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.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.