Co-housing arrangements win popularity in Flanders


Alternative group housing co-operatives are gaining ground across the region as policymakers and community activists champion their ecological and financial benefits

A new model for living

On a grey Saturday afternoon in early March, a few dozen people gathered in the council chamber of Hasselt’s city hall for a presentation about co-housing. Most of the attendees were older couples in their 40s and 50s, but there were a smattering of younger people as well. It was the first informational meeting hosted by the non-profit Meer dan wonen alleen (More Than Living Alone).

After years of trying to get their co-housing community off the ground, the group members seemed a bit nonplussed to find themselves hosting their first public gathering in the city’s stately council chambers.

The backing of the city of Hasselt for their project was no surprise. In recent years, the government of Flanders has become increasingly aware of the need for new housing solutions that are both affordable and environmentally sustainable. The area is already one of the most densely populated in Europe, and the need for more housing will only increase in the future.

Lawmakers appear to be realising that co-housing – separate family homes that share a garden, kitchen other communal spaces – might offer some much-needed relief. In 2009, the Flemish Parliament adopted a resolution to encourage, stimulate and provide support for group housing projects. In 2010, the Vilvoorde non-profit Samenhuizen received funding for a preliminary study on group housing titled Samenhuizen in België (Co-Housing in Belgium). Still today, Samenhuizen vzw continues to provide co-ordination and advice to groups and individuals interested in alternative housing arrangements.

Last year, the Vlaamse Bouwmeester, or the chief architect, for the Flemish government, together with housing minister Freya Van den Bossche, launched a plan to choose five group housing pilot projects from across the region. 

Fourfold benefits

Co-housing was born in Denmark in the late 1960s. The initial impulse was a desire for greater community and social support, including shared childcare, among neighbours. What sets modern co-housing apart from other types of shared housing is the mix of private and communal property, the balance between individual privacy and community involvement, and group decision-making by consensus.

I want to raise my daughters in a place where sharing is the rule, rather than the exception

- Elke Hoekx

For Elke Hoekx, one of the founding members of Meer dan wonen alleen, the communal aspect of a co-housing arrangement was a big draw. “I think our society has become a little too ‘anti-social’,” she says. “How many people really know their neighbours these days? I would be so much more comfortable letting my daughters play outside without constantly having to watch them because I would really know who my neighbours are, and I also want to raise them in a place where sharing is the rule, rather than the exception.”

In a typical co-housing community, which can range from seven or eight households up to 30 or more, each family owns their own unit as well as an equal share in the common areas. These include a common house with a communal dining area and kitchen, since one of the defining characteristics of such a community is regular social contact between members, often during meals. Most groups aim for a mix of ages and family types, from couples with young children to seniors to singles.

The benefits of living in such a community, as described by Bart Verheyden of Meer dan wonen alleen, are fourfold: practical, social, societal and ecological.

On the practical side, members share resources both tangible (such as gardening tools) and intangible (such as expertise). Living in what has also been called an “intentional community” gives people more social contact, greater companionship and assistance in times of need. The society at large benefits from the care of children and seniors, as well as from the social values such a community models for others.

The ecological benefits of such housing arrangements are also becoming increasingly important to their proponents. Since residents can make use of shared facilities, co-housing communities are designed with smaller private houses and a greater amount of green space that is shared by all. Many have a separate parking area for their residents on the outer edge of the community, keeping the main areas green and car-free. Smaller houses and shared resources mean lower energy consumption and costs for everyone.

Although co-housing is still a relatively new concept in Belgium, it’s gaining in popularity around the rest of the world. Denmark remains the leader, with co-housing now an accepted part of the national housing landscape. It’s also a successful model in the United States, with more than 100 co-housing projects already realised and more groups forming every day. In the Netherlands, a type of group housing called centraal wonen (central living) has enjoyed great success.

Here in Belgium, co-housing falls under the rubric samenhuizen, which includes other types of alternative and group housing arrangements, including shared houses and senior villages. At this point, only a few co-housing communities are operating in the country, including one near Ghent. 

Administrative hurdles

One of the main barriers to alternative housing models is the current legal and administrative framework for home ownership in Belgium, which is geared toward single-family homes. For this reason, awareness and co-operation on the part of local governments is crucial to the success of group housing. Samenhuizen has initiated the Samenhuizen Charter, which states that signatory cities and communities will support local group housing initiatives.

We first find an existing piece of land; then we start looking for interested people

- Luc Verhaegen

Ghent was the first signatory in 2012, followed by a slew of West Flemish municipalities a year later, including Bruges, Kortrijk and Oostende, and eventually the province itself. Earlier this year, Hasselt became the first participating city in Limburg. Hasselt has also initiated a subsidy for experimental living arrangements, including group housing.

Margot Moormann and her husband André Froyen were present at the Co-housing Limburg information session. They had tried for five years to start a co-housing community in Hasselt themselves but were unsuccessful, citing a lack of understanding and co-operation on the part of local officials. It is not unusual for a co-housing project to take 10 years or more from the formation of a group to the realisation of an actual community.

One of the most time-consuming phases of creating a co-housing community is finding an appropriate site and designing the buildings to go on it – all through consensus. Another group in Limburg is taking a different approach to this process – one that came about because of a peculiarly Flemish problem.

Robert Piccart and his sister Jeanine inherited their family’s 19th-century farm in Alken, with its characteristic clay-tiled roof and half-timbered construction. Piccart still grows apples in the orchards on his land and lives in the old farmhouse. There are gaps in the roof tiles, the plaster on the outer walls is falling off, and the wood around the windows is rotting. The decayed buildings are in desperate need of renovation.

Like many old farms in Flanders, Piccart’s is classified as protected heritage, making it both difficult and expensive to renovate. The original wooden framework and the timbre-and-brick construction must be preserved. The original buildings cannot be torn down or their outer walls altered. For seven years, Piccart tried to find a developer who could help them, but the challenge presented by the farm’s protected status proved too great an obstacle.

Then he met Luc Verhaegen, who had long been interested in co-housing and had at one point been a member of the group that later formed Meer dan wonen alleen. Verhaegen suggested that the farm could be transformed into a co-housing community that would include separate houses for the Piccarts, as well as additional housing units. The contributions of the group would cover the cost of the renovation as well as the construction of new houses and a common house.

Converting protected buildings

Verhaegen formed the partnership Cohousing Limburg with three colleagues who shared his vision. “We coach people to become a dynamic group and support them and the project with financial, legal and architectural advice,” he says. “Our starting point is to find an existing piece of land or a building suitable for this way of living; then we start looking for interested people.”

Together with Hasselt architectural firm De Wyngaert, which won the Flemish Monument Prize in 2012 for their restoration of the Sint-Rochus Church in Ulbeek, Co-housing Limburg came up with a plan for the Piccart farm. It calls for the restoration of the protected buildings and their conversion into three private houses and a common house, plus the construction of eight new houses on the property. A protected wood-burning oven on the farm will also be restored and become common property. The plan has been approved by the city of Alken and the Flemish heritage authority Herita.

More than 40 people came to the first informational meeting in Hasselt, of whom a dozen expressed serious interest in joining the project in Alken. Other attendees were interested in doing a similar conversion on their own farm. It’s an attractive solution for owners looking for a financially viable, ecologically responsible and socially conscious use of protected buildings. Dilapidated and abandoned farms like the Piccart’s dot the Flemish landscape, presenting a unique opportunity for people interested in group housing.

Co-housing is a concept whose time has come, according to the Flemings who are increasingly choosing this type of living arrangement – and according to policymakers and community activists who see it as a solution to a range of problems facing modern society. And even though all co-housing communities share certain features, they are as varied as the people who create and live in them. It remains to be seen how the future of co-housing in Flanders will evolve to reflect the region’s people and landscape.

Co-housing initiatives in Flanders and Brussels

Every year, Samenhuizen organises an Open Day, where co-housing communities in Belgium and the Netherlands welcome visitors. The next Open Day is on 17 May.

Co-housing Limburg is still looking for interested families for the farm conversion in Alken. The next informational meeting is on 28 March at 20:00 in the Cultural Centre of Hasselt. Reservations requested via the website.

Meer dan wonen alleen is also looking for people interested in forming a co-housing community. Check their Facebook page for information about the next meeting.

Co-housing Vinderhoute in West Flanders is the first such purpose-built community in Flanders.

La Grande Cense, a large converted farm with 22 living units, was the first co-housing community in Belgium, founded in 2010. Located just across the language border in Walloon Brabant, its residents are a mix of Flemish and Walloon.

Photo by Luc Jonckheere for Samenhuizen vzw