Could modular housing solve London's housing crisis?

Artist's impression of Pocket's block at Juxon Street, London SE11. Image: Pocket Living.

 The phrase "modular housing" has recently been cropping up more frequently among those of us who hang out in housing circles. (You should come to our parties, they’re wild.) Two London developments – one private, one public – opened up to prying eyes recently, so it’s an opportune moment to take a closer look.

But first of all: what is modular housing?

Briefly, it’s housing that’s mainly constructed off-site, on a factory production line. Private developer Pocket Living makes its one- and two-bedroom flats – including fittings – in two weeks. The modules are then lowered into place to form buildings over around 30 days; then finishing work takes place, to make the resulting block look like a traditional apartment block.

Modular housing is quicker and cheaper to put together than standard construction methods. Pocket Living estimates its developments take about six months less to complete than old fashioned building methods. And doing so much work off-site significantly reduces dust levels and disruption for neighbours caused by noise and lorries. It’s also one way around the construction industry’s current skills shortage.

Pocket Living recently let press and representatives from local councils into a new development near the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. The quality is pretty impressive: it definitely doesn’t feel like stepping into a prefab.

The one bedroom flat on show was, shall we say, snug – but 38m2 is in line with space standards for single occupancy dwellings set out in the London Plan. (This is just as well; this may say more about me than the property, but I can’t imagine a relationship holding up without more space.) Prices for these flats start at £267,000; for this development, that's 30-35 per cent below market value.

A plan of a Pocket flat. Image: Pocket Living.

This prompts a number of thoughts. You don’t get much for your money these days; but it is at least near a zone 1 tube station (to be specific, Lambeth North); and modular housing must be a damn sight cheaper to build if it can be sold at these prices.

On the latter point, Pocket doesn’t have figures on costs compared to a traditional build, but says all its homes go on sale at least 20 per cent below the market rate. Speed undoubtedly helps to keep costs down, too. The development in Lambeth will take 12 months from land completion date to allocating homes to new residents.

New council housing?

A little further south, Lewisham Council is finishing off PLACE/Ladywell, a Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners-designed modular block of 24 homes, providing temporary accommodation for families on the council’s waiting list. The homes are situated on the grounds of a former leisure centre; the land would otherwise be in limbo, waiting for planning permission for a larger, permanent development.

The council says it will save £140,000 a year simply through not paying to house these families in low quality B&B accommodation. With income from rent and commercial units, it believes the project will pay for itself in ten years. The modules have a lifespan of 60 years and can be moved five times to other sites in that time period.

The space in these flats is actually 10 per cent larger than London Plan mandated standards and all have balconies. PLACE/Ladywell won two prizes at the recent New London Awards, including the prestigious Mayor’s Prize. It was also constructed even faster than Pocket Living’s Lambeth development: work began off-site in November 2015, and residents are on the verge of moving in.


Is modular housing the solution to the housing crisis? No, and nobody involved pretends that it is. But this lower cost, simple and fast construction model has great potential for adding to the mix when it comes to providing more affordable homes.

Even Pocket, a private company, has a model that’s committed to affordable housing. Costs are kept down by using the same modular home design, offering no car parking space and buying land using a GLA-supported loan.

To buy a Pocket home you must be a first time buyer living or working in the relevant borough, earning under £90,000 (the average Pocket buyer earns closer to £40,000) and not buying with cash. Pocket commits to selling its homes for at least 20 per cent below the open market rate.

Crucially, there are covenants on Pocket homes which control future affordability. Owners aren't allowed to rent them out and, when they come to sell on, new buyers are also subject to income and residence eligibility criteria. Pocket says this acts as a brake on the value of the homes, keeping them at around 20 per cent under the general market price. In other words, they're discounted (we can all argue about the definition of "affordable") forever.

"Modular housing has huge potential to speed up the delivery of new homes in London," says Tom Copley, a Labour member of the London Assembly. "If we are going to reach 50,000 new homes a year, developers, Housing Associations and local authorities should all be looking to deliver housing in this way."

Copley’s Assembly colleague, the Green party’s Sian Berry, has an idea about how councils could use the concept to minimise disruption when redeveloping estates. "As part of an alternative to demolition, modular homes should be of great interest to residents and councils alike when looking at ways to plan for more homes on existing council estates, without displacement and years of building works."

Modular housing certainly has potential to keep residents in their communities while blocks are being improved or rebuilt; it should certainly be looked at as a way to quickly infill unused space with permanent homes. Lewisham’s creative idea to unlock land for housing while it’s stuck in planning hell is also something that can be implemented elsewhere.

It’s not, in itself, a solution to the housing crisis. But it could be a solution.

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.