“Come the zombie apocalypse, we’ll be OK,” declares Siobhan McSweeney as she surveys a pile of toilet rolls big enough to supply a small village.
She gazes around a ground-floor room at 44 Islington Park Street in north London — four Victorian properties knocked into one, a stone’s throw from Upper Street, where sugar-free delis compete with gluten-free delis for the City banker’s pound. There are shelves laden with large packets of pasta, boxes of tea bags and enough sundry staples to see out a sustained siege. Nearby, a dozen bicycles nest in racks.
The building could be mistaken for a university hall of residence, but the place that McSweeney and 17 others call home is one of only two remaining communes that were established in London in the early 1970s by a former Franciscan friar, Greg Moore.
“He was so taken with what it was like to live communally that he decided to set up a housing association so that people with varying kinds of needs could live together and help each other,” said Chris Murphy, who lives at the second commune, the Crescent Road Community in Kingston upon Thames, home to 21 adults and three children.
Moore’s big idea, that vulnerable people such as recovering drug addicts and ex-offenders would live side-by-side with those who did not have problems in a network of communes, continues to this day.
Keith Soutar, a retired social worker who has Parkinson’s disease, talks emotionally about the support he receives in the Islington commune. His fellow residents, who prefer the word community to commune, had railings fitted so that he could move around safely. They organised a rota to help him get up in the mornings, cook for him regularly and remind him to take his medication. One housemate designed “pit-stops” out of old shelves and cushions to make Soutar’s journeys from room to room easier.
Sylvia Bayliss, who has lived in the Kingston commune with her sister, Jan, for 37 years, credits the commune with helping her to overcome chronic shyness. “When I moved in with all these people I thought, oh my God, it’s quite scary. Gradually I got more confidence. It really has helped me.”
Dermot Cahalane, who has lived communally since 1971, concedes that the lifestyle does not suit everyone. “It’s not perfect but, in the main, it’s an ideal way of living in this day and age with all the alienation.”
One Housing Group (OHG), the housing association that owns the two properties, disagrees. Last month it wrote to the communes’ residents saying it intended to “decant” them. Many now fear that the quaint-sounding phrase means they are to be evicted with no offer of alternative accommodation. But even those likely to be offered somewhere else to live do not want to leave their communal way of life.
“There’s a wealth of knowledge, a wealth of abilities here,” said Rick Mantha, who has lived in the Islington property for more than a quarter of a century. “There’s people who can fix a car and people who can put up a website; there’s an amazing interaction of people. Whatever you need, you can find it by knocking on doors around here. It’s a brilliant model that more people should adopt.”
Indeed, the residents believe communal living — popular in cities such as Berlin — is the antidote to an increasingly overcrowded, overheated world. “Economically it makes much sense,” said Karen Grace, who has lived in the Islington commune for five years. “We are a model for a different kind of community, a supportive community. We are a dying breed. This is the time to save this kind of community, not to get rid of it.”
In addition to their rent, each member of the commune spends £32 a week on bills and food. Friends are not allowed to join; priority is given to local people, key workers and those on low incomes. But OHG, which manages 15,000 homes in 26 London boroughs and surrounding counties, accuses the communes’ members of promoting “queue jumping” by determining who can live with them.
“These are prime London addresses,” said Paul Fawcett, OHG’s assistant director of communications. “There are hundreds and hundreds of families considered priority one on the housing list who are living in cramped B&Bs. And these people [those living in Islington Park Street] are paying tuppence. We have a responsibility to look at this. We might fix it up and refurbish it, make it into self-contained studio flats for people who have a right to be there.”
But he adds: “We might elect to sell it because the market value of that property could pay for double the number of units somewhere else.”
The reason the communes’ members pay “tuppence” is because in 2009 a previous incarnation of OHG froze their rent, refusing to recognise those living in the properties as tenants in an attempt to force them out.
McSweeney concedes that some will see them “as dirty hippies who contribute nothing to society”. In fact, most in the commune are working or retired. Jean Vidler, who has been at Crescent Road since 2006, is an events organiser who runs the Green Futures field at Glastonbury. “This is about social cleansing,” Vidler said. “London is becoming an enclave of the rich.”
And there are few richer enclaves than the Islington district of Barnsbury, where the commune is located. There are suggestions that the property could be worth up to £12m. The Kingston property, too, is in a desirable neighbourhood. “The Russians bought all the properties around us,” Cahalane said. “They do them up and then the lights go out because you don’t see anyone in them.”
Fawcett acknowledged that a combination of soaring property prices and a lack of affordable homes was forcing housing associations to think like businesses, often with “painful” consequences. “Every three homes we sell on the open market funds the construction of two affordable homes that can go to somebody on the housing list. We are not ashamed of making money. We reinvest it. The underlying problem of the housing crisis is that there are not enough homes for people to live in.”
However, the communes’ residents draw parallels with what is happening in other parts of London, such as Hackney, Brixton and Newham, where people have been threatened with eviction as social landlords seek to capitalise on rising property prices, their actions threatening to undermine established, diverse neighbourhoods.
“An organic way of life that’s evolved over all these years is going to be destroyed by a man in a suit because we don’t tick the boxes,” Cahalane said. “They’re building new homes, but only for the rich.” Through the window behind him, the Shard and the Gherkin gleamed in the early summer sun. A forest of cranes told of a capital being reforged.
What will the commune members do if the new London emerging from the old can no longer accommodate them? “I suppose I’d survive somehow,” Mantha said. “But for me, my life would be a quarter of what it was.”
Originally published at The Guardian.