York is the most unaffordable place to buy a home in Yorkshire. MATT CLARK meets a group that wants an alternative to market forces.

THIS city has a housing crisis, everyone knows that. However, there is far from unanimous agreement on how best to tackle it. Builders say incorporating affordable housing in new developments costs them money, politicians believe it's essential to have them.

But new-build isn't the only answer, because there some 300,000 properties in England that have lain empty for more than six months. One of them is Oliver House in Bishophill and James Newton, of pressure group YorSpace, says it should be sold to local residents who would become shareholders of a low-cost, community-owned social housing project.

The YorSpace idea is to buy and refurbish the existing building, creating a dozen homes, with communal areas and an allotment.

James says it will cost £1.8million to complete. His group has already secured a mortgage, assuming a deposit of £450 000 is raised, of which almost a third has already been pledged by members or investors in YorSpace ethical savings bonds. Interest on both the bonds and mortgage would be financed by rents on the properties.

An architect, James has drawn up detailed plans showing precisely how everything would look and many locals are in favour. But a retirement home company also has designs on the building, offering more than £3 million to demolish and replace Oliver House with 30 new apartments.

That has given the council something of a headache. In these days of cutbacks and austerity, selling to the highest bidder makes perfect sense, but James says there is a social value to the YorSpace offer that you can't put a price on.

"We are offering them a fair price, but we can’t compete with developers," he says. "I've seen the reports and that building is structurally sound. If we start tearing things down 50 years after they have been built it makes no sense whatsoever."

February 13 was the deadline for the bid submission and James feared all was lost when the date passed without a decision. Then came an unexpected reprise. Former leader Cllr Daffyd Williams announced that the decision would be deferred until after the General Election, saying it would benefit from the wider scrutiny of cabinet.

YorSpace's Susannah Bird says that gave a new green light for the group's work.

"We're looking for a culture change," she says. "We can't continue business as usual, this is about the city we want for the future, not about stopping a short term gap in the finances. Putting community first and valuing it over profit.

"If you let the market go in a direction that has potential to do damage, it seems prudent to try and produce a better balance."

YorSpace was formed in 2012 and James says much of its inspiration comes from LILAC – Low Impact Living Affordable Community – in Leeds. He posted his views on the UK Cohousing network and that is how he and Susannah met.

"We started talking about how we want to live, our vision for being sustainable in the city and being connected to people," says James. "The ideas developed and last year, when Oliver House became available, we thought it really could happen."

He says the project is about affordability in perpetuity. Keeping the property away from the open market to keep ordinary people buffered from intense market pressures.

"Essentially it's a big mortgage that we'll all share together," says James.

And, he reckons, much needed in the most unaffordable place to buy a home in Yorkshire.

James accepts the pressures the council is under and says being offered so much more money by other developers it must be very hard to say no.

But perhaps there are times when price shouldn't just be measured in financial terms.

The plan would be to form a not for profit cooperative company, with residents making monthly payments to become a member. Shares are then accrued in proportion to the size of unit, which will equate to equity.

"This is not renting, it's not owning, but it's giving you financial security," says Susannah. "As a young professional, by this point in my life I should be able to cover the rent on my own, but I can't, so James and I share a house.

"Lots of people are stuck in the same situation. If we make housing that is affordable and inspired by the LILAC model we could bridge the gap."

It's not just about housing though, this is a way of life. Some of the garages will be pulled down and replaced by allotments the whole community can enjoy, not just members of the cooperative. The other garages will be turned into bike and equipment stores.

YorSpace also wants to refurbish Oliver House sustainably. Indeed James says the scheme meets all of City of York Council's ten point plan for sustainable living. Now all he and his fellow campaigners can do is wait until June 25, when the decision on the sale will be announced at the first cabinet meeting of the new administration.

"We're often told we lack credibility," says James. "So to demonstrate that we were very serious about this, we wrote a 36 page bid document, fully costed and took advice from social housing groups.

"We're willing to be flexible because we want to get this done. If the council won't sell Oliver House to us, don't sell it at all, develop it with us."


  • Pauline Buchanan has been an active community campaigner in Bishophill for many years and was instrumental in bringing the run-down St Clements' church hall back into use in 2010. It now hosts events such as Food and Fun, a programme offering a free hot meal for people who feel isolated.

Pauline is also part of the unique committee at the Golden Ball pub and has a key role in the YorSspace project because she says without some kind of intervention her community will fall 'flat on its face'.

"As house after house comes up for sale, they tend to be bought by investors who put in a series of short term tenants who never really get involved," she says. "That's a pity, because this is a very exciting community with a lot going on," she says.

"Only wealthy people can buy here now. I think it's the council's job to look at all sorts of issues and find different ways of doing things. The standard way has got us where we are now and if an investor comes in it will come down to money.

They will build apartments that local people can't afford. I've put time and energy into this community and I want it to continue thriving."

  • James Cave moved to York from Cambridge after seeing property there become impossible to afford, even for professional people.

"The city is very much becoming an outlying suburb of London as I see it," he says. "Having moved to York I can see the same thing happening, it's just that we are less far down then track.

"As a group we are trying to work together to provide some quality affordable housing, before it's too late."

James believes if urgent action isn't taken to address our housing issues, the city will indeed become like Cambridge. And that will have an impact, on more than just finding somewhere to live.

"Cambridge used to have a thriving, independent business sector like we have here, but it's all going," he says. "YorSpace is not just about one building, it's about a principle."

  • Sanna Ward tells a familiar story. She's been renting a place in Micklegate for three years, now, and has looked into the possibility of buying in York, but says with prices still rising, it remains a distant pipe dream.

"In a few years I might get enough money to put down a deposit on one in Leeds but not here," she says. "I have joined this project because I really can't see any other feasible way of having my own home here."