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.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.