The trend for co-living is evolving. In the next few years more units will appear in London, and in Manchester, too. While researching a piece about them recently I spoke to several companies who want to move into co-living; from traditional, well-established property developers such as Allied London, to arty, design-led start-ups like Noiascape.
Co-living buildings provide small apartments or rooms as well as communal spaces such as a library, restaurant, or co-working space. Freelancers or entrepreneurs can get work done, then sign off and mingle with people doing the same thing in the evening.
The trend originated in the US with the likes of WeLive and Ollie. The Collective, the UK’s largest example of co-living opened its first apartment block in north-west London in early 2016. Experts writing on this site were skeptical at the time: the tiny, relatively expensive bedrooms the building offered didn’t exactly persuade anyone that a solution to the housing crisis had been found.
But my knowledge of housing is what I’ve learnt from my own expensive, mould-laden, experiences of renting, and I was initially quite taken with the idea. I am, after all, a target demographic for the model: freelance, young, jaded by private renting and unlikely to ever own my home.
Instead of worrying about those concerns, I could embrace being, “mobile” and “experience-led” along with lots of other people in the same situation that is, if I were to put all my trust in the developers I’ve spoken to. “People don’t care about ownership, nowadays,” I’ve been told several times by people, who, by nature of their very profession, own a lot of property.
While there are some positives in the model, such as the social aspect, it’s hard to shake the feeling that these options represent a sticking plaster fix to two converging problems: precarious work and not enough decent, spacious, affordable places to live.
Co-living spaces also benefit, in my opinion, from the current trend of seeing anything associated with words like “start-up” and “tech” as inherently exciting and good – and therefore not requiring much scrutiny. Housing experts say that building standards in such spaces are often lower than normal.
Super-productive precarious work
In the UK over 15 per cent of all people in work are now self-employed, a record number. And it’s well-documented that self-employed people are finding the experience tough, with mental health problems like anxiety being a common side-effect of irregular work and pay.
On paper, grouping people who are in this situation together, in either a co-working or co-living space, could help by providing a support network, as well as normalising being self-employed.
But Ollie Mould, a human geographer at Royal Holloway, University of London, who has written a book about the co-working trend, suggests that often, co-working leads to nothing more than the pressure to perform work without support.
“It is the atomisation of work and skills,” he told me. “Co-working buildings often adjoin the word ‘collaboration’ to individual work, when it’s nothing more than individuals working in the same space. Even if they are working in teams, they are doing so because they’ll get something out of it themselves. It’s competitive.”
Now that the co-working concept has been extended to also living where you work, he is concerned those feelings of pressure will only intensify.
“Co-living seems like another movement in work that aims to make us more productive and have more free time – but actually that free time isn’t used, except to just do more work, meaning that work is ever encroaching on home life. It’s just given up on those boundaries.”
Inside the Collective. Image: Getty.
There are opportunities to chill out at co-living spaces, but they could easily blur with ‘networking’, such as at evening talks, which has nothing to do with chilling out.
There are yoga and mindfulness sessions advertised at places like the Collective too, which, to me, sounds good on paper. But this also speaks to a culture obsessed with performing at the highest level. It tells you: ‘‘Relax, sure, but in this healthy and socially acceptable way.”
Then there’s the demographics and locations of the buildings to consider. The Collective’s next opening will be Stratford, in Newham, one of the poorest boroughs in London and is part of the government’s regeneration scheme in the area.
But its facilities not likely to provide a solution for families in need of housing in Newham, says Penny Bernstock, the director of the Centre for East London studies, at the University of East London, who also sat in on the planning meetings for the new, nine-storey building as an observer.
The site will include communal kitchens as well as a gym, sauna, library, cinema room, outdoor hot tub, roof terraces, a gallery space and a “Hackney Wick-inspired” food market, according to press releases. It sounds like a corporate-hipster paradise, which is not a good sign.
What does ‘shared-values’ mean in this context, one wonders. It’s very obvious from the list of included facilities given above that this Stratford co-living space is basically for young professionals who want to live in east London without having to actually touch it.
Bernstock said: “I initially was quite interested in the idea, I thought it was reference to something quite progressive – communal living. But I’m not convinced it is, or that it’s contributing a solution to the housing crisis in Newham. It’s the warehousing of young graduates in one place.”
She added the quality standard of mixed use buildings tends to be lower. “A lot like luxury student housing that is being built all over the country – multi-purpose buildings such as this – living spaces can be much smaller.”
This is partly, she explains, because, like with students, they expect the population to be temporary. Perhaps the councils approving these blocks hope that that people will come and stay in the co-living space and then move out and settle in the area.
So are they the future?
Not all these properties are developing in the same way. For example, the architects behind Noiascape did tell me they wanted ensure a percentage of flats were rented at a rate tied to local wages, and would ensure a portion were rented to over-65s. Those stipulations would go some way to preventing a homogeneous and ephemeral population in the building – but for most of the co-living spaces I’ve heard from, these concerns weren’t heard.
Unless the model is more regulated or evolved to be something more progressive and positive, it’s hard not to see them as being a lose-lose development in housing. For the people living in them, they are small and low-quality. For the areas around them, they don’t provide more housing nor even potential new customers to local businesses, as they do everything (food, gyms etc.) in-house.
For those living in them, Ollie Mould puts it even more starkly: “All these spaces do, really, is take advantage of people who are actually quite precarious. They can’t afford to live anyway, so they are going to these places where they can live and work together, thinking they might as well constantly be at work as that might keep them economically safer.” Revolutionary? Perhaps not.
Editor’s note: this article was amended on 15 November to correct some minor inaccuracies.