Housing affordability is a growing crisis in France. As urban gentrification and financialisation of housing spreads to rural areas around the cities, more and more people find themselves unable to buy a home and are left to pay high private rents or join long waiting lists for rental social housing. In addition to this, home ownership, even if subsidised, is not an option for people who do not meet the criteria for a mortgage because of old age, unstable or insufficient income, or unemployment.
Faced with this problem, a group of households decided to form a residents’ cooperative in the village of Beaumont-sur-Lèze, with the aim of building an affordable housing scheme that would also address their environmental and social concerns. Today, Mas Coop is made up of 11 highly energy-efficient flats, whose residents share the cooperative’s core values of solidarity, environmental awareness, and social and inter-generational diversity.
Only a dozen or so residents’ cooperatives are currently inhabited in France, mostly in cities. This cooperative model creates a middle ground between renting and ownership, and the public and private sectors. Residents purchase shares in the cooperative society, which retains ownership of the land and buildings, and pay monthly fees to cover bank loan repayments and other costs related to the property.
Crucially, the value of the shares is not indexed to the real estate value of the property. This means that if a household wishes to leave the cooperative, the resale of their shares does not generate any capital gain, ensuring the housing remains affordable in perpetuity.
The project in practice
Mas Coop was founded in 2015 with just three households. The group managed to secure guarantees from the subregional government of Haute-Garonne and the municipality of Beaumont-sur-Lèze, enabling it to take out a state subsidised social rental loan, which is used to finance social housing projects in France. This legal status as a social landlord means residents’ household incomes must fall below the national social housing threshold. This gave the cooperative access to favourable financing to buy land and carry out construction work (reduced VAT, low-interest rate, property-tax exemption for 25 years).
As word spread, more people joined the cooperative, and with seven participating households, the group began the process of co-designing the scheme with an architect Jean-Yves PUYO Architect-Urbanist specialised in eco-neighbourhoods and eco-construction. Construction began in July 2018 and was completed in November 2019. Three new energy-efficient buildings containing 10 apartments of differing sizes were built, while two pre-existing old buildings on the site were renovated and transformed into a dwelling and a building for communal use.
During the development phase, Mas Coop temporarily delegated the project management to local social landlord Les Chalets. This made it easier to coordinate the work and the necessary professional insurances. Together with Les Chalets, the cooperative chose the construction companies and held weekly site meetings. Residents were able to take part in the construction of the timber-framed buildings and help with the renovations of the existing buildings.
The scheme’s apartments range in size from one to three bedrooms, making it possible to accommodate both family groups and couples. Residents can move to a larger or smaller dwelling as their needs change (for example through the departure or the birth of a child). This flexibility is designed to maintain the intergenerational aspect of the scheme over time.
The communal house contains a shared space, kitchen, library, music room, six guest rooms, a covered swimming pool, a workshop, laundry room, and storage. It is used for family celebrations and group meetings and is open to village residents for events such as concerts, screenings, and parties. Some residents use the space to practice their profession, for example teaching yoga and music.
Shared outdoor spaces include a play area for children, a vegetable garden, a henhouse, space for relaxation and for drying laundry, a shared car park, and bicycle sheds.
The cooperative is responsible for managing the housing and selecting news members. Currently, the group is made up of 29 people aged between one and 74, with an intentionally diverse mix of origins, incomes, and professions.
Residents are members of the cooperative and vote on decisions during general assemblies. Each adult member is also part of one or more working groups, which encourage skills development and help to manage the scheme. The responsibilities of these groups range from tending the garden and henhouse to finance and communication.
The project was funded by a 30-year loan of €2.07 million ($2.2 million USD) from a commercial bank – €943,551 ($1 million USD) for the land, and €1,126,778 ($1.2 million USD) for the construction and infrastructure works.
To join the project, each household had to buy shares in the cooperative. The average cost of contributions for the 11 households was €35,000 ($37,300 USD) for a single bedroom apartment, €45,000 ($48,000 USD) for a two-bedroom apartment, and €55,000 ($58,600 USD) for a three-bedroom apartment.
In addition, each member must pay a monthly fee of €10.2/m² ($10.9 USD/m²). This fee is made up of two parts: a rental portion – €6.70/m² ($7.10 USD/m²) – which covers the repayment of the interest to the bank and the cooperative’s expenses (such as maintenance, accounting and communal areas); and a shares portion – €3.50/m² ($3.70 USD/m²) – which allows the cooperative to repay the bank loan as well as to set aside a fund for major works, home vacancy, and unpaid rent.
When a member leaves, Mas Coop returns their initial contribution, which is then paid back into the cooperative by the newcomers. If there is a delay between a departure and the arrival of a new member, the cooperative has up to two years to repay the contribution to the leaving member, in order not to affect the bank loan repayment.
The project was awarded three subsidies: €25,000 ($26,640 USD) from the Fondation de France for the participatory approach taken; €5,000 ($5,330 USD) from HUMANIS for intergenerational innovation; and €85,000 ($90,580 USD) from the regional government and the National Agency for the Environment and Energy Management for the environmental quality of the buildings. These subsidies were used to repay the bank loan, thus reducing the monthly fee per member.
To help pay for unanticipated costs, the cooperative has decided to allow non-residents to support the project by buying shares. The cost of a share is €500 ($533 USD), which can be sold back to the cooperative at the same price. About 10 non-residents have bought shares so far.
In line with the cooperative’s values of solidarity and social diversity, Mas Coop made the conscious choice to integrate households with a wide range of incomes, even though it could have fulfilled the conditions of the social loan with only middle-income households.
While on average each member must contribute 20% of the cost of the dwelling, some households have contributed more, allowing another to join the group with an initial smaller contribution. In cases of financial difficulties, the general assembly can temporarily reduce monthly fees if others agree to pay a little more during this time.
The participatory nature of the project has generated strong bonds between residents and fostered an environment of mutual aid, for example one person takes all the children to school, another goes to pick up groceries. This was particularly evident during the Covid-19 lockdowns when residents rallied to help one another.
The local community also benefits from Mas Coop through access to the common spaces for public events, and the active involvement of the cooperative’s residents in village associations.
A core aim of the cooperative was to create healthy and environmentally– friendly homes. The scheme’s bioclimactic design far exceeded the environmental requirements of the time and Mas Coop was awarded a “Bâtiment NoWatt” label in recognition of its low carbon footprint.
Natural materials were used as much as possible during construction, including wood and highly efficient wood wool insulation. The buildings do not require air conditioning and have reduced need for heating, which is provided in each apartment by individual wood– burning stoves and thermal solar panels.
The buildings’ roofs are leased to a solar energy cooperative, allowing for self-sufficiency in electricity. Excess production is fed into the electricity grid. Rainwater is channelled to an underground tank and used for the vegetable garden. A phytodepuration pond, meanwhile, allows chemical-free treatment of wastewater before it is discharged into the sewage system.
Organic waste is consumed by the chickens or composted for use in the garden, while efforts are made by each household to buy locally and responsibly produced food, and to use only biodegradable cleaning products.
Residents reduce carbon emissions through the use ofby using bicycles and carpooling for longer journeys, for example for members who need to commute to Toulouse.
Transfer and expansion
Mas Coop is committed to promoting the residents’ cooperative model and members are very involved in regional networks for collaborative housing and ecological construction. The group opens its doors once a month for an information session and regularly communicates with interested groups.
Visits to Mas Coop have inspired at least eight other projects. Social landlord Les Chalets had already partnered with another cooperative in Toulouse (Abricoop), but had never worked before with ecological construction and participatory work camps with future residents and volunteers. The department of Haute-Garonne has shown interest in this new model of housing and revitalising rural areas.
Though small in scale, Mas Coop has brought together a number of positive principles and demonstrated that affordable housing for low and medium-income households can also achieve net zero energy consumption and a high quality environmentally friendly way of living. In setting up the cooperative, the group managed to convince public authorities, traditional banks, and social housing providers to support the project, and members are now working hard to inspire other people to set up their own collaborative housing schemes.