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Lessons on COVID-19 From Housing Cooperatives in Central America

09 Apr 2021
By Néstor Agustin Güity Zapata
Hands working together. Source: Tumisu

COVID-19 has brought about feelings of loneliness, increased homelessness, and a decline in mental health. The experiences of housing cooperatives in Central American countries show how a collective response can minimise the impact of a pandemic.

 Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was an atypical time for everyone. Many personal or professional plans had to be postponed or suspended. Responses to the pandemic differed widely depending on the context. In the US, for example, the federal government first delivered a US$2.3 trillion relief package. Under the new Biden administration, a package of $1.9 trillion was recently approved. In Australia, government authorities provided for their citizens through the JobKeeper and JobSeeker programs.

Different strategies were implemented in areas of the world where support from the government was scarce, late, or non-existent. One such strategy was the housing cooperative, an unconventional form of housing which has contributed to addressing issues like loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Worldwide, housing cooperatives are understood as groups of people who work together to satisfy their housing needs. Although housing cooperatives may be diverse depending on their context and objectives, all are framed in the seven cooperative principles. These principles are voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education training and information, cooperation among cooperatives, and concern for community

The Central American Northern Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) is a region with high social problems such as the constant migration flow to the US and natural disasters. However, in this complex context, housing cooperatives can provide lessons on resilience, solidarity, and the struggle for the common good, according to a report from the UrbaMonde organisation.

Housing cooperatives strategies during COVID-19

The housing cooperative “13 de enero” is located in La Libertad, El Salvador, close to the Pacific coast. Most of its 170 residents are involved in tourism and artisanal fishing. This housing cooperative was the first built in El Salvador under the Uruguayan Mutual Aid Housing Cooperative model. It has a mini store and a community building, both of which generate funds for the cooperative.

During the pandemic, residents organised themselves into health committees, establishing controls to community access. The lockdown enforced by the Salvadoran government since March 2020 had made 95 percent of the residents lose their jobs. Given this scenario, different strategies were implemented by the housing cooperative like requesting food from local institutions, achieving a seven-month freeze on mortgage payments, and the funds generated in the mini-store and by renting the community building were distributed to residents.

In Guatemala, the housing cooperative “Fe y Esperanza” is situated in the rural area of the municipality of San Pedro Sacatepéquez and includes 72 residents in 15 homes. Its residents are mainly engaged in agricultural activities and others work in the capital city. The community does not have a primary school, forcing students to move to neighbouring communities.

During the pandemic, three families contracted the disease. In response, the housing cooperative took a series of actions. The residents decided to rotate going to the nearest community for food and medicine, payment of basic services, and purchasing a cell phone balance for the affected people so that they could communicate during their quarantine. As in the Salvadoran case, most of the members of this housing cooperatvie lost their jobs, which made it difficult to pay for some basic services such as internet. Since the government authorities decided to continue with education on television and online, this represented an extra obstacle. In response, the residents decided to share internet passwords so that the children could continue with their studies.

In Honduras, the case of the “Covicholumar” housing cooperative stands out. It is located in the southern zone of the country, and the community has a total of 173 homes, making it the largest housing cooperative in Central America. Its members work mainly in self-sustaining agricultural activities and as employees of agroindustry companies. In March 2020, due to the pandemic, it was decided to allow only one entry to the cooperative in which biosafety measures were implemented. The cooperative also obtained a period of three months freeze on payments with the bank. In addition, work on the community garden was intensified as a strategy for food security and self-sufficiency.

A single case of COVID-19 was identified in the housing cooperative, which motivated the other residents to ensure that sick people had everything they needed, including food and medicine, so that they would not need to leave their house. Support was also obtained from a psychologist, who attended to the residents through virtual consultations.

Relevance to the Australian context

In Australia, homeownership and rent in the private sector predominate. In short, individual housing prevails. It is not surprising then that during COVID-19, a series of limitations were reported in this housing such as poor quality, overcrowding, and housing stress. These then had an impact on loneliness, homelessness, and mental health. It seemed then that in countries like Australia, with a consolidated welfare system compared to Central American countries and extensive government emergency economic programs, these were not enough to mitigate the collateral effects of COVID-19.

Nevertheless, the experiences of housing cooperatives in Central American countries show that in their struggle to minimise the impact of COVID-19 was the application of  different “vaccines”, like solidarity, empathy with the most vulnerable, and collective care and self-sufficiency. Cooperative members worked for the well-being of their neighbours, which brings personal benefits and satisfaction.

Housing cooperatives worldwide have been characterised by promoting values such as solidarity and life in a community, elements that were put to the test during the most difficult stage of the pandemic. The resilience, organisational capacity, and response strategies of these communities in Central America should invite Australian society to reflect on the benefits of alternative forms of cooperative living and promote their growth.

Nestor Agustin Guity Zapata is a PhD student at the Centre for Urban Transitions, Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia and a former associate professor at the National Autonomous University of Honduras. He received a Master’s in Regional and Local Economic Development (University of Valladolid, Spain) and a Bachelors in Socioeconomic Development and Environment (Zamorano University, Honduras).

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.