Building partnerships: Community Land Trust Bruxelles and its future cooperative

In representation of Edgeryders, I attended the first event of a series that Community Land Trust Bruxelles (CLTB) is hosting a launchpad to the new organizational vehicle that they intend to launch. This post documents the event itself, as well as its implications for The Reef as I see them.

CLTB now consists of an association (ASBL) and a foundation of public utility.

  • The foundation buys and holds on to land, which is subtracted to market logic forever (in principle), since it can not be resold. Land acquisition if funded by grants.
  • The association manages the land, in a broad sense. This includes launching new projects for new buildings, finding the buyers, contracting the architect and construction companies, and managing the buildings after construction.

This model:

  • is social. What is being built is social housing, and only that. Failing this, CLTB could not obtain the grants they have been using.
  • is acquisitive (acquisitif). A CLTB always buys land.

Recently, CLTB started thinking about how to use the Community Land Trust Model in other ways: for example, to propose non-social housing, or to launch spaces for purposes other than housing. To do this, they decided they need a third legal entity, a cooperative. They have then launched a participatory process to design one, inviting several entities (including Edgeryders) to participate. “Designing” a cooperative in this context means defining:

  1. Vision.
  2. Business model.
  3. Governance.
  4. UVP.

The idea is to go through a process that will define these four items, and lead to a legal launch of the cooperative in March 2020.

About 25-30 people showed up for the meeting, which took five hours. They divided the stakeholders in four groups, and asked them to state what they would need to adhere to the new cooperative. The groups were:

  1. CLTB
  2. Utilisateurs
  3. Investisseurs
  4. Contribueurs (Edgeryders were assigned to this group).

There is still some confusion as to the different roles in the cooperative. First of all, who are the cooperators? Is this to be a cooperative of people who use spaces, for housing or other uses (cooperative of utilisateurs)? Or is it to be a cooperative of projects of alternative land use (cooperative of contribueurs)? Or both? Are cooperators going to be individuals, organizations, or both? If the answers to these questions are “both”, how will the cooperative ensure alignment of incentives across so diverse a membership?

The category of contribueurs was by far the messiest. In fact, Geert De Pauw, CLTB’s coordinator, told me he thought we were “utilisateurs and contribueurs at the same time”. This became clear in the breakout with the other contribueurs. This group included people like us, with very specific projects (examples: housing for both people with disabilities and able-bodied folks; housing for vulnerable women, etc.), but also Perspective Bruxelles (Yves Van De Casteele). Some people in the group focused on values (“for my organization it is very important that the cooperative is committed to gender diversity”), whereas I took the approach that values were to be encoded in cooperators rather than in the cooperative. The latter would simply be a tool to provide a shared service to the former, just like vineyard farmers join forces to build and run a cooperative facility to squeeze and ferment everybody’s grapes into wine. The choice of what kind of wine to produce, and how much, is still with the farmers, who do not need to agree in order to cooperate.

The structural problem we were facing is this. CLTB wants a cooperative to do all kinds of stuff that their current model prevents them to do. But this very openness makes it more difficult to identify a “core service” that all these very different projects would need.

I signed Edgeryders up to help work on the cooperative’s vision and UVP. @noemi, do you think I should send Geert these notes as a form of restitution and feedback?

Sounds good, I don’t know how much time he will have, but I think it signals trust.
Perhaps send them as attachment to email than a link to this post - after all, people can get funny about info posted on public fora.

I think it’s worth getting involved in this kind of networking and also because we ourselves are looking into a cooperative: if our new organisation stewarding The Reef is itself a member in a larger, but very local coop I think could be great. In shaping the CLBT structure we can understand better how it could work for us!

Thanks for going !

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Update: Frédéric has shared a Google Folder with all the documents regarding the process, including the notes from this workshops.

https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1qAiH96_cmK7_Hrm92JJ35E1T5mOtzko4

Further update: today I participated in a further workshop to co-design the future cooperative, that now has a (beautiful) name: Common Ground. The constitution date is scheduled for March 21st 2020.

I learned that this was not the second, but the fourth such workshop. After the kickoff, reported above, and before this one, there were two more: one on the vision, the other on the business model. Materials and notes are in the Common Ground Drive. I have no idea why we have been invited to this one, but not to the others, maybe a slip? I will ask.

Today’s workshop was about the governance of Common Ground, the future cooperative. The working language was French, just like in the kickoff meeting. More detailed report below.

We kicked off with a check-in, and a post-its exercise on governance instances (eg. board, auditors) and mechanisms (eg. selection/control of the board, emission of new shares). The room seems to favor very structured, regulation-heavy governance (in fairness it’s a brainstorming session, so a lot of proposed structures might be dropped).

The distinction between operations and governance is not too clear. The blur is in part due to the long duration of real estate projects: when you buy land, the inhabited building is still 3-4 years in the future. So, they can not always solve by backward induction, from the desired outcome to the present decision; the actors to define the desired outcome are still missing. So, a cooperative like Common Ground may have a comité des investissements, which buys land as an “abstract” resource. Each plot will become a part of a project only later. Apparently, CLTB works a bit like ER: the board spawns committees, each dedicated to a project, that include members of the board but also non-members. They are considered “emanations of the board” (Sandrine).

There seems to be some attention for the issue of projects vs. governance. Can people invest in a single project, as opposed to in the cooperative (Marc)? What about people who live in a project, should there not be a project-level governance? Some interventions (like Marc’s) seem to suggest an ER’s style project sovereignty.

AFAIC, I find it difficult to think about governance without having defined first what the core business of the coop is. Cooperatives normally provide a shared service between cooperators. Which service will Common Ground provide? Today it seems like a cooperative of consumers; people get together and give rise to a coop that will build, manage and sell or rent them their homes.

The foundation assembly happens on March 21st. On the governance front, several things need to happen. The AoA, for example, and the ROI (reglement d’ordre interieur).

Interesting discussion on the participation of public authorities (autorités publiques) in CG. Based on the experience of Terre à vous, not a great fit, because of the political cycle, that introduces potential instability (Jérome). An additional problem is that representatives of public authorities in a board can not be allowed to stall decisions by saying “I need to talk to my minister/mayor/whatever”. So, if public authorities are included in the governance of CG, the AoA should specify that they are not supposed to do that. For example, participation to a board could be nominative [hmmm]. Also, board members are not supposed to have conflicting loyalties: the board of CG works for the advancement of CG, not for the interest of the commune, or the ministry.

JĂ©rome: NGOs make good guarantors, because they normally have long term visions.

Beverly (?): suggests to adopt rules about remuneration before the constitution.

JĂ©rome: there is a way to avoid speculation. Speculation works like this: you make a real estate cooperative. You buy land/buildings, the value of which goes up. 20 years later, you lead a putsch on the cooperative, take it down, sell the assets and pocket the liquidation value. The mechanism is a cooperative form that works like an ASBL: upon cessation, the proceedings from liquidating the assets go to another ASBL with the same goals.

Beverly: is the cooperative’s mission to enable projects for collective living? Geert: yes (or at least it is one of its missions), while guaranteeing certain principles (non-speculation, for example). Wooncoop is already doing this: we can imagine that Common Ground buys land, and Wooncoop develops a project on that land.

Further update: I exchanged some emails with senior management at Community Land Trust Bruxelles (names intentionally not disclosed for privacy and data protection reasons). I asked them what they expect of Edgeryders:

Comme je ne voulais pas te déranger pendant ton debriefing à la fin de l’atelier, je te pose un question par mail: qu’est-ce que vous vous attendez de Edgeryders, une foi le processus terminé et Common Ground lancée? Bien sûr, nous sommes heureux et honorés d’être invités, et vous auriez tout notre soutien, mais nous n’arrivons pas à comprendre le rôle que vous imaginez pour nous. The Reef en tant que projet de Common Ground? Ou en tant que cooperateur (nous venons justement de lancer une ASBL belge pour gerer le projet, dont Edgeryders est un des membres fondeurs)? Ou quoi?

The answer was what I hoped for:

Pour répondre à la question que tu as posé à Frederic : si j’ai bien compris votre démarche, je pense que Common Ground pourrait vous aider à réaliser The Reef, en apportant une formule qui sort le projet du marché spéculatif, en apportant de l’expertise en développement de projet immobilier, et en partie dans le financement du projet. De notre coté, je pense qu’on peut apprendre de votre approche, de votre expertise et de votre réseau. Je crois que ça vaudrait la peine qu’on se voie un moment pour y réfléchir plus concrètement, avec Frederic et moi, quelque part l’année prochaine.