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In France, a Retirement Co-op Ensures Seniors Are Not Treated as Commodities

After years of discussing how to age well, a group of retired people is building the first French residential co-op for seniors.

After years of discussing how to age well, a group of retired people is building the first French residential co-op for seniors. (Photo: Allan Leonard / Flickr)

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They didn’t want to end up in a traditional retirement home. They wanted to remain the actors in their own lives. Seven years after their first discussions about how to age well, a group of retired people is starting to build the first co-op for the aging. Non-speculation, democracy and environmental concern are the foundations of the “Chamarel-Les Barges” project, located in a neighborhood of Vaulx-en-Velin, east of Lyon, France. The project is so inspiring that the bank has even conferred a 50-year loan to the founders, who are in their 60s.

The rendezvous was set for the 15th floor in a Vaulx-en-Velin apartment building in the suburbs of Lyon. That’s the location for the headquarters of the Chamarel Association (also known as the Residents’ Cooperative Housing Residence of East Lyonnais) created in 2010, prompted by the first French co-op for older people.

Patrick, Janine, Hélène, Luc and Jean finish up their meeting with a retired couple interested in their housing co-op project. The site where construction began in December 2015 is 10 minutes away on foot. The 16 accommodations and associated public spaces should be complete by mid-2017. It will be one of the first housing co-ops for retired people.

Everything began seven years earlier from a discussion between two friends about the problems of those they knew who had not made plans for their older years. “Soon, several of us got together saying that perhaps we needed to talk about it so as not to aggravate our kids,” remembers Patrick, a retired elementary school teacher.

“The Elderly Become Commodities”

Around the table, everyone highlighted the lack of financing for independent living facilities and the long waiting lists for retirement homes. “All that was left were private residences for seniors that are prohibitively expensive for most people,” Luc reported. “Old people become commodities and some people enrich themselves royally that way,” Jean added, anxious to find a solution to eliminate the phenomenon. “All care decisions slip away from the family; one becomes helpless,” Hélène said, “while we want to be the actors in our lives.” Together, they initiated a reflection on how to age well. The group grew little by little around common values, in order to live their old age as well as possible, before jumping into the creation of a common living space.

“We take a little time to arrive at a consensus, but with the conviction that the result will be more solid over time.”

The first challenge was to find the right legal form for their housing project. A meeting with the Fédération Française des Coopératives D’Habitants (French Federation of Residents’ Cooperatives, previously known as Habicoop) convinced them to choose the residents’ cooperative, a third way between private property and renting. The principle is to assemble people who want to manage and improve together the residences they occupy in the same building.

“We presented them with the cornerstone values of residents’ cooperatives, which are collective ownership, real estate non-speculation and democratic governance,” said Valérie Morel from the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Fédération. “Those are the values we defend and now we had the legal form to put them into practice,” the cooperants said.

An illustration of non-speculation: “When you type EHPAD (establishment for the lodging of elderly dependent persons) on the internet, you are invited to invest and promised profitability and tax deductions,” notes Patrick, who seems upset by this kind of arrangement. “In our project, the value of the social shares is independent of real estate value.” The cooperants are the collective owners of the building: Each holds social shares. However, should one of them leave the building, the person leaves with the value of the social share held at the outset, regardless of an increase in the value of the building. “Instead, our slogan would be: invest in social shares with the certainty of not making a profit!” jokes Patrick.

“One Person, One Vote”

The Babayagas Association in Montreuil, a self-managed, citizen and environmentally sensitive retirement home, caused them to reflect on the management mode to adopt. They chose self-management and to prioritize democratic values. Guided and counseled by Habicoop, in December 2012, the Chamarel adherents created a company by simplified shares, or SAS. The company is called “Chamarel-Les Barges,” the name of the neighborhood in which the site proposed by the city of Vaulx-en-Velin is located.

“We want something that can be functional for people as they age.”

The SAS — a French legal form also adopted by Vertical Village residents in Villeurbanne — allows for the building to be managed while waiting for the legalization of the legal form of residents’ cooperatives in France. (The legal status of residents’ cooperatives, brought into being at the time of France’s liberation in 1944, was shattered by the Chalandon Law in 1971, on the pretext that every French citizen should be a property owner. In 2014, residents’ cooperatives obtained a legal status with the ALUR law for housing access and renewed urbanism, but the decrees for its application are still pending.)

For example, votes are not proportional to the number of social shares held, but based on the principle of “one person, one vote.” In general, decisions are actually made by consensus, and that “works well,” observes Luc. “Consensus is not the lowest common denominator, but often a third solution that appears.”

“We made a kind of a bet,” Patrick continues. “When there’s a boss, decisions can be made more quickly. We take a little time to arrive at a consensus, but with the conviction that the result will be more solid over time.”

“When they told me there was no boss, that pleased me immediately!” said Janine, who added that all decisions are made during the association’s monthly general assemblies. In between each assembly, the members throw themselves into committees — “construction,” “communication,” “research on subsidies,” “popular education” etc.

“Ordinarily, I don’t care for meetings because the same people always do all the talking,” Hélène said. “But here, people ask for the floor; people listen; that inspires trust and a person can find her space.”

Straw Walls More Fire-Resistant Than Concrete

In the beginning of this year, meetings are on the rise. “It’s the race with the work site and the meetings with craftspeople for the cost estimates,” Janine said. Rather than hand their project over to a real estate developer, the cooperants have decided to be their own general contractor. They’ve chosen their design office and architects on the basis of their listening capabilities and ecological sensitivity. In order to be able to weigh in on technical decisions, the Chamarel members have trained themselves in eco-construction, alongside the Oïkos Association.

“We understood that the foundation for an environmentally sound building was the building’s insulation, its orientation and the actual savoir faire of the professionals [involved],” they said. Subscriptions to specialized magazines such as La Maison écologique (Environmental Home) and construction site visits — which included trips to the Vosges region’s Le Toit, a seven-story building with straw insulation — completed their knowledge.

“They are motivated and motivating!” confirms architect Stéphane Peignier from the Arketype firm. Along with his colleague, Clément Bel, who is equipped with several experiences in collective living, they have launched themselves, along with Chamarel-Les Barges, into the highest building with straw insulation in the Rhône-Alpes region. Several obstacles have already been overcome. For example, a building inspector refused to endorse the use of earthen coatings on straw as a firebreak in the absence of French certification. After many hours of meetings, a new building inspector finally accepted an English certification. “Tests revealed fire resistance for 130 minutes, more than any concrete wall!” said Peignier, his tenacity rewarded.

Environmental Construction Adapted to the Aging

Apart from the straw insulation in most of the building, the future residents have chosen apartments oriented east-west, with natural light in all the rooms and in the stairway – to encourage its use – and a south-facing main facade. The result appears on the blueprints posted at the association’s entryway. The four-story building will include 14 one-bedroom apartments of 45 square meters, two two-bedroom apartments of 63 square meters, as well as public spaces on the ground floor, including two guest bedrooms, a common room with a kitchen, a workshop, a laundry room and an office for the Chamarel Association. “We’ve even planned a bicycle storage space we call the ‘walker garage,'” Patrick said. The cooperants have also decided that all the apartments will be identical (double orientation, similar kitchen equipment etc.) in a concern for equity.

“The cooperants immediately posed the question of the residence’s adaptability to issues associated with aging and disability,” added Morel from the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Fédération. Notably, they’ve planned wide sliding doors and facilities for adaptation over time.

“We want something that can be functional for people as they age,” Janine said. The building’s location also guarantees ease of access to public transportation, businesses and services. On the other hand, budgetary constraints led them to defer the execution of certain choices that were really important to them, such as rainwater recovery or the installation of solar panels for electricity.

When a Bank Grants a Fifty-Year Loan to Elderly People

Tenacity was also required to secure financing for the project for a total of 2.46 million euros. This cost includes the ground rent, construction, professional service fees and miscellaneous costs (such as Habicoop’s guidance). Each future resident must contribute 25,000 to 30,000 euros. This amount corresponds to the social shares that are recoverable in the end. The ceiling for an individual contribution was fixed at 40,000 euros maximum per person, so that this financial structure could not be imperiled by the departure of a resident.

To these personal contributions a few subsidies are added, notably from the region, and three loans totaling 1.7 million euros. (Crédit Agricole granted a 275,000-euro loan reimbursable over 50 years for the property and a loan of a bit more than a million euros for the building for 40 years. Moreover, 612,000 euros were borrowed at a zero percent interest rate over 20 years from CARSAT, a bank for retirement insurance and worker health.)

“It was an amazing assemblage,” Luc said. “Elderly people succeeded in borrowing 75 percent of the total cost over a 50-year repayment period! The mortgage lenders ended up agreeing because the project brought them good publicity.”

“I remember the first time I spoke to my banker about the project,” Patrick added, “when I was about 60. I told him we had a super project, but that we needed 2.5 million euros over 50 years … The guy spluttered!”

The members are also planning for the future. The monthly fee (around 800 euros for a two bedroom and 600 euros for a one bedroom) will be used to reimburse the loans contracted by the cooperative. Part of that contribution (about 30 percent) is recoverable eventually; it’s a sort of forced savings that allows the cooperative to balance the operation over time, by creating reserves that allow it to maintain the building, face eventual nonpayment of fees or the prolonged vacancy of an apartment, for example. “This contribution assures security for those with low incomes, without any bad surprise in the next 20 years,” the cooperants said.

An Open Space, Imbued With Popular Education

As construction advances, the cooperants imagine making their building a showcase. “We want to offer visits to our future neighbors, to schoolchildren, to high school students, college students, teachers, elected officials,” they said. Their eyes glow as they evoke their meeting with the architecture students of Vaulx-en-Velin, as well as with the children of an elementary school with whom they exchanged views (see the video). These last months, they’ve increased their participation at movie discussions and seminars.

“We really want our experience to serve as a support for others, that this space causes reflection.” They attended the second initiative of the “National Meeting for Aging Together, Better and Differently,” which was held in March 2015.

For the moment, eight cooperants have committed to become future residents. About 20 others belong to the association and support the project, including Hélène, who still needs to allow her decision to ripen. “To live here, one must be an association member for at least six months so all parties know one another,” Patrick said. No one doubts the interest that their project will arouse.

In Switzerland, Norway and Quebec, residents’ cooperatives are legal and waiting lists are lengthening. “The further we get and the more the project becomes concrete, the more people tell us that they’re sick of being anonymous in a building,” Jean observes. While 14 of the 16 residences will be under the regime of “prêt locatif social” (a form of publicly subsidized housing), a discussion is beginning around the social diversity of their future living space.

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