The city of Geneva is Europe’s most expensive place to live. There is a shortage of rental accommodation and monthly charges are extremely high. People in training (like students, apprentices and interns) are often on low or no incomes and struggle to find a decent and affordable place to live.

There is a small amount of public student housing in Geneva but not enough to meet demand, so students often end up in sub-standard accommodation, commuting large distances from outside the city, or working long hours alongside their studies to afford their rent. The lack of affordable accommodation also heightens social inequalities, because it prevents underprivileged young people from entering higher education in expensive cities.

Geneva’s housing affordability problems are not new and gave rise to a large squatting movement in the 1980s. In 1986 a student demonstration led to talks with the city government, which resulted in a new type of rental contract and the creation of student housing cooperative, La Ciguë.

The new contract allowed La Ciguë to lease properties at an affordable price and then sub-let them to its members. Initially, the cooperative rented empty properties that were owned by the city government. Over time it negotiated agreements with affordable housing organisations and ultimately private homeowners.

In 1998, La Ciguë began developing its own properties. It is now the world’s biggest self-managed student housing cooperative, renting out around 740 rooms, 30% to 60% cheaper than open market rates.

The project in practice

Around 60% of the rooms managed by La Ciguë come from temporary lease agreements with private owners, public bodies and non-profit organisations. These properties are all in central locations and are usually empty, awaiting either renovation or demolition, before being leased by the cooperative. Lease agreements must be for a minimum of 12 months and usually last between one and three years.

La Ciguë prefers to lease shared flats – where residents have their own bedroom and share facilities like the kitchen, bathroom and garden – because this arrangement encourages social interaction. However, some self-contained studios are available for people who prefer or need to live alone.

The cooperative has developed eight of its own properties, containing 311 rooms. These developments are all on public land and have 99-year leases that will be renewed in perpetuity. La Ciguë works with architects and private developers to carry out the construction to high environmental standards. Where possible, the buildings include commercial spaces on the ground floors, which are let to organisations or activities that enhance the community. These include restaurants, bike repair shops, a Buddhist centre, neighbourhood centre, and arts and crafts workshops.

People who are interested in renting a room must be 18 or over and in training for at least 12 hours a week. Their annual income must also be lower than CHF 36,000 ($44,200 USD), which is 2/3 of the legal minimum salary for a fulltime job in Geneva.

There is no waiting list for La Ciguë’s homes. After attending and introductory session, interested people receive emails advertising any vacancies. Applicants must provide a letter explaining why they would like to live in the shared flat and may be invited to interview. Current residents select the person they would like to join them based on their own criteria. Once a new resident has been chosen, they sign a contract with La Ciguë and buy one share of the cooperative to become a member.

Once a person has joined the cooperative, they can live in La Ciguë’s homes for a maximum of five years. A sixth year can be added for people in vulnerable circumstances, if approved by the cooperative’s board of directors. Most members are aged between 21 and 31. Just over half are Swiss and the remainder come from all over the world.

The board makes decisions on the general policy of the cooperative and is composed of residents and non-residents. A ‘work team’ of nine employees oversees operational management. Five members of this team also sit on the board. Elected resident coordinators from La Ciguë’s buildings liaise with the work team to deal with any issues or proposals from members.

Social impact

La Ciguë’s residents benefit from living in an affordable, decent home, close to their place of study. Rents are much cheaper than the open market but if someone does fall behind, the cooperative offers repayment plans and directs them to social welfare organisations.

It’s not just affordability that sets La Ciguë apart. Traditional student housing is often gender segregated with strict rules and curfews. As members of the cooperative, La Ciguë’s residents set their own rules and are free to choose new flatmates when a room becomes available. The self-governing nature of the cooperative ensures everyone’s voice is heard. This is also important for creating social bonds and integrating newcomers, who may be from very different cultures.

Surplus income is donated to solidarity projects supporting vulnerable people, voted on by members. La Ciguë hopes living in this empowering, democratic, diverse community will help shape socially and environmentally conscious future citizens and professionals.

Environmental impact

Turning vacant homes into student accommodation prolongs the life of a building before it is renovated or demolished. It also helps to prevent vandalism and brings life back into communities.

Where La Ciguë has developed its own homes, it has done so to the highest possible energy efficiency standards at the time. It has constructed buildings out of wood and from recycled concrete and has used insulation made from wood fibre (a waste product from the sawmill industry). Most of its buildings do not use fossil fuels for heating, generating energy from solar panels and wood pellets instead.

When new members sign their rental contract, they must also sign up to an ecological charter. This commits them to saving energy and water, recycling waste, and using bikes and public transport whenever possible.


La Ciguë leases empty properties from owners at a maximum price of CHF 250 ($280 USD) per room per month. It sub-lets these rooms to its members for CHF 350 ($391 USD) per month. Income generated from rents (including the 311 rooms in the cooperative’s own buildings), averages around CHF 370 ($413 USD) per room per month.

The cooperative’s income, including rent from commercial spaces, was CHF 3.5M ($3.92M USD) in 2022. This income is used to pay La Ciguë’s expenses: rent to property owners; bank loan repayments; staff salaries and employer taxes. Any surplus after expenses is channelled into new housing projects, security funds, members’ projects and solidarity funds that help vulnerable people both locally and internationally.

The cooperative finances its developments with a mix of equity, subsidies, and bank loans from the Swiss Alternative Bank and from the Foundation for the Promotion of Low-Cost Housing and Cooperative Housing (FPLC). Several projects have received environmental subsidies from the city and national governments. The cooperative has also received philanthropic donations from the Romande Swiss Lottery Fund, the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation and the University of Geneva.

Transfer and expansion

La Ciguë plans to keep growing and will develop three more buildings containing 250 rooms in 2026 and 2030. Other organisations have started to compete with the cooperative to lease empty properties, so increasing the number of rooms it owns outright will help to reduce its dependence on income from temporary rentals.

The cooperative is actively looking to convert other wasted spaces into accommodation and, in 2021, organised a project to transform an empty shopping centre into temporary community housing. In the future, it hopes to turn some of Geneva’s 250,000sqm of empty office space into accommodation for migrants as well as people in training.

La Ciguë has inspired the formation of other housing cooperatives, including (Communauté de l’agglomération havraise) CODAH. This was co-founded by some of La Ciguë’s members in 1994 and has gone on to become the biggest housing cooperative in the Geneva-Lausanne area. La Ciguë also hopes to share its knowledge and experience by creating an international network of student housing cooperatives.

Students forced to live in sub-standard accommodation around the world could learn from La Ciguë’s inclusive, rights-based approach. It shows that, even in an expensive city like Geneva, it is possible to create secure, affordable homes for students and trainees on low-incomes, which not only enhance the community but are environmentally friendly too.

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