The Ro­le of Coo­pe­ra­ti­ves in the Pro­vi­sion of Af­for­da­ble Hou­sing: an in­tro­duc­to­ry over­view

Testo originale in inglese, a corredo dell'articolo "Il ruolo delle cooperative nell'offerta di alloggi a costi contenuti", pag. 21 numero 1/2018 Archi.

Data di pubblicazione

Housing cooperatives may be defined as a housing model mutually owned and democratically controlled by a group of members, pooling resources and lowering individual costs of all services related to the provision of housing. According to the International Cooperative Alliance, an independent, non-governmental organization established in 1895 and representing co-operatives worldwide, there are seven principles by which co-operatives put their values into practice: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; members’ economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training, and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and a concern for community1.

Whether and to which extent these principles apply to all housing cooperatives across the world depends on multiple historical, cultural, and political factors and –most importantly– on the role of the state in regulating, supporting or constraining their operations. There are several models of housing cooperatives with different objectives. Ganapati2 classifies them as tenure, building and finance cooperatives. Although not mutually exclusive, tenure cooperatives serve collective ownership and management, building cooperatives focus on land development and housing construction and finance cooperatives lend money to members for housing purposes. Housing cooperatives around the world take three main forms: rental, limited equity and market value. They further vary in the type of buildings they own and manage, ranging from high rise buildings to single family homes and from urban to rural locations. Nowadays, however, cooperatives primarily operate in urban settings and often also have an important role in defining the development of neighbourhoods and cities. Housing cooperatives use different financial mechanisms depending upon their specific economic and political and regulatory context. Whereas tenure cooperatives are more common in northern Europe including Switzerland, building cooperatives prevail in southern Europe, where private home ownership is the privileged tenure form.

The housing cooperative movements in Europe emerged in the mid of the 19th century. It was greatly inspired by figures such as the Welsh philanthropist and utopian socialist Robert Owen (1771-1858), and the German social reformer Victor Aimé Huber (1800-1869). As a member of the executive committee of an innovative not-for-profit building firm Huber initiated, between 1849 and 1852, the construction of six cooperative dwellings in Berlin. Only a few years later, in 1861, eighty-four homes were built by the first housing cooperative in Rochdale, UK3.

In its early days, housing cooperatives emerged as a response to the desperate housing conditions of the working classes in the historical context of Europe’s rapid industrialisation and urbanisation with the aim of providing adequate and affordable housing to the urban working classes. From this rather modest beginning, the role of cooperatives in the provision of housing gradually expanded and by the early 20th century, housing cooperatives were more or less common throughout Europe. In particular after World War I and World War II, they assumed a key role in rebuilding the damaged housing stock. Nowadays, according to the Co-operative Housing International, 27 million Europeans live in housing cooperatives4.

Behind this impressive figure there are major differences with regard to how cooperative housing has been implemented in different countries. In the UK, where the cooperative movement was officially founded in 1844 and where pioneering cooperative housing projects were inspired by the garden city movement of Ebenezer Howard, today cooperative housing play a comparatively minor role, as its housing policies for a long time were oriented towards supported public housing for the working classes and private home ownership for the middle classes. In fact, while the UK have a total rental social housing stock of close to five million, nowadays only 35,000 are owned by cooperatives5. In Germany, early housing cooperatives at the end of the 19th century were inspired by the UK model. However, on a large scale, housing cooperatives only started to play a key role after World War II in response to the massive housing shortage caused by the war. Funded through the national housing system, more than half of its cooperative housing stock was built between the 1950s and 1070s with significant government subsidies. In spite of important investments in the cooperative housing system, especially in Eastern Germany after reunification, their importance dropped in the late 1990s as migration from east to west left many complexes vacant. A renewed effort to support housing cooperatives was seen in 2002, with the Federal Government seeking to strengthen the role of this type of housing. Today, there are 1,850 housing co-operatives, representing 5% of the total housing stock and 10% of the total rental housing stock. Remarkable about the German case is that while in South German cooperatives are important providers of owner-occupied dwellings, North Germany is characterized by large rental cooperatives6.The Western European country where presently housing cooperatives play the most important role is Sweden; they emerged in 1923 in response to the housing shortages and extreme housing speculation as a means to ensure access to high quality housing in the form of tenant ownership cooperatives. After World War II, housing cooperatives grew nationwide, backed by social democratic governments, which providing the required support but also allowed them to maintain their autonomy. However, public housing policies favouring the cooperative model with subsidies and land allocation diminished during the 1990s becoming more market oriented. Today, although the trend of a stronger private driven housing market continues, housing co-operatives remain Sweden’s most affordable form of tenure representing 22% of the total housing stock7.

Presently, however, it is perhaps Switzerland, the country with the most prominent and inspiring housing cooperatives8. Switzerland, a country that is still characterized by a relatively low percentage of owner-occupied dwellings housing cooperatives provide over 160,000 apartments and account for close to 60% of the Swiss non-profit rental housing stock9. Most of them are located in large cities, such as for example Zurich, where they count for over 20% of the total housing stock. Their success is sometimes attributed to a strong tradition of local community self-help and volunteer work, but not less to the valuable support provided by the Confederation and several Cantons and cities in the form of low interest loans and land availability10. Also in Switzerland housing cooperatives played a significant role after each war but lost importance in the 1970s. In particular in Zurich, housing cooperatives re-emerged as an important social movement in recent years, playing a leading role in urban development and in the promotion of sustainable, affordable and socially inclusive housing and neighbourhoods. In fact, not only are the most recent housing cooperatives of an outstanding architectural and ecological quality, but by giving emphasis to communal services and spaces and to low-energy consumption lifestyles, they are actively fostering social cohesion and sustainable development. Housing cooperatives offer apartments that are of good quality and more affordable with average rents 20% lower than private rental units. However, in Zurich, some of the housing cooperatives have become so trendy that they are increasingly attracting also to middle- and upper middle classes. While a good social mix in cooperative housing is explicitly aspired and certainly desirable, the recent realisation that 132 millionaires are currently living in subsidized cooperative housing raised some perplexities and called for the need to ensure that subsidized housing is targeted to those who cannot afford the high rents prevailing in the private rental market11.

Housing cooperatives had different degrees of prominence in Eastern Europe under socialist regimes. In former Czechoslovakia, for example, the housing cooperative movement had an important role already at the beginning of the 20th Century and was considered one of the most advanced in Europe between World War I and World War II. However, the communist regime that came into power in 1948 saw them as a vestige of capitalism with the result that they were either completely liquidated or lost much of their independence as they became owned or managed by the government. The situation changed again in the post-communist era, and today the Czech Republic counts 681 housing cooperatives with a total of 432,000 dwellings. Housing cooperatives already occupied a crucial role before the socialist regime came into power also in Poland. However, as opposed to Czechoslovakia, the model was maintained during the socialist regime and played a crucial role in post-World War II reconstruction12.

Today Poland counts a total of 3,500 housing cooperatives with 2,583,000 housing units, accounting for nearly 20% of the country’s total housing stock13. With the privatisation of government owned housing stock, cooperatives became the prevailing ownership arrangement in Estonia, where today over 60% of the apartment buildings have been handed over to newly formed cooperatives. While these housing cooperatives are primarily responsible for managing the common areas, apartment units are owned by their individual members, who have the freedom to sell them at market prices14. In spite of the economic crisis and its dramatic repercussion on the building industry and private home ownership being the privileged tenure form, housing cooperatives are also important actors in Southern Europe. In Spain, the first housing cooperatives consisting of single family houses emerged around large cities as a low-cost housing strategy already back in the 1920s. Later, however, housing subsidies to home buyers and private developers were primarily provided to stimulate owner occupancy, which remains the preferred tenure in Spain. In fact, even though housing affordability is currently a severe problem, 82% of the of the Spanish population continue owning their home. In the 1970s and 1980s building cooperatives gained importance by concentrating on the production of subsidized housing sold at cost price15. By 2011 about 14,000 cooperatives built close to 1.5 million dwellings representing 6% of the total housing stock. However, in recent years the subsidized dwellings produced by cooperatives are not considered very attractive due to the high level of regulations and restrictions and to the drop of the market prices that followed the 2009 crash of the property market. Housing cooperatives in Portugal only recently started to play a less marginal role in the housing sector as they were long constrained by authoritarian regimes that were hostile towards their democratic and egalitarian philosophy. Only after 1974 the state recognised the need to intervene in the housing sector to overcome its shortages and the role of housing cooperatives. It thus provided tax exemption, financing and land availability. This allowed cooperatives to emerge as a fairly important actor in the social housing sector. However, in the 1990s the government once again drastically reduced support for the development of social housing, with the result that housing cooperatives were forced to cater more to the housing needs of middle- and upper middle classes than to those of lower income people. Nevertheless the 100 housing cooperatives in Portugal, which over a period of 30 years built around 180,000 units, are known for building good quality, sustainable and energy efficient dwellings for prices that are about 20% lower than the regular market prices16. It Italy, housing cooperatives went through a strong period of expansion in the 1990s in relation to a general housing development boom that lasted until 2007. Also in Italy home ownership has long prevailed, including within the cooperative movement. Only 18% of the national housing stock is rental, of which only about one quarter is social housing. In Italy, there are basically two types of housing cooperatives: conventional ones and social housing cooperatives. While these two types have many points in common, conventional housing cooperatives are owner occupied with the units belonging to the individual members, social housing cooperatives provide rental housing targeted to people with special needs, such as elderly, disabled and low-income people. Italy is currently undergoing a severe housing crisis characterized by an acute shortage of adequate affordable rental housing. Housing cooperatives are increasingly addressing this problem by including the building of affordable social rental housing. Italian housing cooperatives are also known for having adopted the principles of sustainable development, for the promotion of energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources.

But not only in Europe do housing cooperatives have a significant role in the provision of residential housing; they also emerged, for example, in the United States at the turn of the century, mostly concentrated in New York. By the 1920s both limited equity or market rate housing cooperatives established themselves in major cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, San Francisco and Philadelphia. Most market rate housing cooperatives did not survive the Great Depression due to excessive mortgages and high vacancy rates in higher income dwellings. However, lower income, union sponsored cooperatives mostly concentrated in New York survived. Affordable housing cooperatives continued to grow through the 1950s and 1960s in particular in New York, with the support of federal subsidy programs. In the 1970s, however, the Nixon administration ended these programs and as a consequence the development of affordable housing cooperatives dramatically dropped. In the 1980s the rise of condominiums and the promotion of home ownership as a mechanism for accumulating wealth, made it even more difficult for cooperative housing to strive17. New York continues to be an exception in the United States as housing cooperatives survived due to their link with the local government. However, most of them are market rate cooperatives and their social and economic advantages as viable affordable housing solutions continue to be ignored. In fact, whereas in Europe cooperatives were promoted primarily as a response to the housing needs of the lower income groups and working classes in the growing cities, in North America housing cooperatives were initiated either by higher income groups or by unions18.

In South Asia, and particularly in India, housing cooperatives were initiated by the colonial administration and date back to the beginning of the 20th century. Promoted initially under the British Colonial rule at the beginning of the 20th century, housing cooperatives in India were very much under the control of the state and administered by state appointed Registrars19. After independence, housing cooperatives continued to grow under the democratic socialist government. With the foundation of the National Co-operative Housing Federation of India in 1969 in charge of promoting, developing and coordinating the activities of housing cooperatives in the country, and the Five Year Plans, housing cooperatives were given preference in land allocation and supply of building materials by the government. Despite a reduction in the financial support to housing cooperatives during the 1990´s as economic liberalization policies sought to strengthen the role of the private housing market, they have continued to be an important mechanism to supply affordable housing reaching 100,000 with 7 million members by 201120.

in Latin America housing cooperatives constitute a social movement, championing public participation, solidarity, and even resisting the state. A pioneer in this respect is represented by Uruguay, which gained the 2012 World Habitat Award and inspired many other Latin American Countries, including Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia. Unlike in India, where housing cooperatives basically were the result of top-down governmental programmes, cooperatives in Uruguay not only started without any government support, but even as a resistance to the state. The first housing cooperatives emerged in the 1960´s during the economic crisis that led to the closure of factories, and high unemployment affecting workers access to housing. Relying on a tradition of self-help construction processes that summoned community support in the development of housing, an emergence of non-profit organizations, tapping into the organizational capacity of union workers, promoted cooperative self-construction experiences throughout the country. In response to the wave of housing cooperatives, the 1968 Housing Law, was an important catalyst in the institutionalization and further promotion of this model for the provision of housing in Uruguay, by establishing two types of models; one targeted to middle-income members that pool their collective savings; and the other mutual aid self-help model for low-income households, contributing to the construction of housing cooperatives with manual labour21. Despite the weakening of housing cooperatives by neoliberal policies implemented during the military dictatorship, the model has survived and is an important part of national housing policies up to date.  A great part of the success of the national housing cooperative model in Uruguay, may be attributed to the Uruguayan Federation of Cooperatives of Housing for Mutual Aid (FUCVAM), in providing technical assistance, support to trade unions, and pushing for public policies that favour access to affordable housing22.

Housing cooperatives are increasingly relevant as a housing strategy for the urban poor also in Africa, whereby a distinction needs to be made between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. In Egypt, for example, cooperatives were established already at the beginning of the 20th Century, as part of the anti-colonial struggle. Housing cooperatives emerged as a result of individual initiatives with some State support in the 1930. State support significantly increased from the 1970s onwards, when housing cooperatives also became part of a slum eradication strategy. Today, Egypt counts 2,320 housing cooperative societies accounting for half million dwelling units23. Sub-Saharan Africa, however, only saw the emergence of housing cooperatives in the 1960s after many countries had gained independence. This housing model, which addressed pressing development issues, was widely supported by international NGOs and by the International Labour Organization through a regional technical cooperation program named CoopAfrica that aimed to promote cooperative self-help housing construction processes and improve their governance and performance in the region. In Kenya, housing co-operatives were introduced in the 1980s. Although limited and under the control of the government, the National Cooperative Housing Union (NACHU) was established by the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU). Nevertheless, it managed to create partnership and be financially supported by international organizations allowing it to provide technical assistance and microfinance loans for the development of lower income housing.

Concluding remarks

As shown in this paper, housing cooperatives exist all over the world and emerged in different historical, political and cultural contexts. They were promoted in some countries by the state through top down policies, whereas in others they emerged as a result of bottom-up social movements. Housing cooperatives had a more or less modest start around the beginning of the 20th Century and historically went through various ups and downs, depending on the political support provided by governments. They have particularly emerged in urban industrializing contexts, with a high demand of affordable housing. In fact, they have proved to be able to supply dwellings at prices significantly lower than those prevailing in the corporate sector. In recent years, not only in Switzerland, but also for example in Italy, Portugal, Germany and Sweden, housing cooperatives have been important driving forces in the promotion of a sustainable, socially inclusive, and equitable urban development; they are no longer only providers of affordable dwellings but also influential civil society actors playing an important role in defining how neighbourhoods and cities should look like and what they should offer to their citizens. In these countries, they are recognised as a viable strategy through which decent and affordable housing can be ensured to different categories of people, including the elderly, single parents, migrants and refugees, and through which a number additional urban development and social goals can be achieved. Housing cooperatives have the potential to foster social cohesion and wellbeing by engaging in community initiatives and projects and may contribute to enhance their members’ personals skills and confidence as they deal with administrative issues finances, building, and maintenance24.

Many housing cooperatives explicitly promote sustainable lifestyles, emphasise the importance of communal spaces and are trend-setters in the promotion of energy efficiency, sustainable building technologies, liveable neighbourhoods and cities. To fulfil this role, however, housing cooperatives require strong civil society organisations, enabling policies, and the permanent support from municipal, regional as well as national governments, consisting for example in tax exemptions, subsidized loans and grants, access to affordable land for example through partnerships with municipal governments. If these conditions are fulfilled, housing cooperatives not only can continue to play an important and innovative role in the developed world, but also contribute to overcome the global housing crisis, which finds its expression in approximately one billion people currently lacking adequate housing or living in slums.



International Cooperative Alliance (ICA). 2017. What is a cooperative? (accessed 23.11.17)

Ganapati, S. (2014). Housing cooperatives in the developing world’, In: . Bradenoord, J., P. van Lindert and P. Smets (eds). Affordable housing in the urban global South. Seeking Sustainable Solutions. London: Earthscan

ICA and CECODHAS Housing Europe and ICA Housing ( 2012 ), Profiles of a Movement: Co-operative Housing around the World’ (accessed 23.11.17)

See: (accessed 23.11.17)

See: (accessed 23.11.17)

Beetz, S. 2008. Housing Cooperatives and Urban DevelopmentGerman Journal of Urban Studies, 47/1 (accessed 23.11. 2017).

Lago, A. and L. Matic. 2012. Housing cooperatives in Sweden, In: ICA/CECODAS, op. cit, pp. 70-72.

Schindler, S. 2014. Housing and the Cooperative Commonwealth’, Places Journal, October 2014 (accessed 17. 11. 2017).

Wohnbaugenosseschaften Schweiz/Wohnen Schweiz. 2013. Der dritte Weg im Wohnungsbau (accessed 23 November 2017).

10 Wohngenossenschaften Zürich. 2015. Partner für Nachhaltiges Wohnen. Gemeinden und Wohnbaugenossenschaften (accessed 23.11.17).

11 O’Sullivan, F. 2017. Zurich's Public Housing Problem: The Tenants Are Too Rich. Switzerland’s biggest city clamps down on 132 millionaires currently living in public projectsCityLab.

12 Vanicek, V. et al. 2012. Housing cooperatives in the Czech Republic, In: ICA/CECODAS, op. cit, pp. 18-21.

13 Jankowski, J. et. al. 2012. Housing cooperatives in Poland, In: ICA/CECODAS, op. cit, pp. 58-61.

14 Sarnet, A. 2012. Housing cooperatives in Estonia, In: ICA/CECODAS, op. cit, pp. 26-28.

15 Rodriguez-Barbero Simal, T. et al. 2012. Housing cooperatives in Spain, In: ICA/CECODAS, op. cit, pp. 70-73.

16 Vilaverde, G. and A. Mateus, 2012. Housing cooperatives in Portugal, In: ICA/CECODAS, op. cit, pp. 62-65.

17 Sazama, G. 1996. A Brief History of Affordable Housing Cooperatives in the United States’, Economics Working Papers. 199609 (accessed 10 November 2017).

18 Ganapati, S. (2010). Enabling housing cooperatives: lessons from Sweden, India, and the United States’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 34: 365 – 380.

19 Ganapati, S. 2001. Institutional potential of housing cooperatives for low-income households: The case of India. Habitat International 25/2: 147-174.

20 Khurana, M.L. 2012. Housing cooperatives in India. In: ICA/CECODAS, op. cit, p. 36.

21 Bredenoord, J. and Van Lindert, P. 2010. Pro-poor housing policies: rethinking the potential of assisted self-help housing. Habitat International , 34 : 278 – 287.

22 Frens-String , J. 2011. Revolution through reform: popular assemblies, housing cooperatives, and Uruguay’s new left’, Contemporanea 2: 11–30 (accessed 7.11.2017).

23 El Mesiri, M. 2012. Housing cooperatives in Egypt, In: ICA/CECODAS, op. cit, pp. 22-25.

24 Lang R., and Novy. A. 2014. Cooperative Housing and Social Cohesion: The Role of Linking Social Capital’, European Planning Studies, 22:8, 1744-1764.

Articoli correlati