Agustín Cepeda, G (Summer ’19)

Published October 28, 2019 by Agustín Cepeda

Agustín is graduate student in MIT’s Masters of City Planning Graduate program. Part 1: La Dinamo Fundació and Group-Equity Coops. This summer I worked with La Dinamo Fundació, a nonprofit in Barcelona dedicated to promoting group-equity cooperative housing. My charge was to finish a project we started in January: an illustrated pamphlet to demystify what […]

Agustín is graduate student in MIT’s Masters of City Planning Graduate program.

Part 1: La Dinamo Fundació and Group-Equity Coops.

This summer I worked with La Dinamo Fundació, a nonprofit in Barcelona dedicated to promoting group-equity cooperative housing. My charge was to finish a project we started in January: an illustrated pamphlet to demystify what it is La Dinamo does, and the 4 ways group-equity coops might emerge in a city.

Group-equity coops represent an alternative to free-market housing. They are born of the inspiration that housing ought to be a basic human right. Where the free market speaks in terms of property-value, group-equity coops speak of use-value. Rather than view housing as a commodity that one lives in and also profits from, group-equity coops reject the idea that a home can be anyone’s property. A home shelters a dweller for as long as they need it, and then it will shelter another one for as long as they need it.  

Among the many ways cities like Barcelona work towards affordable housing, group-equity coops are a powerful tool because they deliver affordable housing from the private sector. While coops may benefit from land yielded or subsidies awarded by the city, they take on the administration and execution of their own projects. In broad strokes, here’s how a group-equity coop project might play out: First, groups of families band together in a single legal entity: a coop. This coop seeks out a mortgage and uses the money to build or renovate a building to live in. Once moved in, the members of the coop pay a monthly carrying cost for the duration of their stay in the building. For the first few decades, some of this money will pay back the mortgage, and some will be set aside in savings for building costs. After the mortgage is paid back, the coop members continue paying carrying costs, which are directed into a group account. Over time, as the group account accrues, the coop will decide how to spend the money. In the spirit of spreading affordable housing, one option that would be coherent to the original inspiration (that housing is a basic human right) would be to invest in new group-equity coops. If this were to happen, group-equity coops would reproduce on their own.

Compared to other parts of Europe, where coops exist in many shades and flavors, group-equity coops are just gaining their footing in Barcelona in a push to ameliorate the city’s housing crisis. La Dinamo Fundació was created to help emerging coops (groups of families wanting to embark on a journey towards group-equity coop living) navigate the economic, legal, architectural, and social challenges they face along the way. In a series of workshops, apart from coaching nascent groups through legal and administrative hoops, they also help groups define for themselves how they want to live together. They cover questions from conflict resolution strategies to internal solidarity economic practices (like creating a communal money pot for any member who struggles to make it to the end of the month) to opportunities for creating and sharing public space, to many rabbit holes of nuance that emerge in the materialization of a coop project.

Most folks looking for housing in Barcelona aren’t thinking about group-equity cooperative housing as a viable choice. For one, there are simply not that many out there to join, and waitlists are so long that those on the waitlist have been known to form their own coops in the meantime. From the initial banding together of a group of families to move-in day can take many years. All the while there is no certainty that it will work out, and even if it does, parcels and buildings in attractive locations are scarce. Still, the first step in this whole endeavor is clear: to understand what it is. That’s why one of La Dinamo’s primary goals is to get the word out. The more people know coops exist and how they work, the more people will be willing to give it a shot. 

From this strand of La Dinamo’s mission to educate came the idea to collaborate on a pamphlet. La Dinamo was eager to tell the story of the first coop, La Diversa, whom they guided through a series of workshops and into a building. To present this case study in a synthetic and fun way, we decided to tell the story as a mini graphic novel, dividing the process into six stages, each with an illustration and short caption. La Dinamo also wanted to clarify for a wide audience, especially property owners who might consider yielding their land or buildings to coops, the four ways coops could sprout in a city. They could occupy 1) empty buildings, either purchased by or yielded to the coop; 2) inhabited buildings, in the case of a group of tenants who form a coop amongst themselves and buy the building they already live in from their common landlord; 3) empty parcels, which coops acquire and upon which they build new buildings; or 4) apartments in separate buildings dispersed throughout a neighborhood. This last option is still theoretical but is enticing to think about as it would mean coops could be formed with much greater flexibility.

In the following posts I will share the final result of the pamphlet and its corresponding digital publication content, a reflection I wrote over the summer, and some pics of a camping trip with friends from La Dinamo and their sibling office and workers’ coop, La Col Arquitectes.

Part 2: City

Below is the final draft of the city-side of the pamphlet, as well as six images and GIFs that were prepared for six days of digital publication on all of La Dinamo’s platforms.

Part 3: Comic

Below is the final document for the comic-side of the pamphlet, as well as six GIFs that were prepared for six days digital publication on all of La Dinamo’s platforms.

Part 4: Sensibilización

Over the summer we wrote a series of reflections based on different prompts. One that stood out to me was prompted by a short video that asked the following question of education: should it focus on training a workforce? Or is the function of education that “we’re all entitled to be smart, to be sensitive, to be able to think critically about the world around us?”

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This video touches on the familiar theme of softening the hard edge of our capitalist individualist society by turning towards human connection. It talks about “finding each other,” and the strategy seems to be reminding people how great it is to be in each other’s company, “cultivating solidarity.” Essentially, we can save ourselves by seducing us away from our devices and self interest and towards a much more profound sense of belonging offered by human contact.

But human relationships can be tricky, and experiencing a profound sense of connection and solidarity with someone seems to me like an outlier on the spectrum of human relationships we’ll have in a lifetime. And surely the greatest antidote to authentic and profound connection is trying too hard to make it happen. At DUSP this past year we participated in a social experiment called Home Group. The idea was to meet with a cross-section of the department every two weeks, including fellow students in different concentrations and cohorts, as well as Ph.D. students and professors, with the end goal of building solidarity. In our home group’s reflection at the end of the semester, we agreed we were missing a conduit that would allow camaraderie to flourish. By conduit, we meant some kind of project, activity, or focus on something else that would allow solidarity to flourish in the margins. We determined that a sense of solidarity is a symptom of working towards a common goal.

At La Dinamo, a word that comes up a lot is “sensibilización”. It refers to making people understand what we do and why it’s important. Literally it means: make people more sensitive. It’s a main part of our strategy for attracting new members and donors. Before they can buy into the idea, they have to understand it. And to understand it, they first have to understand the system in which we all currently operate (the free market) and what problems exist within it for many people. It can be a challenge to convince folks who either 1) earn enough to be able to operate more or less comfortably within the free market (are comfortable living in an extractive society, to use the word from the video) or 2) dream of being able to do so. “Sensibilización” to me is born of the same inspiration as a line in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: “This is the city and I am one of the citizens / Whatever interests the rest interests me.” It means taking a concept like education, from the video, or housing markets, in the case of La Dinamo, and telling the story from the perspective of every single person in a society. This will require identifying the key mechanisms at play, power-mapping, following the chain of money, laws, policies, permits, and people who influence the way we “x”, where “x” is learn (education) live (housing), heal (healthcare) etc… If folks can 1) understand a more nuanced picture of the systems at play, 2) understand how different demographics are affected by these systems, and 3) locate themselves within one of these groups, then they will begin to be “sensibilizados”.

So here I am: with limited knowledge of the housing system as it works right now, paying too high a rent within the free market, having overheard once that some hippies are trying different things of which I’m skeptical but don’t have enough time or interest to debunk properly. What I’d love to see is a candy trail that meets me here and takes me, piece by piece, towards greater understanding. And when this trail leads me down a path that make me think, “that will never work,” a google maps will pop up to offer alternate routes for the corresponding local policies, laws, and cultural practices of my location, and will link me to all the ways others in the world have worked around this particular traffic jam. And as I follow my maps, enjoying my candy, I’ll begin to locate myself in a complicated system and discover actionable steps I can take so I feel like I’m contributing my drop in the bucket of change, and eventually towards a nuanced understanding of the levers that control the system.

And maybe along the way I see someone else following the same candy trail, or notice on my google maps that they’re riding in the car in front of me, and I’ll meet that person and begin to spend time with them and then one day it won’t be so clear to me if I’m waking up to follow the candy trail or to enjoy their company along the way. All this to say that I agree that human contact will save us from the wrong side of capitalism, but that our work as planners lies in setting up the candy trails and tending to our metaphorical google maps: creating content, improving the graphics, and debugging. Doing this methodically, coherently, consistently, sensitively, and beautifully will create a fertile ground for cultivating solidarity.

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Part 5: Camping in the Pyrenees Mountains with friends from work

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