Here’s why living without living rooms is no way to solve the housing crisis

The Collective: a development in Old Oak Common, west London, where young people live in tiny, hotel-like rooms. Image: Getty.

One way to solve the UK’s affordable housing dilemma could be for “city-based young professionals” to live in hotel-style homes without communal living space, one leading think-tank recently suggested.

On 25 April, the neo-liberal Adam Smith Institute published a paper titled “Only capitalism can solve the housing crisis”. It argued that living in smaller houses and flats, without shared amenities, could be a way to fulfil the current suffocating demand for cheaper, city-based housing across the UK.

The paper’s author, architect Patrik Schumacher, claims that, “For many young professionals who are out and about networking 24/7, a small, clean, private hotel-room sized central patch serves their needs perfectly well.”

But is it fair to expect a generation of young people to accept a lower standard of living, in return for centrally located and affordable accommodation?

As a survey into housing among 1,000 20-29-year-old ‘millennials’, conducted by property consultancy CBRE, revealed, 63 per cent of this age group who do not currently live at home are renting. It’s clear that it’s the so-called Generation Rent who will primarily be affected by any reduction in the quality of rented property.

And it’s clear that they are worried about the effect this new housing model could have on people’s lives – whether that means a lack of personal space, or a negative impact on mental health conditions, from depression and anxiety to agoraphobia.

Thea de Gallier, a 28-year-old journalist from east London, described the idea as terrible. “Millennials are constantly being told to lower their expectations, whether that’s to stop buying small luxuries or to stop being so offended at everything – and now they’re telling us we don’t need personal space.

“I’ve lived in a tiny room and it really affected my mental health. Granted if you’re living alone it may not be so bad having less space, but I think it would still be quite miserable and claustrophobic.”

Business owner Sophia Waterfield, 29, from Yorkshire, added: “I think this suggestion is skirting around the housing issue. You already have places in the city that do not have living areas, only bedrooms, shared kitchen and bathroom – so I don’t think having more of these will solve the problem. Renting prices need to come down and controlled properly, especially in cities such as London.”

Writer Ronan O’Shea, 31, from North London, also disagreed with the paper’s suggestion. “It sounds like a Band-Aid answer to me,” he said. “Humans require communal space – and community – in general. It seems like the sort of idea that would be used to benefit government statistics-wise.”

It’s not a surprise this so-called ‘solution’ has been widely slated. Can it really come as a shock that most people would like somewhere aside from the six-foot space around their bed to watch TV and dry their washing?

But, while many young people are opposed to this suggestion, others could be convinced.

Student Chiara Fiorillo, 21, lives in central London. She said: “Obviously price is often a key factor for young professionals and having a chance to rent a cheaper place always comes in handy.”


And Maria Mellor, 22, an office worker from Bristol, added: “This makes sense. I think young city-based professionals are willing to make compromises like this and it would work.

“I don’t think it’s going to be the solution to the housing crisis, but it will definitely relieve the pressure on strained systems.”

For some millennial renters, however, the paper’s description of societally mandated housing standards as “arbitrary” and “a scandal that compromises all our cities and lives”, couldn’t be further from the truth.

Solving the housing crisis, to them, means far more than simply providing the UK’s workforce with “small, clean, private” spaces to eat and sleep. They are not all ‘24/7 networkers’ – and the ability to sustain an existence outside of work is something they prize.

Will Pritchard, 27, a London-based freelance journalist said: “It’s important for maintaining a work-life balance that you have a space that you do more than just sleep in between work shifts. The report’s suggestion seems to perpetuate the idea that you need to sacrifice quality of life – or pay extortionate amounts – in order to live near your work in the city.

“The only other option seems to be living in the sticks and shouldering a crippling daily commute in return for a living room and a garden,” he added.

 “Without a living room, flatshares effectively become nothing more than a people storage solution,” says Matt Hutchinson, of flatshare site SpareRoom. “Feeling comfortable and happy at home is a basic requirement, not a luxury. We need to do far more to make sure homes are affordable for millennials, instead of telling them to downsize their expectations about having a living room.”

Ultimately, it’s hard to see this proposal making much of a dent in the UK’s current housing shortage. Houses are so much more than places to recharge our batteries before we return to contributing to the economy.

There’s something soulless about this vision of the future, and its refusal to acknowledge that a house or flat is also a home; a place of sanctuary, relaxation, and freedom.

Forget free education, citizens’ inheritances, or free bus travel; if a political party wants to win over “city-based young professionals” they need to start with policies a little closer to home.

 
 
 
 

The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.