Cork Student Housing Co-op Recap on Young Co-operators Conference in Belfast

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Cork Student Housing Co-op Recap on Young Co-operators Conference in Belfast

05 Dec 2023
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Written by Jennifer Clifford & Isabel Power

My fellow committee member Cormac and I were fortunate enough to receive funding to attend the Young Cooperators Conference organised by Co-operative Alternatives in Belfast. We are members of the Cork Student Housing Co-operative, a group of third-level students and alumni trying to establish low-cost co-operative student housing in the city of Cork, Ireland. We would like to thank Tiziana O’Hara from Cooperative Alternatives and Kevin Flanagan from SolidNetwork for supporting us to attend this wonderful event. At the conference, we were able to network with many other players in the cooperative field, such as members of the Young Cooperators Network from Liverpool, Belfast Student Housing Co-operative and Student Co-op Homes.

Conference logo

Co-operative alternatives help in the formation of co-operatives

A wealth of speakers presented at the Young Co-operators Conference, including an address from the Co-operative Alternatives chairperson, Tony McQuinlan, and an introduction about the Co-operative Alternatives’ aims, ethos, and values. Co-operative Alternatives looks to support the establishment of co-operative organisations in the North of Ireland. Following traditional co-operative principles, it is built on the concepts of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, solidarity, honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others. These principals guide the organisation’s day-to-day practices in functioning as a co-op, and they are duty-bound to report on how they have been maintaining these values to their members at each of their EGMs. This holds the members of the board accountable for always acting with the good of the co-op in mind. We would love to see the establishment of a similar organisation in the Republic of Ireland as it can be challenging for new co-ops to form in the Republic.

Co-operative Alternatives Logo

Instilling Co-operative Values back into Modern Society

Tiziana was proud to announce that this was the 10th year since the establishment of Co-operative Alternatives, who have since been responsible for helping set up over 200 new co-operative movements in Northern Ireland. Their main aim is to prove the relevancy of the co-operative model in our modern world by applying its principles to other new and emerging sectors, rather than being limited to typical concepts of co-ops such as farming and credit union models. Co-operative Alternatives have proved this concept by helping to create cleaning co-ops, solar energy co-ops, sports college co-ops, community co-ops, and a greengrocer’s co-op among many more. The longevity and vitality of the co-operatives that Co-operative Alternatives have helped to establish speak volumes about the success of instilling co-operative values back into modern society and rebuilding a strong sense of community in the local area.

Community Greengrocer
Carrickfergus Community Greengrocer, Belfast

Co-operative solution to the student housing crisis

Next to present were Jess Craig from Belfast Student Housing Co-operative and Dr Scott Jennings, who sits on the Belfast SHC and is the director of Student Co-op Homes in the UK. They spoke about the problem of student accommodation, which aligns very closely with our goals as committee members of Cork Student Housing Co-operative. Jess spoke in great detail about the difficulties faced by students in procuring accommodation for the college year, where many students are forced between picking overly expensive luxury student accommodation or cheap, unsuitable housing in unsafe areas. Luxury accommodation often features unnecessary facilities, such as gyms or indoor cinemas, which only look to drive up the price of the building and justify the prices being charged. On the other hand, Jess spoke about the designated ‘student accommodation’ area in an area of Belfast called the Holy Lands, which comprises low-quality housing often riddled with mould and structural problems, featuring a monopoly of extortionate landlords overcharging for unsuitable accommodation. Belfast Student Housing Co-operative’s aim, much like ours, is to establish a physical housing co-operative to help provide more affordable, high-quality housing and stronger tenant rights. This is imperative to help provide students the dignity and respect that they deserve in a home, at a much lower financial and moral price.

Co-operative team

Influx of luxury student accommodation: deepening the crisis

Scott from Student Co-op Homes also spoke extensively about the student accommodation crisis that is running rampant across the island of Ireland and the United Kingdom. He commented that many universities don’t actually own their own accommodation blocks. In the case of University College Cork, the college-owned accommodation quickly reaches full capacity without providing a living space for its 22,000+ registered students. As a result, room allocation is on a lottery basis. This does not even account for UCC’s large number of international students who require accommodation. Due to this lack of housing availability, it has led to many privately-owned luxury accommodations popping up across the UK and Ireland. As Jess stated, these luxury accommodations take advantage of students who simply require a bed and a roof over their heads while they pursue their academic career.

Students’ mental health & education suffering due to accommodation stress

Students who cannot find accommodation are forced to either scrape by on couch-surfing, stay with relatives, or accept low quality housing, which all affect their dignity as human beings. In return, this affects their mental health as well as their access to education. For example, it was widely reported that French Erasmus students in UCC in particular were forced to return home from Ireland due to an inability to locate accommodation in pre-COVID times. This is an issue that is still being widely reported today with respect to Erasmus students, such as the article titled “Housing situation for Erasmus students coming to Ireland ‘has never been so dire,’” ironically categorised under “Céad Míle Fáilte,” the Irish for “a hundred thousand welcomes.” Irish students are similarly struggling. At our CSHC stand at UCC SU’s Union Week in October 2023, we were approached by many students telling us that they had no accommodation a month into college and were asked if we could help provide them accommodation.

Students can aid in the regeneration of struggling areas

Scott comments that students are often looked down upon and not taken seriously. They are regarded as vermin by local residents, who often don’t realise the vitality and economic benefit that students bring to under-utilised areas. Scott further clarified that SCH looks to help address the problem of the student accommodation crisis by actively helping to set up housing co-ops in the UK and Northern Ireland. They are also looking to expand into officially adopting the CSHC as they are already informally providing us with valuable funding, support, and networking opportunities, including an All-Ireland communication line between Cork and Belfast Student Housing co-ops.

Speakers pictured at Cooperators Conference
Jess & Scott speaking at the Young Cooperators Conference

Open-source & tech co-operatives

Next to speak was Dessie from Rabble Co-op. Rabble functions as part of a tech co-op, building open-source software and giving advice to charities, NGOs, and other organisations on how to stay safe and ethical with user data. Rabble also instructs these organisations in how to use and create open-source software, which anyone and everyone can use for the benefit of the community.

Dessie stressed that technology is one of the worst fields in terms of being community led. The technology sector is monopolised by tech giants, who often directly contradict co-operative principles. Such examples are abuse of privacy (data selling), political manipulation, oppression of free speech (for example, Zoom shutting down protests on the political unrest in Ukraine). We are unfortunately most likely seeing more similar examples with the current Gaza conflict. Dessie also commented that large technology corporations are naturally against their employees unionising, with large tech companies being notorious for laying off loyal workers without evenly distributing profits.

Using Technology to find Local Housing Solutions

In terms of the cooperative housing movement, Rabble coop developed an incredible online software called ‘Take Back the City Coalition: Build a Better Belfast’, which is an interactive drone map used to show opportunities for housing/unoccupied land to help solve the housing crisis. The software also has the in-built functionality to email and lobby practitioners and councillors to develop plans with this land, which could be used to help solve the accommodation crisis. This website was built completely with open-source technologies and purposefully does not store or sell user data.

 Jennifer, Dr Bridget Carroll, and Cormac
Pictured l-r: Jennifer, Dr. Bridget Carroll, and Cormac

Centre for Co-operative Studies in University College Cork

The final speaker was Dr Bridget Caroll from UCC Centre for Co-operative Studies. Bridget has taught some of our CSHC board members during their own studies in UCC, and has supported us on our journey to establish a Cork-based housing co-op.

Bridget teaches on the Masters in Co-operatives, Agri-food, and Sustainable Development, among others, and additionally teaches a module on co-operatives in the UCC Bachelor of Commerce. She noted that many international students enrol in the Agrifoods Masters specifically, as they consider how to develop more sustainable solutions to replace our outdated and wasteful standard industry practices, which are proven to be unsustainable and are actively harming our planet. Bridget mentioned that this concept sought out by Agrifoods Masters students naturally segues into an interest in the co-operative model, where she stated that the Republic of Ireland has a 150+ year culture of established agri-coops.

Working to increase co-operative education in schools

Bridget is incredibly passionate about the cooperative movement – and sits on the Board of The Society for Co-operative Studies of Ireland which consists of members from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Society has recently published education material around co-operatives for primary and secondary schools. They are working to consider how to naturally insert co-operative education into the mainstream education curriculum, to help spread awareness and understanding of the co-operative model.

Group Brainstorming Sessions

The conference ended with a final brainstorming session on myriad topics to discuss in break-out groups, with my group specifically considering the theme of accessible housing, and what could benefit or impact the general conception of housing. We similarly considered the theme of access to resources, and how the thinking around this theme could be impacted. This brainstorming can be seen in the image below.

Brainstorming Session
Group Brainstorming Session

Cooperating across the border & new opportunities

Attending this conference was an incredibly interesting and informative experience, and it was a pleasure to connect with so many like-minded individuals and experienced professionals involved in the co-operative movement. We have formed new relationships with like-minded co-ops and strengthened our relationship with our friends in the Belfast Student Housing Co-op. It was exciting to hear about the growing co-operative industry in Northern Ireland and we hope to learn from their experiences to aid in the growth of the co-operative sector in the Republic in new industries such as housing, energy, community, retail, food, and more.

We in the CSHC are excited to share our learnings with our members and to further develop our relationship with our co-op friends up north. We hope to see more of these events in the future, particularly aimed at young people. Indeed, we have plans to host a co-operative event in Cork next year, so stay tuned! We are excited to be a part of this growing co-operative movement and we hope to maintain and develop cross-border co-operative collaboration for many years to come.

Learn More:

Read an opinion piece by Cork Student Housing Co-operative on The Student Accommodation Crisis in Ireland & the Potential of Community-Led Student Housing.

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