Following several high-profile tragedies that have occurred across the country as a consequence of extremely poor-quality housing, surely the time has come for the expansion of non-traditional housing models?

In this article, Vanessa Pritchard-Wilkes (Head of Strategic Influence at Housing 21) introduces what is being done at a regional level to develop ‘Co-Housing’ in some of the most deprived areas of the West Midlands region.

That is the question being asked following the findings of research by the Nationwide Foundation and JRF[i]. The public thinks that housing inequality is a natural part of a capitalist economy, that housing inequality in the UK is getting worse but its just the way things are.

This research was used to open Housing 21’s recent conference as we started to explore inequality in housing and care and support for older people in England.  How people view and speak about housing serves to frame it through a consumerist lens leading the public to think that housing is a commodity and investment, that home ownership is the ultimate goal and other forms of tenure, both private and social rented should ever only be temporary, a stop gap whilst reaching the UK’s home ownership dream. But housing is a fundamental human right.

The role housing plays is reinforced by a recognition that poor quality housing is harmful for health but somehow this is accepted.  Society accepts that of there is almost four million non-decent homes in England and over half of them are lived in by someone aged 55 or over[ii].  This cost to the NHS is approximately £1.4 billion per year to treat people who are affected by poor housing. Despite the data and evidence of the causal connections between ageing, health, disadvantage and poor housing, effective national policies, funding and action to tackle non-decent homes are notable by their absence.

It’s only when faced with tragic incidents such as the death of two year old Awaab Ishak or the fire at Grenfell Tower that intervention is seen – and still then only in the regulated social sector.

So, who in the housing sector is fighting for equality for those vulnerable and ignored housing voices? My focus here shifts to older people as a group who are sometimes perceived as having gained from rapid increases in house prices and free education with rhetoric surrounding wealthy pensioners compared to younger generations.  Naturally, that group exists but older people are not an homogenous group and one in six people of pensionable age live in poverty. The data shows us that 96% of older households live in mainstream homes and it is a fact that 78% of the older households living in non-decent homes are disadvantaged homeowners. Older home owners are often asset rich and cash poor.

We all know that we have a population which is ageing but not necessarily ageing in good health meaning more years spent needing care and / or support. But, as the demand for support services has increased, government provision has rolled back and we have witnessed a demise in those organisations who have previously provided that support or guidance.  That situation has been compounded by the ramifications of Covid in recent years. We have seen the demise of the Dementia Action Alliance, Alzheimers Society has struggled with fundraising and so resources are constrained and Care and Repair England which campaigned for older owner occupiers closed earlier this year.  The Elderly Accommodation Council (EAC) provide a valuable service in providing advice to older people on their housing choices and their searchable website shows what properties are available in someone’s locality. Their contribution was recognised in a Housing Green Paper, but was subsequently dropped from any following White Paper.  The demise of these organisations has created a gap in specialist advice and support in an area where understanding of housing options is already poor.

If older people navigate their way to specialist older people’s housing, they benefit from the support and expertise within it and there most definitely is a role for specialist older people’s housing but only around 4% of older households (500,000 people) live in this type of accommodation and we also know that 80% of older people want to stay living in their current home[iii]. But that means that support is needed for the 2.5 million long term sick or disabled people over 65 years of age[iv].  It feels virtually impossible to ensure this happens with the current crisis in social care, especially when the number of vacant posts increased by 55,000 (52%) between 20/21 and 21/22[v].  This has resulted in almost 170,000 hours a week of home care not being delivered during the first three months of 2022[vi].  With over 506,000 people waiting for assessment reviews or care support to begin, how can we convince ourselves that our older people are safe staying in their own homes?

Bearing in mind all of the above, is it time to expand the supply of non-traditional housing models? An example of a less traditional housing model is cohousing which is commonly described as an ‘intentional community’ or a group of like minded people coming together.  Co-housing constitutes a small part of the housing market across the UK and Europe, where it is rarely more than 1% of the available stock[vii].

Housing 21 is keen to develop a suitable model of cohousing that engages older people of modest means in areas of deprivation.  Housing 21 has committed, with the support of Birmingham City Council, to develop 10 cohousing schemes across the County. These will be based in areas of significant deprivation and with a high BAME community.  Co-housing for people from this demographic background that is built by a Housing Association is unique within the UK. Co-housing for working class and Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) people is rare[viii].

We are engaging and involving local people so that each of the sites reflects the local population in terms of diversity as well as promoting social cohesion. By involving local people in the design of the buildings but more importantly in shaping the community, its values and its ethos, the group will have a sense of ownership long before it is ready for occupation.

The first scheme in Lozells was granted planning permission in June 2022. It will consist of 22 apartments for older people that will be managed by the residents themselves.

This is the start of a journey and one which will throw up countless opportunities to learn lessons about this type of housing, the role of a Housing Association in it and the development of an empowered community. It is important that these lessons are shared to promote future successful development of cohousing, making it a more accessible and available option.


[i] Nationwide Foundation and JRF (November 2021) Communicating about housing the UK, openings, and emerging recommendations

[ii] Centre for Ageing Better, 2022

[iii] Lloyd, J. (2015), Older Owners Research on the lives, aspirations and housing outcomes of older homeowners in the UK. London, Strategic Society Centre

[iv] MHCLG (Annual) English Housing Survey, London, MHCLG

[v] Skills for Care 2022

[vi] ADASS 2022

[vii] Tumners, 2016

[viii] Bresson and Denefle, 2015


Vanessa Pritchard-Wilkes joined Housing 21 in 2014, initially as External Affairs Manager. In 2015, she took on the role of Head of Strategic Influence, and has responsibility for research, the organisations strategic work around dementia and external stakeholder engagement. In 2017, Vanessa co-authored the Dementia-friendly housing guide with the Alzheimer’s Society.

Vanessa has over 20 years’ experience in a range of public, private and public sector organisations and has gained considerable experience in research, evaluation, public policy and stakeholder engagement. She completed her PhD at the University of Birmingham in 2014.

Vanessa is a member of the Housing and Communities Leadership Board at the Centre for the New Midlands.

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