Co-op offers innovative solution to housing crisis

Ó Cualann Cohousing Alliance provides a solution to families that don’t qualify for social housing but can’t afford a home of their own through its co-operative model of affordable housing. ThinkBusiness speaks to its founder, Hugh Brennan on his mission to replicate these communities across Ireland.

Why did you set up Ó Cualann Cohousing Alliance?

My background is in construction. I worked in South Africa and Haiti for a number of years on housing and post-disaster reconstruction. When I got back to Ireland in 2013, I saw a serious housing crisis developing. It was obvious to me because my children were at the age when they should have been moving into their own homes but couldn’t afford to do so.

“We will go anywhere to spread the model; we’re like evangelists for housing”

We looked at housing in general as well as housing bodies and saw that all of them, without exception were focusing on social housing; owning and managing housing on behalf of local authorities. Nobody was looking at affordable housing for purchase or rent. We decided to set up as an approved housing body but our focus was on fully integrated, co-operative, affordable housing in sustainable communities. 

For too many years we have segregated people in Ireland purely on the basis of income. Ó Cualann Cohousing Alliance has moved away from that to have a good mix, at around 20pc social housing and the remainder affordable purchase or affordable rental.

“Slowly but surely the model is beginning to get traction but getting land is absolutely the biggest obstacle”

What’s the co-operative model?

In our model the co-operative element is that although everybody owns their own home, they come together well before they move in to prepare a common charter for the scheme. They get to know neighbours before they move in, live in a community where people look out for each other, their mortgages don’t cripple them, their energy bills are low, their houses are built to the best international standards and they feel safe. That’s not a bad recipe for any community.

Housing development under construction.

“We got an award of €10,000 from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland. The money was welcome but it wasn’t half as important as being introduced to their network and becoming part of the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland family”

What were some of the challenges of setting up and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge was getting land and still is, we haven’t overcome that completely. The second challenge was not having any kind of a track record and trying to persuade local authorities to work with us without one. The stars were aligned in our favour however. We had identified a site earmarked for two co-ops in Dublin Northwest.

Even though there was planning permission on the site, the local authority decided to put their first modular housing development there. There was uproar so it was agreed that the modular housing could stay but that we would build out the remainder of the site as an Ó Cualann development. That’s how we got our first plot of land. It became known as the Ó Cualann model and we got inquiries from around the country. It is still not easy though. Slowly but surely the model is beginning to get traction but getting land is absolutely the biggest obstacle. 

What supports did you receive and what impact did they have?

We got an award of €10,000 from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland. The money was welcome but it wasn’t half as important as being introduced to their network and becoming part of the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland family. That was hugely beneficial. We became an impact partner of theirs as well and got an award of €50,000 for that. Because we were introduced to their network, we got funding from other companies in it and that really set us up to be able to grow.

What is the culture like in Ireland for setting up a social enterprise and how could it be improved?

It is good and getting better. The culture is improving, mainly because of work by groups like Social Entrepreneurs Ireland and Social Enterprise Republic of Ireland, as well as from The Wheel and Social Enterprise Network. We didn’t get any financial assistance from government. Any money we got was from the likes of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, private investors and the Social Innovation Fund of Ireland, now called Rethink Ireland. We do get land at a reduced rate and that greatly helps us deliver our product. 

Newly built house.

“They get to know neighbours before they move in, live in a community where people look out for each other, where their mortgages don’t cripple them, their energy bills are low, their houses are built to the best international standards and they feel safe. That’s not a bad recipe for any community”

What are your greatest successes?

We want to get the word out about affordable housing. We were fortunate that we attracted a lot of press attention in the early days, but we are not reaching our target market; young people who need houses. In terms of success, every house we build is a success in itself and the more we build, the more successful we are but we want to do more.

What are your plans for the future? 

We want to scale. We want the model to be replicated, whether we replicate it ourselves or not isn’t hugely important but we do need to be involved. We need to get more sites, to get through to others who have land, like religious orders, other landowners and state bodies. We will go anywhere to spread the model; we’re like evangelists for housing.

Main image at top: Senator Frances Black, Hugh Brennan and contractor Conor Farrell at the Sod Turning in Cranogue Islands

Interview by Olivia McGill

Published: 23 November, 2020