Justice and gentrification in Washington DC

Anita Bonds has spent her entire adult life as a grassroots organizer, activist and campaigner for social justice and it is down to the work of her and colleagues, and a particular form of housing co-operative, that the capital of the USA is becoming less divided and divisive than it has been over time.

In Washington for the first time myself, as a guest of the US co-op sector, I had the chance to hear of her work as a champion for housing co-ops.

As a student at the University of California at Berkeley, she became involved in the Free Speech Movement and returned home to support the struggle for underserved communities in Washington DC, a city long divided by economic and race injustice.

Since 2012, Anita Bonds has served as an At-Large Council Member on the Council of the District of Columbia and she chairs the Committee on Housing and Neighbourhood Revitalization.

“I have always had a concern about poverty in the District of Colombia. I remember being shocked hearing elderly people talking about how they couldn’t afford their prescriptions and they had to choose between food and medicine.”

The District of Colombia has a unique and important longstanding law, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which gives tenants the right to purchase their residential building before any other buyer. As many are condominiums of apartments, tenants form ‘limited equity’ housing cooperatives.

Today, she explains in a talk at the Co-op Impact Conference in Washington, organised by the National Co-operative Business Association, that the district has around 4,400 units of co-operative housing in 99 properties. What they have been successful at is keeping low and moderate income residents in their communities, because rents are affordable, even where neighbourhoods are rapidly gentrifying.

Last year, she championed new legislation to promote housing co-ops, with recommendations to increase the number of limited equity co-op units by 40% by 2025.

“We should pay attention to the least of us. This is an expensive community and with different incomes and walks of life, as we like to call it. One part of the city has four percent of affordable units, but cross the river and it is ninety three per cent. Housing co-ops are a way of addressing this because they allow for a mix of people right across the city and they are a powerful way of keeping communities inclusive.”

The next challenge she sees are the rocketing rents faced by small businesses as neighbourhoods gentrify. Her tool for addressing that? As she sees it, this would be small business co-ops, to keep rents in the control of local people.

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The legend of co-operative forests… 🌳 🌳 🌳 🌳

Many of our early folk stories and legends have the forest as a setting. Perhaps as a result, forests have always been at the heart of national identity.

One hundred years ago this month, the first UK Forestry Act created the Forestry Commission, with a mandate to boost forest cover in a nation that had slipped to around five per cent of its land with tree cover.

Finland has done it differently, perhaps because its own national story is bound up with co-operative enterprise. The country is the most forested in Europe, with 75% of the land area covered by trees. In contrast with the British tradition of large landowners, ownership is dispersed. Over half the forests are owned by families with ownership of over three hectares.

Following a Board meeting of Coops Europe, I had a chance to visit Metsä Co-operative at one of its woodland centres outside of Helsinki.

Metsä was formed in 1934, focused on sawmills and industrial uses for wood. Today, its members are 103,000 forest owners, covering half of the private forest land in the country. The members draw on the services of the co-op to manage and harvest wood in a sustainable way. The co-op has a turnover of €5.7bn and employs 9,300 staff.

The co-op can calculate the benefits for members by comparing what they would have received on the open market. Last year, members gained 7.3 euros extra for every cubic metre of timber sold.

As with any co-op, they have a voice in the running of the business too, electing a representative council of 52 members every four years and a supervisory board of 30 members.

And members can invest as well in the business. The interest on €74m of regular participation shares in 2018 was 7.5%, while for a second class of participation shares, open to wider investors, the interest rate was fixed at 2.5%.

The co-op is enjoying strong growth now, but only because of its response to a crisis earlier in the decade. From 2005 to 2012, there was a depression in the sector, with excess capacity in terms of paper mills. The business was indebted and an incoming CEO, Kari Jordan, was able to see how to turn the crisis into an opportunity. The co-op sold all of its production facilities in wood products that Jordan categorised as ‘sunset’ industries rather than ‘sunrise’ sectors.

Key to the future was to be sustainability. The co-op has always encouraged good forestry management, but now the emphasis was on this as a source of commercial advantage. The purpose of the business was agreed as “advancing a bioeconomy and circular economy by efficiently processing northern wood into first-class products.

The idea of a bioeconomy as they see it is to replace a fossil fuel economy. So one of the major innovations they are investing in at present, is a €1.2bn pilot factory to produce textiles out of wood pulp. That is a new market opportunity, but it is also a replacement for cotton, which is notoriously water thirsty and fossil fuel hungry.

The circular economy takes a systematic view of the resources that they use, with careful management of carbon through forestry management and locking carbon storage in to high quality wood products, such as engineered wood for construction. 100% of the wood is traceable back to where it came from. 88% of the wood that the co-op uses is now certified by one of the major schemes, PEFC or FSC, compared to 10% of forests worldwide.

This include a focus on the use of every part of a tree, from wood left on the ground to encourage biodiversity through to timber and then the top most branches used for renewable energy. The co-op produces 15% of renewable energy in Finland, but their preference over time is to find new products and uses to store carbon rather than see it released as energy. At present 94% of all wood materials are used. By 2030, the aim is to get this to 100%.

The forest that I visited was mixed, with spruce and birch and pine, rich with life. Where trees has been felled, new seedlings were planted (some of the thirty million planted annually) as the eighty year cycle of forest regeneration started again. Tree cover in Finland is stable and grown for the long term and it is land that remains wild for those who need it, such as the vulnerable white-backed woodpecker, the numbers of whom are on the rise.

This is on a scale and with a focus on sustainability that the UK can’t match, but it is Woodland Social Enterprise Day on October 8th, supported by Plunkett Foundation, itself part of Grown in Britain Week. It is encouraging to see the spread here of community owned woodlands and the same spirit of cooperation and sustainability.

As it is member owned, Metsä co-operative can balance the competing demands that come with a commitment to sustainable forestry. In the process, it is helping to build a path to a low-carbon economy.

This is a story of our forests, a new legend, to which we do well to listen.

Crazy, co-operative and fighting back: the success story of Liverpool’s housing activists

Carole Rich was given her first garden gnome when the housing co-op that she formed with her neighbours opened, thirty six years ago. “They thought I was crazy so it was a gift for crazy woman” she says.

At the time, the street was being demolished and it had taken four long years to get home, this time in new houses formed as Hesketh Street Housing Co-op. Those years had taken every ounce of determination and charm that Carole possessed, visiting slate factories, brick makers, furniture stalls, to keep people together, to keep their belief and to get the new development going.

Today, Carole is on the board not just of the co-op but also of North West Housing Services, which is a vibrant secondary co-op, registered in recent years with input from and now a member of Co-operatives UK.

North West support thirty four housing co-ops across Merseyside. On my visit today to the team, in the run up to Communities Week 2019, I met Carole and visited Lodge Lane East, a second co-op which is taking on a new property to create space for people with disabilities.

Ian, the Treasurer of the co-op, told me the story of the new building they were putting up on derelict ground. The land had been fenced off, with rubbish thrown over and when local people, members of the co-op, looked at the ownership, they found that it had been taken off a convicted criminal via a compulsory purchase order. The city authority owned it, but they didn’t know it.

The co-op, with over two hundred homes and clean finances, having paid off the last of its debts to NatWest Bank, offered to buy it at a discount to put up flats that would be an affordable alternative to the rogue landlords and high rents of the area, itself a short distance from where the controversial £1 Houses: Britain’s cheapest street was filmed.

“As a co-op, we are trying to raise the area, while others are trying to bring it down. We have houses with soiled nappies in the entrance, the remnants of a pig slaughtered in the yards, a brothel now closed down. Private landlords operate with immunity, one responding to damp by ripping out the skirting board and leaving a hole. The authorities should be cracking down on all this, but as a community, we have to fight back ourselves.”

Finance for the development came in part from loans from the other housing co-ops through North West Housing (North West has also invested money in recent community shares issues by other co-ops, including Leeds Community Homes and renewable energy co-ops in Liverpool and Drumlin, Northern Ireland).

With the new building weeks from being completed, the Lodge Lane East co-op members have gained confidence. The works manager told me that they have had no trouble, no threats while they have been there.

“We get a lot of respect. And we have a taste for it now” says Ian.

For Carole, her local area has already begun to come up in the world. A working class area with housing for servants has gone up market, with bohemian cafes and shops on nearby Lark Lane.

The housing co-op means that local people keep a stake in the area, forming a backbone of the community that helps to give it its colour and life. A one up, one down house next to the co-op area sells for £190,000; crazy prices for the city.

For Carole, her collection of gnomes has grown along with her family, smiling out in front of her house and under the awning in her garden. Her grandchildren give her more as gifts.

Carole’s co-op craziness has been passed on.

Mass co-operation

It has been a few days of criss-crossing the country for me, as we launch Co-op Fortnight 2019.

On Friday night, we reported the results of our annual Co-op Awards. Over thirty thousand people voted for UK co-ops they love across a range of categories. The Leading Co-operative went to The Co-op Group, a worthy winner no doubt for the extraordinary progress made over the last four years.

A new initiative is the Lifetime Achievement Award, which, following open nominations, went to the wonderful Roger Sawtell, a pioneer of worker co-ops and a celebrated man of faith.

Bristol Wood Recycling, Breakthrough Co-op of the Year

On Friday and Saturday, our Co-op Congress turned a spotlight onto the many areas of promise and progress for new co-operation, with a keynote address from the Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham.

Sunday I was down to Kent, for a licensing event for my brother, starting work as a prison chaplain working with young offenders.

This morning, I was across to Cardiff, as one of the speakers for a gathering of inspiring coop businesses coordinated by the Wales Coop Centre. My ride in town was with a growing new taxi co-op, formed by drivers to keep more of the earnings in an age of lift sharing and apps.

Deputy Economy Minister, Lee Waters AM

Today has also seen the re-signing of a new partnership agreement by the ILO, the International Labour Organisation, and the ICA, the International Cooperative Alliance.

This evening I will be in Leicester to give the annual lecture for the Society for Cooperative Studies.

All this at the start of Coop Fortnight, which will run up to Saturday July 6th – celebrated around the world as the United Nations International Cooperatives Day.

I am talking in Leicester about twelve early historic examples of cooperation. They range, among others, from ancient China and India to the Roman Empire and mediaeval Turkey.

They are extraordinary stories. They are also a recognition that today’s co-ops are not the exception, but instead are expressive of a deep and recurrent pattern of mutuality over time in the way that people choose to organise.

We are perhaps at our most human when we are engaged in mass cooperation.

The UK’s first Chief Values Officer

The field of values in business has been growing in importance for some time and it is a genuine milestone that we can now welcome the UK’s first dedicated Chief Values Officer for a major business.

Pete Westall will take this executive team role at the independent co-operative Midcounties, a diversified retail business that employs 8,500 staff and is co-owned by 700,000 members.

Culture and values have long been seen as the soft side of business, but are now widely recognised as key to commercial success over time. The UK Corporate Governance Code for listed companies last year set out expectations that every Board should take action to set and monitor goals around organisational culture and values.

But who should lead on this? If it is HR, then how do you ensure that supply chains and external relations are covered? If it is risk and compliance, then how do values make their way into product and service innovation? If it is the CEO, then how do you avoid this being swamped by other demands on their time?

The idea of a Chief Values Officer was something we explored in a 2017 workshop of the UK Values Alliance, the member network that pioneered World Values Day – now held every October on the third Thursday of the month. I wrote this workshop up as a post – Introducing the Chief Values Officer – and one of those reading it was Pete himself.

Midcounties has a long track record of firsts. It was the first business, alongside a handful of other co-ops, to publish the details of their tax, under the Fair Tax Mark. It was first to offer consumers full traceability on their local food sales, through QR codes and a new app, Happerley. With member backing, plastics are on their way down and Midcounties is one of only a few businesses to be rated five star by Business in the Community. Through Co-operatives UK, Midcounties was named Leading Co-op of the Year in 2018.

Out of the global set of co-operative and ethical values, Midcounties under the leadership of CEO Phil Ponsonby and its elected Board, places a priority on four throughout its work – Democracy, Openness, Equality and Social Responsibility (DOES).

It is easy to see values as a constraint, as an attempt to keep institutions in train. It is a different approach to see values as a source of opportunity.

It’s coming. In today’s world of empowered consumers, concerned employees and instant social media, values and culture is the next frontier for business.

Pop to the Co-op

The first Annual General Meetings – for mediaeval guilds – took place on Saints Days, so there was time off and a feast to share. It can seem a tougher gig nowadays, but it is the Annual General Meeting in Manchester of The Co-op Group this weekend and for the past few years, this has been a wonderfully uplifting event.

Five successive years of like-for-like growth in food sales means that there is a spring in the step of The Co-op. Alongside trading, there is an increasingly ambitious and far-reaching programme of reinvestment in the communities in which The Co-op is located.

Being owned by members and not by shareholders means that The Co-op can do things that benefit their 4.5 million members and their communities across the UK rather than a small number of institutional investors in the City of London.

Under the leadership of Steve Murrells, for example, The Co-op was first to back British farmers by sourcing all meat from them – everything from the fresh cuts you’d expect to be British to the ready meals, the sandwiches, bacon and sausages. It wasn’t just an ethical thing to do, it was also smart business. With Brexit, others are having to catch up, with their overseas supply chains less secure.

A key theme this weekend is likely to be about how to make this reinvestment visible, so that it is clear to people that when they pop to the Co-op in their community, the community benefits.

With the High Street under pressure, shops being undercut because they pay taxes that online businesses avoid, the challenge at a community level is greater than ever. The data around this is set out in a new Community Wellbeing Index developed for The Co-op by the Young Foundation (named after Michael Young, one of the great innovators and co-operators of the twentieth century).

One pound spent in a Co-op store brings an added forty pence in benefits to the local economy. We know this from work we have done at Co-operatives UK tracing how customer spending has a different impact in retail co-ops to other businesses, where the value is extracted for outside, whether headquarters in the UK or for some, tax havens overseas.

As one colleague at The Co-op puts it:

When you buy from Co-op it does good. The more you, your friends and family shop with Co-op, the more good we can do in our communities. Good things like investing in community spaces, improving wellbeing and helping people develop their skills.

Every community needs an economic and social base for its health and increasingly we see co-ops and social enterprise, large and small, as catalysts for this urgently needed form of community economic development.

So, yes. Where we shop can make a real difference.

Lilac in bloom

Every business has its story and the birth of Lilac, an award-winning young community housing co-op in Leeds, has been told many times. Built with straw bales for sustainability and warmth by a vibrant, can-do community of people, Lilac has become a poster child for a different model of housing in the UK.

It was such a pleasure to visit Lilac today, for the first time, after a trip to the Yorkshire Building Society and to see the progress of this practical, visionary settlement, converted from a former school, closed down many years before.

As a sign fixed humorously by the path reads, this way lies utopia.

I am grateful to the members that welcomed me in and showed me around. The first residents moved in in 2013. There is a profound sense of community and of values which comes across in all the detail, as well as a sense of constant and active problem-solving. “We love showing people around as we love living here“, I was told.

Here is one of the best annual reports I have seen of any organisation – an overview of who did what and how it went over 2017-2018 on one single poster size piece of paper, up in the Common House in Lilac Grove that is used for shared meals, shared events… and collecting the post.

Lilac benefited in 2017 from advice through the business support programme we run for co-ops, The Hive, in partnership with the Co-operative Bank. The model behind Lilac is one, I was reminded, that originated in work at the New Economics Foundation as it happens when I was Director there, working with CDS Coop Housing.

In a Mutual Housing Ownership Society, the members make an investment and in return, they get equity shares in the society and the use of one of the homes. The society takes out a collective mortgage and costs can be spread across members according to the ability of each to pay. Equity shares are linked to the mortgage and if you leave you can sell them.

As a community led project, when the planning application went in, there were twenty seven responses from the neighbours, all in favour, with no objections.

Lilac takes many of our most insuperable contemporary challenges, of sustainability, of isolation and of inequality and shows how to tackle them together. This Lilac is in bloom.