Co-operantics Conversations #3 Mary Ann Johnson Housing Co-op

Conversation #3 is with Jane Ferrie of Mary Ann Johnson Housing Co-op, or MAJ for short. Formed in 1999 by a group of individuals from North London, most on welfare benefits or low waged, they have bought and converted a house in North London, as well as managing a house in which some members are tenants. Members are also involved in Haringey Solidarity Group, a non aligned local campaigning group. As part of the housing co-operative they hope to incorporate a meeting space and a few small office/ work spaces, for campaigning groups and others.

Hi Jane,

My first question is:

Q: Which is a more powerful influence on members’ behaviour in your co-op – Rules or Policies & Procedures – or culture within the membership?

A: Definitely the most powerful is a co-operative ‘culture’ within the membership. However, that needs to be combined with playing to everyone’s strengths.

Q: How do new recruits ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of the co-operative?

A: MAJ is a small co-op and we have had very few new members. The few we have had have already been familiar with our co-operative culture from being part of joint events with existing members of the co-op. Once actually in the co-op new members learn a lot from seeing what goes on at meetings. We don’t have a regular newsletter but take it in turns to write the MAJ contribution to the Radical Routes quarterly newsletter Radical Rumours. Writing down what you and other co-op members have been doing over the past three months can help reinforce co-op cohesion and culture.

Q: What would you say are the advantages of the way in which new recruits learn your culture?

A: The advantages are that it is organic and intuitive

Q: And the disadvantages?

A: that it is unstructured and might require rethinking if new members were to join who had not previously had any experience of living or working co-operatively.

Q: Have you considered other ways you might adopt?

A: No, we haven’t, but we are thinking possibly of expanding the co-op so this will be something that we may well need to consider.

Q: Do you use a member agreement? (A document outlining what you can expect of your co-operative and what your co-operative expects from you; Rights and responsibilities of membership)

A: No we don’t at the moment, because we have a set of primary and secondary rules that cover much of what would probably be covered by a membership agreement. However, if there were added benefits to a membership agreement we would consider it.

Q: What changes have you seen in your co-operative’s culture over time?  Why do you think this is and what do you think the causes have been?

A: It changed significantly once we got our first property and again when we took over the management of the other property where most of the rest of our members live. The move from talking and planning to hands on doing brought us focus and tangible results.

Thanks a lot Jane!

Check out Mary Ann Johnson Housing Co-op and follow @MAJHousingCoop

So what do you think? Do you have any thoughts, opinions, experience to share? We’d love to hear your comments or questions. Or if you would like to join in the ‘Conversations’ then answer the questions above, add any further ideas you may have and email to us at:
kate [at]
and we’ll be happy to have a Conversation with you!

Don’t forget, you can find lots of tools, tips and techniques for building and nurturing a strong co-operative culture right here (see links above). Or contact us if you’d like us to run a workshop, or provide consultancy support, advice or guidance on co-operative skills. More information on our services can be found here.

Co-operantics Conversations #2 The Phone Co-op

Phone Co-op CEO Vivian Woodell said “Good co-op governance means getting culture, people, structure and process right” and other experienced co-operators have talked about the importance of ‘co-op culture’. But what is it? How do you build it and nurture it? We think there is much co-operatives can learn from each other, both in the UK and overseas. We will be posting Co-operantics Conversations with a range of different co-operatives over Co-ops Fortnight, so watch this space!

Conversation #2 is with Amanda Beard of The Phone Co-op

Hello Amanda,

My first question is:

Q:In your view, which is a more powerful influence on members’ (both consumer members and employee members) behaviour – policies, procedures and rules or culture within the membership?

A: Culture within the membership

Q:How do newly recruited employee members ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of the co-operative?

A: By observing colleagues during the working day, members’ behaviour in meetings and during the induction process. We also have regular Values and Principles courses to make sure that all employees understand what we are based upon.  We encourage all staff to attend Annual General Meetings and Half Yearly Meetings so that they can see democracy in action and we also try to involve as many of them as possible in the annual board election for the same reason.

Q:How do new consumer members ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of your co-operative?

A: At the AGM; through regular newsletters and also through the information sent out regarding the annual election.

Q: What might be the pros and cons of the various ways in which new members ‘learn’ the culture in your co-operative?

A: New consumer members don’t have the opportunity to engage easily as we don’t have shops or obvious places to participate other than AGMs and HYMs.

Q: Have you considered other ways you might adopt?

A: We are building a membership zone on our website, intending to add more information on the co-operative movement as well as regular blogs, polls and surveys.

Q: Do you use a member agreement and/or a members’ job description?  (A document outlining what you can expect of your co-operative and what your co-operative expects from you; Rights and responsibilities of membership)

A: No we don’t – sounds a very interesting idea.

Q: Have you seen your co-operative culture change over time?

A: I don’t think it has changed significantly although, as we have employed more people, it has become harder to share the values and principles easily.

Thanks a lot Amanda!

Check out The Phone Co-op and follow @phonecoop

So what do you think? Do you have any thoughts, opinions, experience to share? We’d love to hear your comments or questions. Or if you would like to join in the ‘Conversations’ then answer the questions above, add any further ideas you may have and email to us at:
kate [at]
and we’ll be happy to have a Conversation with you!

Don’t forget, you can find lots of tools, tips and techniques for building and nurturing a strong co-operative culture right here (see links above). Or contact us if you’d like us to run a workshop, or provide consultancy support, advice or guidance on co-operative skills. More information on our services can be found here.

Coming soon for Co-operatives Fortnight!

At Co-operantics we have a few activities coming up for Co-operatives Fortnight.

We are organising some informal co-op networking in Bristol and Southampton, but of more interest to the rest of you, we will be hosting a series of “Co-operantics Conversations“.  We will be talking through some co-operative governance issues with various members of co-ops and publishing their thoughts in a bid to help co-ops learn from each other and spread good practice.  Keep your eyes peeled!

You can find out more about Co-operatives Fortnight on the Co-operatives UK website and using hashtag #coops14 on Twitter.

Is it time to widen the focus of co-operative housing and look at new forms of finance ?

How rent is partially made up of profit for property owners
How rent is partially made up of profit for property owners

Here is a simple proposition.  When people pay rent, it is not used to line the pockets of a property owner (e.g. Buy to Let) but used to cover the costs of providing the accommodation, with a little surplus for a rainy day and towards acquiring more properties so the benefit can be shared.  The resulting rent would be cheaper as the “top slice” of profit required for the landlord is taken out of the equation.

What’s more, if the property is owned and democratically controlled by those tenants, they will take care of their homes and will seek ways to manage and maintain the property that save money, because it is in their own mutual interest. We are talking about a housing co-operative.  It’s a “no-brainer” in a country that is suffering from a housing crisis and in which rent is spiraling out of control to satisfy the needs of investors.

However, there is a problem.  In order to buy the property you need to have sufficient money to put down as a deposit.  This is the primary reason why housing co-operatives are not as prevalent as you would expect given they are a “no-brainer”.  The problem of accessing capital to lever in finance to purchase the house has come up again and again with potential housing co-op start ups. So maybe we need to have another look at the financing of housing co-ops.

I have been involved as a professional advisor to housing co-operatives since 1998 and was an active member of a 70-member housing co-operative which is a Registered Provider (holding various officer roles including Treasurer) for 12 years.   In addition to supporting existing housing co-ops to improve governance or operational matters and to acquire properties, I have also worked with a number of capable pre-start groups who have had their intentions and efforts frustrated.

Blue sky thinking

I am challenging some of my own views here.  I’m not necessarily saying that what I suggest in this piece is how I want the world to be, but if we aim to grow the co-operative elements of the housing sector we need to broaden our horizons beyond our current focus and personal desires.  So, beware…blue skies ahead


There has been a tradition of those who speak for the UK Housing Co-op “movement” to focus on public sector housing and public funding for housing co-operatives.  They are doing a great job which needs doing, but this is only part of the housing landscape.  To make demands of the public purse to support co-operative housing while all political parties are committed to reducing public spend – winning a bigger slice of the cake while the cake is being reduced in overall size – should not be our only tactic.   Additionally access to public monies also brings with it the regulation of being a Registered Provider which carries an  administrative burden requiring scale and, from my observations, a tendency to move from a radical to a conservative focus.  I used to find myself fighting a battle to retain the members’ interests over the regulators demands – and winning, I might add.

This means that we have a widely accepted construct in the UK that to be a “housing co-operative” worthy of note you have to a) be of a certain size and operate in a certain way, and b) only provide housing for rent for people in need.  So what of those who are not technically in need but want to avail themselves of co-operative housing?  There’s a gap in the market, and the private rented market is set to boom by all accounts.  A case of need, a market, and co-operatives offering member benefit that provides a better offer than the market is fertile ground for co-operative development.

I believe there is room to encourage entrepreneurialism and growth of the co-operative control of housing by being widerin our definition of co-operative housing.  To grow co-operative housing we may have to challenge our own sacred cows.  There is a difference between what we ought to call “Co-operative housing associations” which is the well developed part of the UK sector and “co-operative housing” meaning housing that has some form of co-operative ownership and/or control.

Moving beyond co-operative housing for renters

In the UK there has been a tendency to downplay any role other than the renter-landlord dynamic.  Why is co-ownership ignored?  It isn’t ignored in the worker and enterprise owned co-operative sectors (notably the agricultural sector).  I am a huge fan of common ownership in general and social ownership of housing but we ought to accept exploring some level of co-ownership as an option if we aim to grow the co-operative movement and to use the advantages of mutuality to address housing issues.

Some people are interested in partial (or whole) private ownership of properties within a co-operative environment.  For instance, I have worked with a group who have potential members willing to sell their homes and invest in a co-operative to provide capital for a development in which they will live.  We had to unpick the difference between a mortgage holder who completes their loan and then has a vastly reduced household outgoing over time and the renter who pays rent in perpetuity.

People who have valuable properties may be interested in co-ownership, or may want to invest their equity to enable the creation of housing managed co-operatively in which they can live.  But do they get equity growth or just a reasonable  return on that equity?  And what is reasonable in this context – if the return on equity is not enough to cover the rent?  They have swapped a completed or near completed mortgage for a rental property and locked up their equity.  It throws up challenges.  But we should meet those challenges, not ignore them.

Maybe it is time to blaze a new trail for entry into co-operative housing for people other than renters.  My clients are still absorbing and considering the issues this has thrown up and what the final “offer” will be to the different “types” of member – all of whom will still have equal voting rights in how the co-operative is managed.

Co-housing is relatively small but growing in the UK. Some schemes incorporate private ownership and some Community Land Trusts offer private ownership but co-housing and CLTs are meeting specific needs (shared space and land ownership) that not all private owners will be interested in.

Ageing population

We have an ageing population who are asset rich but may require low level support if they are to stay independent in their homes.  There could be innovative co-operative solutions to meeting the support needs of home owners and the housing needs of others.  One brings equity, the other brings time.  Together they create a mutual solution.


What of the co-operativisation of leaseholders?  There are many leasholder companies for small blocks of flats that are established as share companies and often run by ex-bankers, stockbrokers or solicitors bringing private sector behaviours of hierarchy.  Co-operative principles could be introduced to these organisations and empower all the leaseholders, while providing the wider social benefits a co-operative brings over those of a private mutual.

“Buy to co-op”

What about “buy to co-op” instead of “buy to let” i.e. instead of establishing housing associations, we establish buy to let entities that just happen to be owned by the people who rent from them (or maybe even allow in investors in a limited capacity, or staff, using a multi-stakeholder model). They could provide a dividend return (profit share)s rather than the model of pre-distribution in the form of lower rents that UK Housing Co-ops offer.

Is access to capital the problem?

The biggest barrier to developing co-operative housing I have come across is access to sufficient capital to acquire a mortgage.  Some co-ops have used loanstock but this is fairly limited.  Withdrawable share capital probably isn’t the right approach if you are fully mutual and only want tenants or occupiers controlling the housing, so should we be considering a different approach that enables outside investors to support the needs of tenants without the tenants giving up control over management – a hybrid of the Community Land Trust model and the Housing Co-operative model.  Radical Routes have been working to establish a secondary co-op that will own some of the equity in new-start co-ops: Co-operative Principles put into action to grow the movement.  Yet the Radical Routes members are a tiny percentage of co-operative housing in the UK. Another innovation could be mutual guarantee schemes (or co-ops mortgaging their existing owned assets to release development capital for other co-ops) which enable new co-ops to establish themselves in the early days when it is not profitability but access to capital that dictates the success, failure or growth rate of a housing co-operative.  Rather than ask the government and policy makers to act, I suggest our own movement does something. (Remember those Co-operative Values of self-help and solidarity?)

One innovation that I am certain we need to promote as a movement is inward investment from the co-operative movement into co-operative housing.   In particular, we could target pension funds held by large co-operative employers. There must be some mechanism that can be created – even in the current legal framework – which would allow a pension fund to invest in housing developments that just so happen to be co-operatives.  Maybe a “co-operative housing fund” that invests bonds or similar – I know nothing about pensions!  And if they are start-ups with higher risk then the returns might be higher in the same way the traditional stock holders approach investments in high risk companies.

This would enable models other than the Registered Provider, which allows for a more diverse sector (lots of small co-ops as well as large ones). Some people I have met have been put off housing co-ops by their experiences in poorly run larger scale co-ops which devalue the individual operating on a tyranny by of the minority basis (like the state socialist approach of the needs of the individual being ignored or undermined for the “greater good”…now intone after me “The greater good”). Yes, part of the answer is to improve larger co-ops, but perhaps we need to question scale and encourage co-ops of all sizes.

Co-operative developers

If we are talking about co-operative involvement in the housing sector (which is what the pre-amble covered), why has the development side been left untouched?  Supply is part of the housing economy.  Mainstream developers have one goal:shareholder return.  What about co-operative developers – either owned by groups of housing co-ops, or as multi-stakeholder co-ops incorporating workers, customer housing co-ops (and maybe even investors) rather than operating purely for profit putting some of their profits into the community by funding CLTs or common ownership housing co-operatives.

Time to innovate?

Should we be innovating to address these capital issues (including more member investment) and move into less traditional areas – growing what for the UK would be a relatively new type of co-op housing? I.e. One that moves beyond the social housing sector and into the private sector.

Should our strategic innovation be to move away reliance on state intervention and toward self-responsibility, self-reliance as a movement and promoting Co-operative Principles 6 and 7 in investment away from government back to member users and other investors from the movement?  I am not saying ignore state controlled grant funding, but let’s not be prisoners of it!

More co-operation!

This blog by Co-operantics member Nathan Brown first appeared on his “Social Enterprise? Help!” blog.  Co-operantics has worked with a number of UK Housing Co-ops and continues to provide governance, strategic and business planning support to housing co-operatives, worker co-operatives and community co-operatives.