No, microhomes are not the answer to London’s housing crisis

Probably not this small. Image: Wikipedia.

A Labour London Assembly member on the rise of the tiny houses.

For many people, the notion of home is as a sanctuary – a place where we can retreat from the trials and tribulations of the world outside. It’s tempting to take the roof over our head for granted, but for an increasing number of Londoners, fulfilling this basic need is out of reach.

There is more than enough evidence that proves the capital’s housing market is in tatters. Younger people in particular must endure extortionate private renting costs, with little hope of ever buying a place. Countless families are forced to live in homes that don't meet basic standards.

The number of people sleeping rough in our city more than doubled between 2009-10 and 2016-17 to more than 8,000 last year. Rough sleeping is the tip of the homelessness iceberg, with thousands of families in temporary accommodation, and many "hidden homeless" sleeping on friends' sofas, in airports or on public transport.

London’s housing crisis has been beyond the tipping point for too long. That serious intervention is necessary is indisputable, but what form that should take has been subject to some debate. There is a fine line between innovation and desperation. That is why this month I raised the issue of micro-homes with the mayor of London.

There is no strict definition of a micro-home. The term tends to refer to properties that are less than 37 square metres – about the size of a Tube carriage – which according to government standards should be the minimum for a one-bedroom flat. Last year, 7,809 micro-homes were built in Britain, up from 5,605 in 2015. While their popularity is growing, we need to be extremely wary about this new trend.

I was compelled to speak out about this after the property developer U+I suggested that micro-homes were the solution to our housing woes. The company has put forward proposals for flats that would fly in the face of minimum space standards. Some of them – at just 19 square metres – would be roughly the same size as two prison cells. Their appeal to the private sector is unsurprising when packing in lots of smaller homes would see developers’ profits soar.


The guidelines that govern how much space a property should have are there for a reason. Housing is intrinsic to quality of life – our surroundings have a profound impact on our wellbeing. It is abundantly clear that keeping Londoners confined in cramped conditions is not the way forward. Yes, the housing market is broken but a race to the bottom can’t fix it.

During his monthly question session, I asked Sadiq Khan whether he would use his planning powers to ensure that no homes that fall short of minimum space standards will be built in London on his watch. I was pleased that the mayor rejected micro-homes and sent a firm message to developers that they are not acceptable in London.

U+I claimed that the homes set out in their plans would be offered at London Living Rent. The cost of rent under this scheme, which the mayor and I both advocate, varies across London, and its level is based on a third of median local wages. The concept of micro homes is at odds with the ethos behind London Living Rent. This important initiative is about providing decent homes that people can afford to live in. It’s not about developers claiming credit for cutting corners.

As a society, we will only flourish and realise our full potential when our people are properly housed. In his quest to get to grips with London’s housing crisis, Sadiq Khan has set out an ambitious strategy. The mayor has pledged to make homes more affordable and demonstrated his commitment to ensuring that they meet space requirements. In the future, I am hopeful that one of his legacies will be transforming the experiences of so many Londoners who struggle to find a satisfactory place to live.

Britain already has some of the smallest homes in Europe. Campaigners fought tirelessly to secure minimum space standards and it is up to us to defend them.

Tom Copley is a member of the London Assembly where he is Labour's housing spokesperson. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

 
 
 
 

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.