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Canopy Housing was set up in 1996. It is dedicated to the renovation of empty and often derelict properties in three inner city, multi-cultural Leeds neighbourhoods, providing homes for homeless people in the City and doing so through a strong emphasis on volunteering and self-help.

Canopy’s volunteers are at the heart of the organisation’s work. Most of them come from disadvantaged backgrounds and include refugees, people with learning disabilities and those that are long-term unemployed. They all work together to learn new skills and boost their confidence. Some go on to formal training and find a job; others become Canopy tenants after helping to renovate their own homes. Newly selected tenants are expected to carry out at least eight days’ voluntary work helping to renovate the property that will become their home.

For some homeless people, getting involved with Canopy has been a life-changing experience: “I’ve been involved with Canopy for the past nine years. I came to Leeds as an unaccompanied 16 year old from Cameroon. I needed somewhere to live and I had to learn English. Canopy provided me with a flat and I learnt a whole lot of new basic skills as a volunteer – carpet laying, painting, plastering and joinery. They took me on as an apprentice and I now have a Diploma in Plastering from Leeds College of Building. I’m employed to do maintenance work by Canopy now and have just managed to buy my own home”.

Canopy’s work has enabled it to build up a freehold asset base of over £1 million, helping it raise capital and revenue funding from a variety of sources and enabling it to maintain an annual turnover of between £500,000 and £750,000 a year. Financial support has come through the Government’s Empty Homes Community Grants Programme, Leeds City Council, Big Lottery, Unity Trust Bank, the Nationwide Foundation, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and other trusts.

Canopy is well networked in both Leeds and more widely. Its Director plays a role in the housing forums in the City, whilst also maintaining close working relationships with other similar organisations in Hull and Middlesbrough. Nationally, Canopy is also represented on a number of community-led and self-help housing networks.

Overcoming the barriers

Ready access to loan finance is often an issue for community-led housing organisations. Although some traditional lenders may have viewed Canopy’s model as high risk because of its relatively low asset base, with a track record now in place, the organisation is in a good position to negotiate competitive rates with its lenders; and it has done so, particularly with those lenders that have traditionally supported community-led development. The challenge now, perhaps, is to extend this support to more mainstream lenders.

Buying and refurbishing empty homes with borrowed money alone is challenging. To increase the scale of its work, Canopy has become adept at attracting funds from grant-giving bodies, much of it used to support the capacity-building it does with its volunteers and tenants. But grant support is becoming harder to find.

“Canopy is now a fully sustainable organisation. Our rental income is double what it was six years ago; we have a strong, experienced Board and a dedicated staff team. We are reducing our reliance on grant funding and finding new ways of financing our core business. We have a good working relationship with the City Council. It has not always been an easy journey, but the important work we do needs to continue and be expanded. That is our task for the next few years.” Steve Hoey Director Canopy Housing Project

Working with a City Council: leases, loans and grants

Canopy has benefited from a particularly positive relationship with Leeds City Council. With more than 5400 empty private and public sector homes in the City, the Council has for some time recognised that the social enterprise sector has an important role to play in bringing those that are Council-owned back into use.

It has leased some of its 400 hard-to-let properties to Canopy and other social enterprises at peppercorn rents, with leases of between 5 and 25 years. Some of these leases have now been extended to 99 years enabling the social enterprise to borrow against them, providing capital to invest in more homes.

The City Council will be providing Canopy and others with 30% capital grants from its Right to Buy receipts to cover purchase and repair costs. Canopy has also recently benefited from an interest free loan of £200,000 from the City, used to refurbish seven long-term empty properties.

Bringing empty homes back into use is important for the City Council, but it is the added value that Canopy brings to these projects which seals the deal. Working with homeless and unemployed people, who then gain skills and experience through renovation work, some of whom take up job opportunities in the construction sector, is a win-win for the local authority.

“The City Council is proud of its relationship with Canopy and other third sector housing organisations such as LATCH, Gipsil and Leeds Empties to name a few. We were keen to support them at the outset and have continued to so do by transferring empty properties, offering long leases and helping them to gain additional funding. Canopy’s focus on enabling homeless people to work on renovating empty properties to gain work skills is a great example of what the third sector can offer. John Statham Head of Housing Partnerships and Growth, Leeds City Council

Canopy has been shortlisted as a World Habitat Award finalist in the 2015/16 competition.

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City-wide collaboration through Leeds Community Homes

The overall strength of the community-led housing movement in Leeds has led to a unique City-wide collaboration, one that is set to make a significant contribution to meeting housing need here over the next ten years.

Leeds Community Homes (LCH) brings together all the organisations in the City with a strong track record in providing community-led housing, including a number of social enterprises, a cohousing community and a co-operative of architects and engineers. Canopy is one of its founder members along with LILAC – a unique, award-winning ecological cohousing scheme completed in 2013, and another World Habitat Award finalist.

“Through LCH we want to scale up the community-led housing sector in the City, building on the success stories we have here and offering many more of our low-income communities an opportunity to live in high quality, low energy homes that really meet community needs. This is increasingly difficult to achieve through large-scale housing developments that are now to be focused on home ownership”. Steve Hoey Canopy Housing founder member, Leeds Community Homes

Leeds Community Homes has the full backing of Leeds City Council.

“The City Council has been supportive of the development of Leeds Community Homes, recognising the potential it has in the community and custom self-build sector. We are keen to see it succeed and will continue to offer our support”. John Statham Head of Housing Partnerships and Growth, Leeds City Council

LCH is still in its developmental phase, but it has plans to build or refurbish 1000 community-led affordable homes in Leeds over the next ten years. Amongst its short-term targets, it is planning to:

  • Launch a community share issue with the aim of raising £500,000 to invest in the purchase and renovation of empty homes by Canopy and others, so that more homes are available for affordable rent.
  • Attract other capital funding and investment to build and renovate more affordable homes, for example through Leeds City Council’s Right To Buy Fund and Big Lottery.
  • Secure Social Investment Tax Relief (SITR) for the community share issue and future affordable housing schemes.
  • Continue discussions with a small group of developers and landowners to identify opportunities to provide more affordable, sustainable housing – for example through building affordable homes for rent through a site-led custom build approach – with an emphasis on environmentally-sound and more affordable pre-fabricated homes.
  • Support groups of people in Leeds to develop their own community-led housing projects – by piloting a support programme with three early-stage groups.
  • Engage at a strategic level with key stakeholders – including the City Council and housing associations – to identify opportunities to work effectively together to develop the community-led housing sector in Leeds.

The LILAC co-housing scheme in Leeds

Although it is still early days, the Leeds Community Homes initiative is a great example of how community-led initiatives can collaborate in an urban context and work positively with local authorities, private developers, landowners and funders to deliver significant numbers of genuinely affordable, community-led homes as part of a much larger housing programme. It is an approach that should prove attractive to other major cities.