members of the cooperative, we not only have an apartment to live in and a garden to share with our neighbours, but also a voice in decisions about how the building and our common spaces, like the launderette, are run. Once a year, we elect fellow residents to the cooperative’s board, who become responsible for overseeing building maintenance, responding to emergencies, and the administration of new households moving in.

The andelsbolig system has its roots in the wider Danish cooperative movement, which began in farming and consumer goods in the 19th century. In the postwar decades, housing cooperatives flourished with the support of trade union groups and social democratic governments. In the 1970s, a legal reform was introduced that granted tenants in the private rental sector the right of “first choice” to collectively buy their building if a landlord wanted to sell it, and by the 2000s thousands of andelsboliger had been established in this way across the country, including the one we live in.

For many years, andelsbolig apartments offered an affordable means of housing that provided security, autonomy and community for hundreds of thousands of people. But since the early 2000s, broader changes in the housing market and in finance have put pressure on the system. Cooperatives like ours, which has mostly maintained the financial and social structures it was founded with, are increasingly hard to come by.

Like the capitals of its western European neighbours, the private sector housing market in Copenhagen is in crisis. House prices have soared in the country over the past 20 years owing to a combination of tax reforms, mortgage liberalisation policies, and homeownership incentives, also driving up the costs of renting. The increased demand for the more affordable andelsboliger may be exacerbating problems of race- and class-based exclusion in some cooperatives, which have come to rely solely on internal networks to find new tenants rather than external waiting lists. There is also anecdotal evidence that under-the-table payments are offered and accepted to secure cooperative shares.

Marketising reforms to the andelsbolig system itself have further undermined the principles on which it was founded – and even led to the dissolution of many cooperatives. Legislation that prevented boards from increasing the price of apartments above the founding amount has largely been repealed and, over the years, many cooperatives have voted to hike the value of shares, enriching existing members while rendering membership more expensive for newcomers. There are also instances where boards have inadvertently run their cooperative into the ground, owing to financial mismanagement in the absence of meaningful government protection. In recent years, cooperatives have even come to be seen as a promising investment opportunity for real estate companies, pension funds and financial institutions.

The rapid transformation of the andelsbolig system at large over the past 20 years suggests that alternative forms of housing in other cities would also struggle to survive, as long as there are powerful financial interests that can extract ever-growing rents from tenancies and price increases in the private housing sector. In other words, the experience in Copenhagen supports the economist Josh Ryan-Collins’s contention that western Europe’s housing crisis cannot be solved while housing remains primarily a financial asset, instead of a source of shelter.

The principles on which the first andelsboliger were founded, and the sense of freedom that they provide, are nonetheless worth fighting for. Not so long ago, I had lived in 10 different houses within the space of five years, sometimes moving for work or study, but mostly because the landlord had decided to up the rent to an unaffordable amount or sell the apartment. Back then, my home was not something I had any control over. But my housing cooperative in Copenhagen has proved to me that it doesn’t have to be this way. Housing can be, and should be, a path to joy and mental peace, to autonomy and community. These conditions, and not the potential for financial extraction, should be at the heart of housing for everyone.

• Rosie Collington is a PhD student at University College London’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

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