What we learned at Vosberg

This week @Lee and I visited Vosberg, a cohousing project still in the making. In this post I want to make a note of what I think we learned. It is part of a series of topic threads grouped under the tag #cohousing-knowledge, which include reports from the visit to several other cohousings (Brutopia, De Okelaar, Earthsong, L’Échappée) and from interviews to other projects we have not physically visited (like La Montagne).

Vosberg is a cohousing project in Wezembeek-Oppem, outside of the 19 communes of Brussels but still in its metro area, and in fact accessible via the tram n. 39 from Montgomery. We showed up at their door unannounced, and got the date of their Open Day wrong, but had a stroke of luck: Alain, clearly one of the movers and shakers in the group, was there, and he was generous enough to give us a comprehensive 2 hours tour!

The story of Vosberg is this: a Catholic monastic order, the Passionists, was looking to decommission one of its monasteries. A group of 10 people that had been looking into cohousing (with a different project called Calico, in Forest) set up a foundation and bought the site in 2020. The building is in good conditions, and will not be torn down, but renovated. The group is now in the process of dividing the space into lots, and preparing the sale of each lot to the final owners. The final projects includes 31 units (of which 6 solidaires), about 300 square meters of common spaces above ground, a community café and a crèche. It is huge, beautiful, and charismatic, though quite far from the services of a dense city.

With respect to other cohousings we have seen, this is a more ambitious project.

  • Very large. Vosberg occupies 17,000 square meters in all! It does not have a garden, but a park proper. There are 6,500 square meters built (including external walls, stairs etc.).
  • Community Land Trust model. 10 original members, including Alain, set up and capitalized a foundation, which proceeded to buy the site for 4 million EUR. The terrain is going to be held in perpetuity by the foundation; owners will own the building, but not the land it is on. And this raises a question that I did not think to ask Alain: how do the 10 households recover their 4 million? Foundations are not permitted to spend money to benefit their founders, so Alain will have to buy his apartment, but not the land it is built on, just like the others. But that means that these 10 families have spent 4 million so that 31 families can have a relatively cheap apartment? How does this work?
  • Public interest, hence political contrasts. The commune had hoped that the Passionist Fathers would sell their site to a real estate promoter which, in return for a swift permit to build/renovate, would donate to the commune most of the garden, which would become a public park. The Order decided instead to sell to the cohousing group; at that point, the commune took issue and refused to engage constructively with the group.
  • …hence delays. That not only opened a front with the city council that Brutopia, for example, did not have: it also slowed things down quite a lot. Two years after the purchase, the group still needs two permits from the commune: first, the decision to change the zoning of the building from habitat communaitaire (like a monastery) to habitat groupé. And second, the permis de bâtir. In the best case scenario, it will take another three years for the project to be finished (so five after buying the site).
  • Complex legacy. Decommissioning the monastery was not easy. Four very old monks still lived there (the order moved them to Courtrai); there was a large library to dispose of (the books were donated to all kinds of associations); a print shop (machines donated to a museum); an organ (donated to the conservatory in Gent). They even had to decommission a small cemetery, where they used to bury the monks that died in the monastery.
  • Active role of the foundation. The foundation plans to do all kinds of activities – probably not managing them directly, but building and owning the infrastructure to do them in, and then renting that infrastructure out to third parties, for example building one or more ASBLs. Three activities that were mentioned to us: the six logements solidaires, a crèche and a citizen café; Alain also showed us the former library, that is architecturally difficult to renovate and for now will not be touched, but some stuff will be done there too.
  • Role of Coarchi. The group leaned on Coarchi for the coaching, the sociocracy-style facilitation etc. This was a good experience especially at the beginning, now there is starting to be some conflict of interest: will the Coarchi facilitators resist the temptation to nudge the group towards decisions that benefit Coarchi? On the upside, the group is now very skilled and can hold its ground.
  • Temporary occupation. To mitigate the risk of squatting, the foundation offered the space to a bunch of young people who are not supposed to live there, but do.

Some things we learned:

  • 300 square meters of common spaces are actually a lot of space. We might have been a bit too enthusiastic in our charte fondatrice!
  • Alain: “the best spaces, you leave them to be common spaces”.
  • Alain: “You are going to make mistakes, no point getting to hang up about it, best to look forward to finding solutions rather than back to distribute blame.”

Personally, I am not eager to get involved in something like this. I found this project too complex, and would feel more at ease in a lower-profile one.

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