Co-Living: The End of the Affair?

The End of the Affair
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Co-Living: The End of the Affair?


What do Maurice Bendrix, Gordon Comstock and Sherlock Holmes all have in common? No, it’s not that they’re all fictional characters, although they are. That would be too easy. 


It’s that they all rented rooms. Known as a pension de famille in France or a fremdenheim in Germany, the boarding house/shared living, has been around for generations: in reality and depiction, it is, and was, commonplace.


Previous attempts at co-living had a social purpose, were high profile, but relatively short-lived. In 1934, Inter-war postmodernist pioneer Wells Coates’ designed Isokon in Lawn Road Hampstead. It was conceived as a co-living project. Many of the features of Modern-Day Co-living were apparent in the Wells Coates design and philosophy. But Isokon was part of a wider movement by the Modern Architectural Research Group (MARS) which, in turn, was an offshoot of the Congrès internationaux d'architecture moderne (CIAM) organized, in part, by Le Corbusier.  CIAM was a highly influential organisation which looked to promote the ideals of the Modernist movement.  The MARS project also gave rise to Kensal House. Conceived by Maxwell Fry and social reformer Elizabeth Denby, it was built in 1937. It was the first of the postmodern housing estates and underpinned the movement’s focus on civic equity over monitory concerns with the belief that a good standard of life should be available to all.


So, there is no new thing under the sun.


In terms of design, very few postmodern housing schemes are nowadays seen as a success. Principally, because many found the architecture somewhat inhuman in scale.  Unfortunately, we also seem to have lost the social imperative with the discovery that community can be highly commoditised.


Why is it that Co-Living has so many in its thrall when it appears to be little more than an over-inflated HMO with knobs on?  Does Co-Living do what it professes to do, or have the ‘charismatics’ and their acolytes woven a particularly alluring spell to confound our senses? Or Is it simply that it turbo-charges Return On Investment by doubling up on what it charges per square inch?


It would be unfair, perhaps, to spotlight any operator or building in particular, but it would be right to go back to the beginnings of modern-day Co-Living in the UK when it became a ‘thing’ in most people’s minds.  The Collective at Old Oak was an early adopter of the style.  Their Development Director at the time said the scheme’s goal was “to provide for young professionals who struggle to afford good quality traditional housing products” It took the HMO to the next level with promises of affordability, community, engagement, a bar, music and a loneliness free zone.


But whilst co-living may be making good on its vibrant party lifestyle, it’s not, and never was fulfilling the affordable part of it’s claimed DNA. And as far as the community element is concerned, there are aspects of the genre that militate against forming a community as it would commonly be accepted.


A recent co-living Design & Access Statement claims: “a unique housing concept offering low cost rented accommodation to young professionals” 


Clearly, the phrase ‘low cost’ is transmutable.


The residential industry as a whole has played fast and loose with the interpretation of ‘affordable’. The co-living sector is no exception and it rarely aligns with rents paid in the social sector. To my mind, for homes to qualify as affordable they must pass two tests:


  1. Rents must be set at levels equivalent to those paid locally by tenants in local authority or housing association homes.
  2. Such homes must meet Nationally Described Space Standards (NDSS)


Anything else is not truly affordable and should not be described or qualify as such.


To illustrate how the affordable moniker has been corrupted; a London borough has recently given the green light to a co-living scheme where 35% of the units have been ‘given over’ to affordable housing.  So far so good. But the units, (I can’t bring myself to call them homes) are only 17m2, less than half the size of the smallest studio flat under NDSS, and the rents are based on a discount to open market rent which has been accepted by the LA as £1,300pm. To put that into context, it is possible to rent a one-bedroom flat in the same area for that sum.


If that’s not bad enough; the discount applied to 50% of the so-called affordable units is a mere 10%.  Couldn’t be any worse? Well, try this: the ‘lucky’ tenants will only be able to reside on a licence with no protection whatsoever.


It’s possible even this could be claimed as a victory since many co-living schemes provide no social or affordable housing at all. Carved advantageously, as many were, from PDR conversions. But if it is a victory, it can only be described as pyrrhic.


Manchester City Council’s recent executive report on co-living criticised it as “not an affordable housing product on a price per sqm basis…” and “Given the size and nature of the product, the smaller co-living studio spaces would not be considered acceptable as permanent homes for residents”


So, it’s pretty clear that co-living doesn’t live up to its affordable claim. But what of its community credentials?


Communities are formed organically, over time by individuals with some common interests, mutual goals and social imperatives. They are sustainable and sustained by long-term investment and commitment to that community. The individuals concerned hold a form of social equity. Co-housing models, collectively rented or owned, would be an example of this.


Communities are not, in my view, synthetic, commercially driven constructs where there is a reciprocal imbalance between those who provide services and those who pay for and use those services.  Straightforwardly, that is customer service resulting in (hopefully) a positive customer experience (CX). Since it doesn’t display mutuality, it is evidently not a community. The intermingling of individuals on film nights or during live music events or at a bar cannot be described as a community. Many of the occupants are transient, some forcibly so since some co-living blocks operate under a C1 user class and must limit occupier time, so residents are clearly unable to participate in, or form a community. That takes commitment and investment; in time, in energy and in other people.


The idea that co-living in this, its most commoditised form, is affordable or communal is risible. This is neo-liberal urbanism at its worst. It has taken what was an idea to reform housing, to make it accessible to all, to develop community and social purpose, and ruthlessly monetised it with cultish zeal and evangelism. It has become, as many things have, all about marketing.


No wonder perhaps, that investors are piling in.


And Covid-19 has highlighted its shortcomings. Locked in a micro-apartment of between 10m2 and 17m2, with the inability to use any of the much-vaunted communal spaces or amenity, the reality of what really matters becomes apparent. Does contact with fellow tenants by app or Zoom really cut it? How much can mindfulness sessions or online yoga compensate for a room in which you can barely lie sideways? What damage is being done to the mental health of renters self-isolating in a virtual straitjacket?


The current crisis has illustrated how effectively people can work from home. During this time, we have seen data confirm an exodus to the suburbs and rural locations where space and the ability to breath are not at a premium and where confinement isn’t so…. Confining. Quality of life is being re-defined, priorities re-assessed, and it may not be all about 24-7 curated events or spoon-fed community.  It may in fact be about a life in which one re-connects with reality and responsibility, with the earth, with truth, with integrity and with what really matters.


So, what now for the co-living movement?  Have we come to the end of the affair? Actually, I believe there’s a place for it.  But not at the behemothic scale currently in fashion.  It has become bloated, excessive, self-important, narcissistic and irrelevant.  Early schemes were smaller, affordable and communal. Rooted, as they were in a worthy form of housing that has been with us for many years. Yes, we do need to look at how renting can be improved in all its forms and, some ten years ago, Build to Rent ignited that discussion and has made great strides in revolutionising the experience. Co-living should go back to its roots and rediscover its real purpose. It should give renters decent personal space within which to retreat that isn’t compromised by excessive amenity and cynically commoditised community. It should be authentic, be genuinely affordable and have social value.


Once in a lifetime events such as C-19 have a habit of instilling great clarity with which we re-evaluate the most important elements of life. We’re drawn back to our centre. Housing of all types will be subject to such scrutiny. If not by housing professionals, certainly by the instinct within us all now that our personal dials have been reset. Clever marketing and modish brand become so much ephemera since they offer no tangible or lasting improvement or enrichment to life. Certainly not as it has been laid bare to us all now. In my view, this modern iteration of co-living does not meet our rediscovered values and if our affair with it has not yet reached its conclusion, the end of the affair cannot be far off.


Thank you for reading


Richard Berridge.  May 6th. 2020

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