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Learning About Affordable Housing – The Eldonian Way!

Eldonian_SignWe’re often asked about affordable housing and what are the best case studies for great housing projects around the world? Almost always we cite the example of the Eldonian Village in Liverpool, UK – one of the best showcases of community-led and built housing we’ve ever seen. Having stumbled across it a few years ago when we were researching our housing paper with IMFG, we’ve definitely sent the case study to dozens of organizations and individuals – and yet we had never set foot in Liverpool! On a recent trip to England, our Principal, Howard Tam, finally decided that it was high time to rectify this.

First – a bit of backstory. The Eldonian Village is a Community Based Housing Association located in the Vauxhall area of Liverpool. The Housing Association operates as a co-operative housing model that was established in 1983. It all started when the Liverpool City Council wanted to move the Eldonians from their old tenement homes to new Council homes scattered around Liverpool. Not content with the plan as it would break up the community, local leaders fought to create their own co-op based solution and were relentless in pursuing it. It was truly a moment of resilience. Over the course of several years, they built support around their ideas, obtained funding, land and even co-designed the homes with an architect. They opened their first phase in 1989 and have, since then, literally built up their own community around it by establishing a community centre, local pub, seniors residences, children’s nursery and even a sports hall. In 2004, the Village won a World Habitat Award for their work. Why we like the Eldonians so much is their emphasis on doing things themselves, their relentless focus on community development and desire to keep together though all the odds.

On March 31, 2015, Howard stepped into the world of the Eldonians with a meeting and tour organized by George Evans, the Director of Housing for the Eldonian Community Based Housing Association. Below is his personal account.

TonyMcGannHallUpon entering the community, I cannot help but feel the sense of empowerment and pride that the Eldonians exhibit in their neighbourhood – from the streets named after prominent community members to the main office building named for Tony McGann – a local pub manager and the Eldonians’ tireless leader who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

George spent the better part of the morning going through the Eldonians’ story, where they came from, how everything came together and what the future holds. One point that he kept coming back to was the tireless focus on always making the community better and desire to build sustainable projects. It was definitely something that hit home for me given how unsustainable the affordable housing system can be in Toronto and the secondary thought that is often given to community development.

George reiterated how the Eldonians were not afraid to try and fail (the sports hall being one example – it is slated to be turned into more housing in the next few years) and how they would always try to see what would be the community benefit for any project that they tackle. As an example, he showcased the restaurant in the seniors’ residence – while it is contracted to a business to operate, they insisted on using it as a food service training program for local residents. 

EldonianHousesTheir work in Vauxhall has indeed paid off – over the past several years, what was once a less desirable neighbourhood is now experiencing growth and because the Eldonians are at the heart of it, they are key influencers at the table. George talked about how developers seek out their support for neighbouring projects and how the Eldonians will ask for community benefits like local hiring. The local councillor and MP meets regularly with them so that they can keep each other in the loop on what’s going on in the neighbourhood – “no surprises” George notes with a grin.  

For the future, the Eldonians are continuing to seek partnerships to improve their community and trying to use their influence to advance community development around the city. And their thinking is long term – the Housing Association currently turns a £200,000 annual surplus – money which is put away to save up for future projects.

Howard_Tony_GeorgeAs we tour the neighbourhood, George points out some of the private housing projects they were actually contracted to manage on behalf of others, the stories behind some of the street names and talks of the old canal which they were able to restore and turn into a fabulous green space, now complete with a boat festival. We run into Tony McGann – still running the Eldonian’s pub – and whose humble and easy going demeanour belies the fact that he is a community legend. His pride and love for the community shines through brilliantly.

The Eldonian Village is truly a remarkable project brought together by a great community whose dedication, passion and energy are evident throughout. Having now seen it first hand, it is clear to me that there are definitely many lessons that Toronto can learn from their case study and many ideas and models worthy of pursuing as we grapple with our affordable housing crisis. In our work here at ThinkFresh, we often talk about the values of establishing community wealth and ensuring that the community is at the heart of the process. The Eldonians strongly embody these values and it is truly what has made them so successful.

As the tour ends, I asked George what he thought was the most important lesson he had learned in all his years with the Eldonians. His answer, without hesitation captures the true essence of community development: “People are really smarter than you think; they know what they want.” I could not agree more.

For more information on the Eldonians, you can read their book: The Rebirth of Liverpool: The Eldonian Way by Jack McBane.

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