This is the story of Citizens House

Residents and neighbours celebrating the opening of Citizens House in Lewisham.

Peter Brierley is Assistant Director at Citizens UK and Lead Organiser for London Citizens. Pete was responsible for the Community Land Trust (CLT) campaign’s inception and growth in Lewisham from 2014. Hannah Emery-Wright has been London CLT’s Communities Manager since 2016 and has been responsible for their allocations and working with residents to establish management approaches.

Here are some of their reflections on the opportunities for the housing sector to learn and build better homes for local people in the midst of London’s housing crisis.   

Hannah: the context 

Citizens House is London CLT’s latest project and first direct development recently completed in Lewisham. The project is a result of ten years of campaigning by local people through Lewisham Citizens. There are now 11 genuinely and permanently affordable homes completed and owned by local people. The new homeowners are a mix of local teachers, healthcare professionals, artists and those working in small businesses or civil service. All have longstanding connections to Lewisham and are embedded in their communities, and all were on the brink of being forced out of the place they called home. 

London CLT’s model is built on the idea that affordability should be based on what you earn, not on skewed market forces, and that homes should remain affordable in perpetuity and not just as a means for the first buyer to get on the property ladder. More than that, it suggests that a people-centred approach has long term benefits on the quality of the build, the health of those living there and the strength of the wider community.  

For Lewisham Citizens and London CLT, being community-led is at the heart of the project, and it began through a grassroots campaign in which a diverse range of local institutions were and continue to be represented. This group of community leaders make key decisions on land, design, build and allocations, and the residents who move in then control their own Resident Management Company. Through this process local leaders and communities build knowledge and opportunity.  

Peter: the people-centred journey 

The journey from idea to reality, which we celebrated outside the front of Citizens House on April 23rd 2023, reminded me of what an incredible piece of work this is and what a great story of adventure, risk, solidarity and collaboration we’ve all been part of.  

Campaign 

In the lead up to local elections in 2014, Lewisham Citizens filled Deptford Green school with over 400 local leaders and Mayor Steve Bullock.  Faced with powerful stories from across Lewisham of teachers, social care workers, community activists struggling to stay living in the area, and the eyes  of 400 local people, the Mayor committed to work with us to find a site and build some much-needed affordable homes.  

The land was eventually purchased for £1. This meeting became a catalyst for a movement of Yes in my Back Yard (YIMBY’s) across Lewisham Citizens and beyond. It was these same YIMBY’s who, once they had won a site to build homes on, turned their attention to meeting those living next to the site we had been given.   

Imagine if you could turn NIMBY’s into YIMBY’s! This is the story of Citizens House 

Planning engagement 

Daniel lives next door to the old garage site where Citizens House now stands, and wasn’t particularly keen initially on the idea of new homes in his backyard. However, it began to pique his curiosity when he found that the people that knocked on his door to talk about the homes weren’t officers from the local authority or greedy developers – instead they were members of the local community. The small but mighty team of community leaders reflected the diversity of the community, and included Janet Emmanuel, the assistant headteacher of a neighbouring secondary school; Jenny and Joe, who were members of the local Catholic Church; and Fouzia Razvi, a worshipper at the local Mosque. They told those in the community that this wasn’t centred around profits or personal gains – they  just wanted more affordable homes in the borough they all loved.  

These very human interactions and conversations about the ‘why’ of the project transformed relationships from ‘us’ and ‘them’ to just us. We could all think of friends, neighbours, children or grandchildren struggling with the housing crisis and once we focused on this, the many ‘nos’ started to turn into a flood of ‘yeses’.  

It was these countless conversations on top of community engagement – falafel parties, pizza parties, mince pies parties – and ongoing conversation about what the site might look like that led to us receiving multiple letters of support and only one letter of clarification. Saul Alinsky, a key figure in Community Organising, once said: “if you give people the power to act, in the long run they will most of the time reach the right decisions”. It turns out, when you remind people we have a housing crisis and we want to build some genuinely and permanently affordable homes, people do make what I would consider to be the right decision.  

Design 

Not only does engagement lead to better outcomes in terms of planning, but it also leads to better outcomes in terms of how the development looks and feels. Archio, the architects we worked with, bought into our relational, genuine engagement approach and listened intently to what local residents wanted. We assumed that people would want some green space, but it turned out a light and welcoming thoroughfare with a few trees and space for kids to play and people to gather was far more appealing. The wide-open space at the front of the house will now become a place for BBQ’s and community interactions.  

The other intended outcome from a community organiser’s perspective is that relationships in the neighbourhood are thicker. People in the surrounding neighbourhood started to meet people they had never met before through this process, and they have made new friends with the new residents of Citizens House.  

Hannah: neighbourhood transformation & post occupancy 

This relationship building approach continued through the allocations process which aimed to allocate residents that would reflect this relational ethos. The application focused on local connection and involvement, as well as housing need and financial capacity. Those successful demonstrated a breadth of personal and communal relationships to the borough throughout their lives. 

Because most people were allocated a year before they moved in there was plenty of opportunity to come together around preparing events, shared learning on resident management issues, the minutiae of what being a homeowner means: all this helps build a sense of collective identity. Much of this happens in public moments of celebration, but some of it happens when discussing when to mow the lawn. Connectedness is key to living a healthy life in a home where you feel secure, and this sense of security in terms of affordability, home quality, safety, leads to having more capacity to live the life you really want to lead. 

Peter: involve communities 

People have a perception that involving communities slows everything down and makes the process take longer. Why involve a bunch of people that aren’t experts in this area? 

The truth is that if you don’t involve communities proactively, then you can end up facing far greater difficulties such as dealing with endless complaints and managing seemingly ‘difficult’ people. ‘Difficult’ people in my experience are not, in fact, difficult, they are just people who want to know what’s going on, or even better they want to be involved. My experience of 20 years working with local communities is that with the right approach difficult people can become your greatest champions. 

Hannah: use the right language 

This extends to the language used in construction, by managing agents, development aftercare and housing associations. Even though our residents own their homes some people still refer to them as tenants. When people submit a concern relating to defects there’s a belief that “the customer is always wrong”, that they’re being timewasters somehow, which is incredibly dehumanising. 

Peter: it’s a viable option 

We need Citizens House to inspire a wave of thousands more homes like this. It’s a huge disappointment that the community housing fund that the National CLT network has been campaigning for has not been renewed.  

Citizens UK recently developed a piece of work with various communities and civil society organisations across the UK not to simply reactivate this fund but to reimagine it, giving it the investment it really deserves. A new, more ambitious fund nearer to £500m than the previous one (which was around £163m) combined with an ambition from civic and faith organisations who could bring forward land as part of their mission could help us build more affordable community homes across the UK.  

Citizens House needs to be the beginning not the end of the story. YIMBY’s must be given the power and resources to build genuinely and permanently affordable homes.  

Hannah: conclusion 

Part of influencing others to build more of these is to convince them that solutions exist, CLTs are now a clear, viable solution that’s been proven. They are one solution to a multi-faceted situation, but they are possible, and to bring them to fruition all you need to do is not stop at the first hurdle, or the tenth! 

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