In a new report from the Royal Society of the Arts, we asked a range of thinkers and practitioners to explore the concept of co-living – a form of housing that combines private living space with shared communal facilities. Unlike flatshares and the like, co-living is explicitly designed to encourage communal interaction and build community. Although it accounts for a very small proportion of the overall housing stock, it is growing.
In this article, RSA researcher Atif Shafique summarises the findings of that report.
Sometimes described as the hipster’s answer to the commune, co-living may actually represent more than just a trendy throwback to the utopian communities of the past. Its growing appeal is in fact linked to very modern challenges, that some claim it can meet better than more ‘mainstream’ (and less affordable) forms of housing. Issues ranging from rising loneliness and ageing to changing patterns of work, consumption and living are compelling us to think differently about the sorts of homes we need or desire.
Some of this is forced upon us because of the crisis of affordability in cities such as London. But it’s also driven by a desire to get something different out of a housing system that tends to provide little in the way of affordability, quality and choice. Younger generations are bearing the brunt of this, especially as housing tenure shifts dramatically from owner occupation to private renting (60 per cent of Londoners are predicted to be renting by 2025) – a tenure which generally is less secure and of lower quality.
Squeezed out of fast-shrinking social housing and unable to get onto the housing ladder until they’re middle-aged, millennials understandably feel they have few options available to them. Only 17 per cent consider social housing an option, while only 23 per cent have looked at shared ownership schemes. Meanwhile, demand for flatsharing is ballooning, especially in London. (As a side note, use this brilliant interactive heatmap by splittable.co to see how much of London is affordable for living on your own versus sharing. Spoiler: if you’re on a modest income, not very much of it.)
Oh dear. Click to expand. Image: Splittable.
Can co-living provide a higher quality alternative? One that provides flexibility and security, but also builds social capital amid rising loneliness and growing turbulence in the economy and labour market? Can it become a key option in efforts to meet the housing challenge?
The collection of essays provide a range of perspectives on these questions. Below I provide five key take-always from the publication.
1. A lack of housing supply isn’t the only issue we face
So much of the housing debate is narrowly focused on finding ways to build more homes. As important as this is, we also need to think hard about challenges relating to housing quality, security, choice, space standards and design. The types of homes we build matter.
In his essay, Rohan Silva, a former adviser to David Cameron, argues that our housing system is too slow to respond to the twin forces of globalisation and technological change that are transforming our lives. With more innovation in our approach to planning and the built environment, new models of housing (including co-living) could flourish and better meet our needs and ambitions.
2. Community isn’t a commodity that can be manufactured
The unique selling point of co-living is that it can foster a lasting sense of community among diverse residents. But as co-living developers are discovering, this isn’t easy – and especially not ‘at scale’ in a commercial setting, without a ready-made community' of driven and likeminded individuals.
Jess Steele’s essay points to possible solutions using the Heart of Hastings (HoH) Community Land Trust project as an example. Using a combination of methods drawn from social enterprise, neighbourhood development and community-led housing, HoH shows how diverse communities can be brought together with initiatives that build their sense of ownership and capacity to make decisions, promote self-help and encourage community enterprise.
Traditionally, co-living has been criticised for creating gated communities. But HoH shows that communities of place, and not just communities of (homogeneous) residents, can be built with the right approach.
3. Communal living isn’t alien to Britain
We tend to think of Britons as having an innate, unshakeable preference for privacy and private consumption. This is perhaps why co-living is sometimes written off as small-fry housing that won’t ever have ‘mainstream’ appeal, even though similar models are prevalent in other parts of Europe)
Nicholas Boys Smith traces the history of communal living and its policy context, and finds that this description lacks nuance. People value communality deeply, but also like to be able to retreat into the private.
It is this balance between privacy and social interaction that co-living tries to get right. The growth of the sharing economy and the rise of co-working, impact hubs and other forms of collaboration suggests there is an appetite for greater sharing and social engagement – and some would say co-living is part of this trend. As society ages, the need to live together differently (and more communally) will only grow.
4. Design can help us to re-imagine housing
The housing crisis is usually presented as a political or policy problem, rooted in dysfunctional decision-making structures. However, Manisha Patel argues that it is just as much a design challenge. If we are to tackle climate change and improve the quality of social connections in society, we may need to transform how we live and how we design our homes and our neighbourhoods.
The Low Impact Living Affordable Community (LILAC) in Leeds illustrates this with its community of eco-friendly homes. Manisha examines how design principles can be at the heart of co-living, and co-housing schemes in particular. She identifies how architecture can promote “social contact,” how new forms of design can enable intergenerational living among extended families (for example, the multi-generation house), and how processes such as modularisation can achieve energy efficiency at scale.
5. Homes have become speculative assets, but we can redefine our relationship to them
Speculation is rife in the housing system. It isn’t just investors, banks and oligarchs that are involved: many of us engage in it. When people buy homes with the expectation that they will rise in value, that’s speculation.
Government has supported it too, because house price growth contributes to consumer spending and broadening home ownership enables wealth accumulation, premised on the cash (and borrowed cash) to be paid by future buyers. Despite the sheer amount of money that government has invested to get people on the housing ladder, the dominant home ownership model is clearly cracking and the dangers of housing speculation (not least recession and economic instability) are becoming increasingly clear. The financial crisis of 2007-8 was triggered in US housing markets, and the home ownership rate in the UK has fallen for at least the last decade.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Jonathan Schifferes and I argue that it is possible to support a shift away from seeing homes as speculative assets to seeing them as sources of collective and community wealth.
Notions of wealth and equity in our housing system are understood far too narrowly: they tend to mean individual ownership of a financial asset, the value of which is determined by the market. It is possible to broaden this understanding to encompass the benefits of having a stake (financial, social, personal) in the success of the community in which one lives and contributes to. Co-living and more co-operative approaches to housing can support this: experience across Europe suggests that such models can become major parts of a mixed economy of housing.
Co-living isn’t a magic bullet solution for resolving the housing crisis; nor is it an approach without significant challenges itself. The essays pick up on the problems that co-living models often face, in particular their lack of diversity and occasional tendency to produce exclusive communities. In the for-profit private rental sector there is the added danger that they commodify community.
But as Matthew Taylor notes in his introduction to the essays, if it can overcome its challenges, at its root co-living offers new choices for those who see communality as part of how they want to live, work and thrive.