Students in action: Housing Commons and Dragons’ Parley
Housing Commons and Dragons Parley took place at Comenius on Friday 31st March 2023 and was the result of action research conducted in March 2023 by master students attending the intensive course ‘Institutional Aspects of Spatial Planning’ (IASP) in the context of the programmes Master of Human Settlements and Master of Urbanism, Landscape and Planning of KU Leuven. The students partnered with the Community Land Trust of Leuven (CLTL) and researchers of DOMINIA project to study the role of the state in the governance of commons. More specifically, 20 international students conducted research (interviews, document analysis and fieldwork) to examine the role of the City of Leuven in the development of housing commons. The Parley aimed to communicate the research results and contribute to the endeavour of the City by raising awareness and setting up an open debate to discuss how the CLTL commoning process should proceed and be adjusted to Leuveners’ needs. Twenty-five participants representing different stakeholder groups (representatives from the board of CLTL, architects, researchers from different fields, policymakers, housing developers, journalists, social activists, and prospective CLT residents) joined the open debate and the role-play game “Housing Commons and Dragons”. They discussed and reflected on the type of the community that the CLT Leuven can host, as well as possible ways of finding future residents and keep them involved in the process of building housing commons in Leuven.
CLT as a Commons:
The parley was kicked off by Xenia Katsigianni, an architect, DOMINIA researcher and professor of the IASP course, who introduced the group and the context of the research. The IASP group then provided a brief presentation to justify the need for affordable housing in Leuven and show why a CLT, as a form of community-led housing, constitutes a promising solution in this direction. The students explained that within a CLT, a non-profit corporation holds land on behalf of a place-based community, while serving as the long-term steward for affordable housing. Hence, CLTs take the land off the market challenging the dominant housing systems and fighting against housing and land commodification. Moreover, community needs are constantly and continuously co-defined among the community of residents and local civil society organizations in a democratic way that strengthens social bonds. The students presented the cases of CLT Brussels as a pioneering example and CLT Ghent underlining the differences regarding the role of the municipalities within these commons practices. This questioned the role of the State ranging from a leading party to a supporting one that gives the commoning back to the community.
Welcome note by Xenia Katsigianni (left) and presentation of the IASP23 research by Rihab Oubaidah (right).
During the presentation, Xenia stated that “there are advantages with city-led housing commons, since the city facilitates the access to land, negotiates with the private market -which is very important since sometimes housing commons are not sustainable and not resilient in time-, and can provide expertise to tackle legal and financial obstacles.However, the constraint is that the city is building community-led projects, but the community is not there! So is CLT Leuven still a commons?” .To answer that question, we referred to Serge Gutwirth and Isabelle Stengers (in their article ‘Theorie du droit: Le droit à l’épreuve de la résurgence des commons’ in the journal Revue juridique de l’environnement, 2016), who defined the commons as a group of people that self-organize around a resource, which concerns them and gives them collective responsibility; therefore they collectively set their rules of operation and conflict resolution to pursue activities that have a generative nature. In the example of CLT Leuven, the board members (City, policy makers and the CSOs) are currently the community that initiated the commoning process around a shared resource which is the land. They negotiate the rules (land purchase and ownership, funding mechanisms, housing developers’ price, apartments allocation criteria) and they provide participation moments for Leuven-ers to raise their voice. However, the community of residents that is needed to take over the commoning process is still missing. The Parley aimed to contribute to the search for the CLT community.
The presentation ended with 2 questions: What type of a community do Leuven-ers and CLT-ers want and need? And how can we find this Community to take over the commoning process initiated by the City of Leuven, CLT board members and partners?
The debate started with reflections on the CLT community and citizens’ participation, while questions were raised of how to include more people in the CLT model, and where to look for agents of change that can contribute to the evolution of the CLT Leuven and the proliferation of housing commons. Hanne Verstreken, the coordinator of CLT Leuven, referred to the absence of the engagement of the community in this model, while she questioned the importance of finding some ways to entice residents of Leuven for matters related to housing. And to answer the question of where to find a community to take over the CLTL, She said: “The residents of Leuven who are struggling to accommodate their housing needs have to step in so that the CLT can become more community lead, they have to find the energy to come together and collectively realize their own right to housing, I can give them a gathering space, and I can meet with them and support them. But I cannot take over their voice, I need them to speak up and take part.”
Start of the debate by Hanne Verstreken (left), and Wouter Nilis (right)
Wouter Nilis, architect and the president of CLT Leuven council board stated that: ‘’Half of the permanent residents of Leuven are single and are living in single-family households. I think it is interesting to find a way to reach them because they can also have more advantages of living in a community instead of living in small apartments and studios.’. But in this context, the question of including the different parts of the community excludes the marginalized category in Leuven, to which a researcher and social activist, raised the question about the refugees, immigrants, and their children, and commented “these people (refugees) are the people who face closed doors every time they make the choice to find a housing for somebody’’. This makes it important to listen to their concerns and reach out to the organizations in order to hear the ‘missing voices’.
Piet Van Meerbeek, representative of Avansa (left) and Jules Descampe, IASP student (right)
The debate also touched upon the question of complementarity between social housing and CLT Leuven, since this alternative model has several advantages in the long run, especially if there are collaborations between housing developers and the City, to provide more affordable housing in redevelopment projects. A private housing developer stated that “from the point of view of the project developer, it's interesting to work together, but only if there is profit. They are not a subsidized organization, they have to pay wages and have to compensate for the risks they take. They want to provide affordable housing, but the project needs to have a certain balance.” This brings up again the role of the City in the efforts and negotiations to keep land as Commons ensuring low prices and affordable housing in the long run. The debate ended with an open question, about the future of the management of CLT Leuven by its residents and how a community manages itself in the face of the societal, cultural, and economical differences between the residents, which laid the ground for the second part of the event, which was the role-play game.
Housing Commons and Dragons game
The game was designed by the IASP students, who were inspired by the ‘Commons & Dragons’ game developed in the framework of the Generative Commons Living Lab by Verena Lenna for the Community Land Trust Brussels. The ‘Housing Commons and Dragons’ game aimed to simulate a meeting of the community of residents residing CLT Leuven, in order to gain an understanding of the desires and opinions of the different members and the skills they mobilise within a commoning process. Eight pairs of participants impersonated 8 different roles, i.e. characters/families living in the CLT, whose profiles had been designed by the students in advance in terms of their social status, skills and professions and special needs. According to the game script, in the first round the players had to express their needs for activities and spaces that could be developed in common by the community of CLT residents in common areas. In the second round, they had to decide and select which of the activities could be materialized corresponding to the needs of the broader community of the CLTL and then, explain which skills, resources and time each player could invest to that end. Finally, negotiations should be finalized, and conflictual interests should be resolved in order to prepare a feasible plan of ‘who will do what and when’ to schedule the collective work and realise the common project. The game helped displaying how different people interact to solve problems, negotiate their needs, and collaborate to collectively cover everyday needs. Moreover, it aimed to reveal personalities and characteristics that do not fit into the logic of housing commons and could threaten the cohesion of the CLT community.
Housing Commons and Dragons Parley Game
“Commons is not an ideal community. There are dragons sometimes more obvious like economic systems, rhythms of urban life, markets putting pressures on us. But there are also internal dragons, within the community. And we see that in order to fight the ‘dragons’ we need to collaborate, to invest time, resources (not only money-wise, but also with skills and time that we have). Commons can be exclusive but for people that are not willing to spend time within and for the community.” - Xenia Katsigianni
The IASP 2023 course was an insightful example of a commoning process. Students worked together intensively to study housing commons and design an intervention in the City of Leuven. The IASP team had to interact and collaborate with stakeholders, take fast decisions (who to interview, which intervention is needed, how to realise it with the limited budget, time and resources available, who will undertake which responsibility), often re-schedule and adjust to new findings and demands. The Housing Commons and Dragon Parley was a successful event that brought together different actors who discussed and reflected on the CLTL community challenges.
“What commons does, is that it becomes an intermediate between the household and the outside world. It is also a way to keep the community together.’’ - Aws Samara, IASP student.
The video of the event will be uploaded soon, so stay tuned!