Residents’ cooperatives, the return of housing to the field of politics (and vice versa)

Yves MAURY, 2012

Collection Passerelle

After its voluntary withdrawal in the name of neo-liberalism in the early 1980s, the powerlessness of politics in the face of «  the reckless activity of the market seems consecrated1 ". Confirming K. Polanyi’s analysis 2, the real estate sphere has « disassociated itself » from the city, which has lost control of it. And this, to the detriment of the vital and universal function of the right to live, which is forced to fade away behind the sum of private interests. Should we then resign ourselves to the impotence of politics? Or to its voluntary withdrawal? Which, in the end, amounts to the same thing. In the face of the « discourse of power » of the proponents of the market society, what do the residents’ cooperatives tell us ? Small, non-speculative tools, based on mutual aid between the cooperators, high-precision social mechanisms intended to produce affordable housing as a priority for populations that are excluded from it, reactive from one continent to another to multiple social and urban situations, while remaining absent from official statistics to this day, because they work in the «  infra-urban margins ".

The case studies on which we have been able to work3 show that populations weakened by the market are able to self-organize, to produce goods (in this case, affordable housing) and value, which neither firms (the market) nor central agencies (the State) are able to generate (Ostrom, 2010). This includes registers such as self-confidence, confidence in others, and mutual aid, in place of the norm of free and undistorted competition and its avatars. All these resources have no value in the financialized economy. From this point of view, the residents’ cooperatives carry out an indispensable work «  of administration of the proof  » (Durkheim). More precisely, they initiate a work of renewal of social transactions. And in doing so, they put the political into tension. It appears here that five principles of common action are identifiable and ensure an overall coherence to this cooperative «  model  ». In a more general way, through the residents’ cooperatives, it is indeed a question of reintegrating the real estate sphere into the city.

The capacity of mobilization and self-organization of the cooperative inhabitants

The residents’ cooperatives are made up of populations that are themselves experiencing acute forms of exclusion and social disqualification4 : declassified middle classes (in Rome), young people in social wandering (London), immigrant workers (Italy).

The context in Italy

The main characteristics of Italian popular housing in the 1990s are :

  • Transfer of competence to the regions by the first Berlusconi government, total disengagement of the Italian central state, abolition of GESCAL [[Gestion Casa per Lavatore, a parity organization for financing public housing, created in 1945 and abolished in 1996 by the «  coalition of the Olive Tree  » (center left), Maury, 2006b.]].

  • Sale of the public real estate social patrimony by an international financial group and rental evictions by the thousands.

In Rome, the autorecupero cooperatives (residential self-recovery of vacant public buildings) have their roots in the squatter movement, which was very active during the 1980s (Florence, Rome, Turin, Milan). The work of ex-post normalization of former squats and illegal occupations of abandoned public buildings began with the Lazio regional law of 1998, which legalized the movement of residents’ cooperatives.

Now, it appears that these disqualified populations begin by refusing both the conditions of existence and the logic of assistance imposed on them by society. These populations that we would qualify as « indignant » today, are supported by militant structures and associations of defense of the right to housing. They mobilize in small human communities and «  organize on a citizen, local and autonomous basis, housing projects […] democratically controlled by the residents ". Populations «  indigned  » therefore, but also self-organized. In other words, the inhabitants join together to found a cooperative project, thus demonstrating their capacity for self-organization, in a context of resource scarcity (Ostrom, 2010). In doing so, the «  rational owners  » (Ostrom, 2010) that are the cooperators revisit the question of « social capital », understood in the sense that groups of individuals decide «  to act together and to self-organize in order to respond collectively to a clearly identified need " : in this case, to produce affordable housing, i.e., accessible to «  people of little ". As J. Rawls analyzes, for a «  society to be considered as a fair system of cooperation among citizens held to be free and equal [….] institutions must from the outset place in the hands of the citizens, and not just of a few, sufficient productive means to make them fully cooperating members on an equal basis5  » . In order to do this, not considering the inhabitants as an obstacle or an adjustment variable appears to be an indispensable prerequisite.

In Italy (Rome)

A spectacular illustration of the passage from speculative real estate to the right to live comes from a regional law of Lazio (Rome), voted in 1998. Some activists of the Unione Inquilini (Tenants’ Union, UI), committed to the defense of the effective right to housing, joined the center-left list in the regional elections. This coalition obtained a majority in the regional assembly. The newly elected UI members voted (unanimously) the first law on residential self-recovery (Autorecupero a fini rezidenziale). The first article is essential because it legalizes the occupation of vacant public buildings by cooperatives. The regional law places the public owners in front of their responsibilities: to maintain their real estate patrimony, to produce an inventory of it, to point out the « abandoned » and the urban wastelands. Otherwise, there is a risk that unwanted, but now legal, residential occupations will multiply.

In Scotland

In Scotland since 2001, the Community Land Fund (CLT), has been endowed with 15 million pounds to provide technical and financial assistance to local community initiatives. In the case of a sale, the CLT invests 6% of the value of the land to be acquired, while the CLT makes additional contributions (loans and grants). Since 2003, the Scottish Land Reform Act has given CLTs an important right of pre-emption. Condition : to demonstrate « the public interest » that they have in acquiring land for sale, for the benefit of a community ready to settle.

The new frontiers of law: from commercial real estate to the right to live

The second principle of action on which the residents’ cooperatives are based has to do with the very conception of housing that their promoters have. Here we leave the sphere of commercial real estate and its speculative logic, to enter the register of the right to live. New forms of social exclusion impose new boundaries of law and their displacement. Here we see the choice of a voluntary distancing from real estate, as a monetizable good carrying a financial value, and the return to a use of housing, perceived as a fundamental and legitimate right, of which every individual is a bearer.

In the cooperative model, the work carried out directly by the inhabitants makes it possible to eliminate (in whole or in part) three essential items of the market model : market profit, business expenses, technical cost of labor. The result is a reduction in construction costs of between 40% and 50%.

During a cooperative housing project, the occasional and adjusted intervention of external companies is however neither excluded nor prohibited a priori. On the one hand, the owners of public buildings call upon the companies of their choice, to satisfy their obligations of residential renovation of the common parts (case of «  the autorecupero  » in Rome). On the other hand, the NGOs which ensure the technical accompaniment of the cooperative building sites, call upon the companies of the private sector at key moments of the building site and more precisely with regard to the evolutions of the «  curve of the enthusiasm  » of the cooperators. Finally, these cooperative practices combine the accounting and financial value of a property with the resources resulting from the «  primary associability  » (Mauss) and the value that derives from it. They invent an accounting hybrid, where financial value and resources such as self-confidence, confidence in others, mutual aid, sharing, loyalty between individuals, etc. coexist.

The reunification (even partial) of the figure of the inhabitant and the builder

In this work of reintegrating popular housing into the field of politics and assigning the real estate sphere to a dominated place in society, a third principle is adjusted. It lies in the intrusion of an actor who is located at the very heart of the real estate production chain. This actor is not new. It has simply been repositioned. This actor is the inhabitants themselves. More precisely, the relationship to the act of building (or renovating) a property is here reconfigured under the effect of the reunification (partial or total) of the inhabitant and the builder. Therefore, in the face of the inflationary spiral of real estate costs at work in the neoliberal city model, the residents’ cooperatives trigger a clear break in the generalized process of speculation and real estate rent. The sources of real estate rent are drying up; some intermediaries are disappearing. On the other hand, other actors who intervene in particular in the register of the follow-up and preliminary technical training of the communities of cooperators, emerge or see their role transformed (architects for example, who are led to intervene during the phases of technical training of the cooperators, the municipal technical services, etc.)

Ethical finance

While mobilizing their own strengths, which are essentially derived from the cooperative project that is the basis of their approach (mobilization of social capital), residents’ cooperatives (and CLTs) are confronted with the question of « real » or financial capital. Any real estate cooperative project, even in the mode of residential self-construction or self-recovery, requires the borrowing of capital for the acquisition of land (in the case of a new construction), the purchase of materials and tools, the subscription to insurance against the risk of accidents, the payment of fees to architects, etc. In response, the cooperative economy seeks to weave new relationships between insolvent populations and banking establishments that are part of ethical or solidarity-based finance. By leaning on the banking establishments of the ethical economy, the Italian or Scottish residents’ cooperatives have recourse to municipal or regional guarantee funds, as well as to the services of ethical banks (la Banca etica in Italy). These banking establishments, some of which date back to the 19th century, work against the prevailing financial logic: the cooperative client only begins to repay his loan once the building has been (self-)constructed or (self-)rehabilitated. This means that the ethical bank assumes responsibility for the pre-financing during the time necessary for the real estate operation to be completed. Secondly, the (fixed) interest rates of the loans and the amortization plans are adjusted to the (very modest) incomes of the cooperators.

Cooperatives of inhabitants and local public regulation

The last principle of this cooperative model in action is that residents’ cooperatives are backed by clearly identified forms of local public regulation. Unlike financialized markets, the cooperative economy is not located outside the city. And from this point of view, public authorities (especially at the local level) are an essential player.

The relations established between cooperative movements and local authorities are characterized by power issues. This power is distributed according to the modalities of an antagonistic cooperation. This dimension is significant for the Italian cooperatives d’autorecupero, which originated in the former squatter movements. The balance of power evolves and varies in intensity, depending on the accommodations that are (or are not) found between elected officials, mobilized residents and cooperative movements.

In some cases and in response to the observed state vacuum (Italy), movements for the defense of the right to housing have been mobilized, in order to give meaning to the abstract notion of « right to housing ». The local authorities only intervened at a later stage (in Rome for example), to legitimize these protest practices.

Elsewhere, local authorities (regions, cities), themselves in close contact with militant associative networks and specialized NGOs, have taken the initiative and taken part in this intense work of social reinvention: self-building cooperatives in Italy, Scotland, etc. The local authorities concerned and their technical services are thus called upon to change their « vision of the world » and transform their working methods.

In Italian cities (Rome, Turin, Milan, Peruggia, Ravenna), we observe a transformation of the role of municipal technical services in their relations with the cooperators. From a classic role of ex ante instructor of the building permit, then of verifier of the conformity of the work ex post, they become the service in charge of the follow-up of a continuum at the same time real estate, financial and human. The relationship between owners and tenants is changing. Asymmetrical in a market economy, this relationship changes in nature with the residents’ cooperative: it becomes a collective actor that addresses a public (or private) owner. The strong multi-ethnic dimension in certain self-building cooperatives also requires political leaders to be involved and to work politically with the local populations. At stake is the capacity of local decision-makers to regulate the reactions of local societies, including hostile ones, when overcoming the NIMBY reflex6.


In the end, are residents’ cooperatives capable of initiating a work of renewal of social transactions and of putting politics under tension, making it possible to envisage the reintegration of housing within it? In response, it is important to avoid falling into Manicheanism, oversimplification and soft utopia.

Faced with the enthusiasm generated by the success of their cooperative enterprise begun in 1844, the Rochdale pioneers, weavers in the cotton industry in the suburbs of Manchester, were not fooled: «  There is no mistaking it  » (they said), «  numerous establishments in England, as everywhere, now take the name of cooperatives, without deserving it in any way ". In other words, it is not enough to post « cooperative » on the front of a building to claim to eradicate all forms of conflict inherent in social transactions, speculation and to regulate interests that are by nature antagonistic. At the same time, the residents’ cooperatives operate as a counter-power. They show us a fruitful mode of mobilization and production of a whole set of definanciarized values, «  of self-organized and self-governed common resources, in a situation of high uncertainty  » (E. Ostrom). Similarly, they challenge «  the presumption that individuals do not know how to organize themselves and will always need to be organized by external authorities8 ", either by firms (the market) or by government agencies (the state). To this end, they establish «  shared behavioral norms9 ", which successfully reverse the logic of speculation and real estate rent. The residents’ cooperatives appear as «  cooperative arrangements ", producers of relative norms ; relative not in the quality of the results obtained, but in their modes of manufacture. The « Republic of cooperatives », a political utopia imagined by Charles Gide at the end of the 19th century, has yet to be put into practice. However, it seems to us that residents’ cooperatives - as small, high-precision social machines - can contribute to this by restoring dignity to populations that have been pushed out of the game by market logic and real estate speculation.

1 David Bollier. 2003. «  Rediscovering our Common wealth.  » Oregon Humanities.

2 Karl Polanyi. 1944. «  The great transformation. The political and economic origins of our time ". Edition Gallimard, 1983.

3 Collective work under the direction of Yann Maury, Les coopératives d’habitants. Méthodes, Pratiques et Formes d’un autre habitat populaire, 406 pages, Edition Bruylant, 2011.

4 Disqualify, from the English «  disqualify ". The image refers, for example, in the context of a sporting event, to the definitive and irremediable elimination of a competitor, due to a serious fault (doping, cheating…).

5 Casa per Lavatore management, a joint body for financing public housing, created in 1945 and abolished in 1996 by the «  coalition of the Olive Tree  » (center left), Maury, 2006b.

6 J. Rawls, Justice as Equity, Edition La découverte, 2003, p.193.

7 « Not In My Backyard«  : Pas dans ma cour.

8 A.Orléans, Il faut définanciariser l’économie, Le Monde du 06.12.2011.

9 Elinor Ostrom, Governance of the Commons, Edition De boeck, 2010, p.39.

10 Idem, p.50.


  • Laville J-L., Cattani A.D (2006), Dictionnaire de l’autre économie, Gallimard, coll. Folio actuel, Paris.

  • Le Crosnier Hervé, «  Le prix Nobel à Elinor Ostrom : une bonne nouvelle pour la théorie des biens communs ", in Alternatives économiques (October 2009).

  • Maury Y., (ed), Les coopératives d’habitants. Méthodes, pratiques et formes d’un autre habitat populaire, Edition Bruylant, Brussels. (Second edition), (2011)

  • Ostrom E., Governance of the Commons, For a new approach to natural resources, Brussels, De Boeck, 2010.

  • Polanyi K., The great transformation. Gallimard. Paris (2009).

  • Rawls J., Justice as equity, a reformulation of «  the theory of justice  », Edition La Découverte, Paris (2003).

With the support of the Rhône Alpes region, the urban planning agency of Greater Lyon, the large workshops of Isle d’Abeau and the ENTPE’s continuing education department, three documentary films on cooperative housing in Europe were made in 2011 and 2012. (Barcelona, Rome and London).

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