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8 May 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:22pm

Tiny flats won’t solve the housing crisis, but they can help

For some, giving up a living room is better than living in a flat share.

By Sam Dumitriu

Do millennials need living rooms? When we published Patrik Schumacher’s treatise on London’s housing crisis, we expected to provoke a reaction. But the backlash to his call to allow developers to build “hotel room-sized” micro-flats for young professionals has bordered on absurd. Contrary to the assumptions of Mic Wright, Patrik is a “reasonable and decent human being” who cares deeply about the plight of young people.

In his paper, Schumacher argues that supply has been unable to meet rising demand in London because developers are blocked from building up and out. The result of protecting intensively farmed-land on the Green Belt and saving ASDA car parks in the Isle of Dogs is sky-high rents. He argues that if we scrapped the planning rules that throttle supply, young people might have enough leftover after paying rent to go to the pub.

This is hardly a fringe view. Economists Christian Hilber and Wouter Vermeulen point out that house prices would be 35 per cent lower if the most restrictive parts of the country (the South-East) were merely as restrictive as the least restrictive parts (the North-East).

Restrictions on development don’t merely push up prices: they also force people to economise on space.

Young professionals moving to the capital must decide between lengthy commutes, sharing with strangers, or spending their entire paycheck on rent. It’s in this context that Schumacher believes we should allow entrepreneurs to offer the option of compact studio-flats in Central London.

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As is common, critics have conflated arguing that we should allow something with arguing it ought to be compulsory. Living compactly is not for everyone, but many friends have admitted that they would have prefered living alone in a well-designed studio than chancing it with SpareRoom.

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Housing should “preserve human dignity”, but forcing millennials to house-share into their 30s doesn’t achieve that. For those who put a premium on privacy, the opportunity to live alone is key to dignified living.

It’s a myth that relaxing size-limits will lead to everyone living in rabbit-hutches. In Tokyo, where minimum floorspace requirements are laxer (25 square-metres), innovative architects can make even small spaces attractive.

Hiroyuki Ogaya Architects use large windows and sliding doors to create a bright and somehow spacious 34 square metre apartment (illegal in London) just ten minutes walk from central Shibuya.

In London, innovative property developer U+I have proposed building studio-flats as small as 19 square metres (their biggest would be 24 square metres) in Zone 1 and 2. By using space intelligently (cabin-beds) and combining it with shared communal areas including a co-working space and a shared rooftop dining area, they are able to provide desirable flats at Sadiq Khan’s London Living Rent.

Some fear a race to the bottom. They agree that micro-flats can be desirable, but are worried that unscrupulous developers and “rapacious buy-to-let landlords” will use it as an opportunity to exploit tenants.

The evidence doesn’t bear this out. In Tokyo, which along with lower floorspace minimums has made it incredibly easy to build, rents have fallen and average floorspace per person has increased. As blogger James Gleeson points out, Tokyo has achieved this in the context of rapid population growth (7.5 per cent over the last decade or so).

By allowing supply to meet rising demand, Tokyo has no need to scapegoat Russian oligarchs or Polish migrants for rising house prices.

Building more studio-flats in Central London won’t solve the housing crisis. But nobody is arguing that it would. If we want to deliver genuinely affordable housing for all, we need more of everything. More suburban development near railway stations on the Green Belt. More six-story mansion blocks in Zone 2 and 3. More skyscrapers in Zone 1.

But for the graduate moving to London starting out in PR, the option of an affordable studio flat in Central London might be too good to pass up.

Sam Dumitriu is head of research at the Adam Smith Inststitute.