Forget community: London’s co-living spaces are about living selfishly

The Collective co-living space in Old Oak, London. Photo credit Alice Whitby

The media’s obsession with millennials continues apace, and the focus has turned again to the concept of co-living.

Is co-living the new Airbnb for millennial nomads?” asks the Guardian. “Living with strangers holds the key to housing crisis and loneliness” claims The Times, suggesting “childless millennials” give it a go.

Communal living – where residents pool space, time and resources for shared benefit – could remedy a dysfunctional property market riddled with damp flats and replete with landlords syphoning off your paycheque for their pension.

But that’s not what’s on offer in London for aspiring co-livers. Companies like The Collective, Roam, Fizzy Living and Lyvly are all vying to cash in on the accepted wisdom that millennials are happy to compromise on space in return for an on-site gym. Websites with cheerful stock images promise concierges, community managers, cleaners and cinema rooms.

It’s the WeWork model expanded to leisure time. Co-working spaces thrive off oustourced housekeeping and shallow perks. Who needs wages that rise in line with living costs when you have beer on tap?

These companies have a similar allure. Redistribute the hassles of cohabiting with other humans in sub-par rentals. Avoid awkward spareroom scrabbling where one must suss out which potential flatmate might litter possessions with passive-aggressive post-it notes.

But as with open plan co-working-style offices that make us miserable, the promises of this housing model are hollow. 

Community can’t be bought with a deposit and a monthly rental fee. It doesn’t rely on underpaid staff to organise clutter and clean living areas.

Not having to draw up a cleaning rota for your housemates sounds appealing, but skipping negotiations over whose turn it is to clean the loo only trickles the burden downwards.

Anyone who has worked in an office with a kitchen will have witnessed and likely succumbed to this diffusion of responsibility.

It’s easy to assume that other people will sort out the mess. This is how cups pile up in the office sink and suspicious tupperware moulders in the back of the fridge. It falls on the office manager to deliver motherly chivvying, and the invisible office cleaners to arrive after dark and wipe down tea stains and toast crumbs.

The co-living model creates the conditions for collective apathy to emerge. If you’re not hashing out communal responsibilities with cohabitors, you’re not doing the work required to live in a community. Relying on a shadow workforce of zero-hour contract labourers is no substitute.

Feminists and socialists have long puzzled the problems of sharing labour, feeding inhabitants and maintaining a household. Today’s corporate co-living spaces are deliberately vague on such thorny political issues and offer none of the collective solidarities that co-housing movements in the 20th century strove to create.

Sharing meals is one of the most basic ways of bonding a human social group. In London’s co-living spaces, communal kitchens are touted as backdrops for group cookery classes. Dining rooms can be booked in advance with all the joy of a boardroom meeting.

In London’s co-living communities you’d be more likely to order a Deliveroo meal from one of the capital’s dark kitchens, exhausted from the sensory overload of a day in an open-plan office.

The “co” prefix is a misnomer: these are spaces for living selfishly. The radical promise of co-housing has been co-opted with nauseating capitalist buzzwords like “rentysomethings”.

The logic at play is peak tech bro: like replacing public transport with ride-sharing apps, corporate co-housing offers a private-sector fix that merely scrapes the surface of a problem that the market first created.

It could be otherwise. In Denmark, co-housing is a progressive alternative to the owner-occupier model. The Social Market Foundation think tank suggests government-backed schemes that allow residents to buy at a lower price in return for sharing rooms and facilities could be a UK version (though suggestion of luxury cinema rooms smacks suspiciously of developer-speak).  

But we need to act fast. Last week Chinese co-living company Danke Apartments received $500 million funding to upgrade its algorithms for its WeWork-style model that involves taking out loans in tenants’ names for them to pay back, instead of charging rent. Just no one tell London’s build-to-rent sector.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.