The rise of co-living

Shared housing schemes are growing in popularity, but do they hold the answers to issues of affordability, supply and space?

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Just a few minutes’ walk from the station at London’s Willesden Junction, what looks, from the outside, like an ordinary office block, is actually, according to The Collective’s planning and communications director James Penfold, a “project challenging housing’s status quo”.

The Collective is an international co-living franchise that was founded ten years ago by London School of Economics graduate Reza Merchant. In addition to its Willesden location, the company currently has three sites in New York, one in Miami, one in Chicago, and is working on further projects in Germany as well as London’s Canary Wharf, Stratford and Hackney Wick.

Through the double doors and into the lobby in Willesden, the 546-room, 11-storey development is livelier than its greyscale exterior suggests. Multi-coloured sofas and chairs are scattered around the ground-floor reception, which is open 24 hours a day.

Take a right and you’ll find an on-site bar and restaurant, “open to the public but discounted for residents”. To the left, a hallway leads to “several conference rooms and modern workspaces”. Music is playing overhead. People – “the average age here is 30” – are coming and going. A guitar is left unattended, propped up against a tropical-looking plant. Upstairs, as well as a range of rooms and studio apartments, that start at a rate of £1,100 per month (all bills included), or £850 “with certain discounts, like if you work for the NHS, for example”, are a gym, a library, a cinema and a games room.

“When Reza left LSE,” Penfold explains, “he was looking for a room to rent in central London and couldn’t find anything. It sparked an idea in his mind about how to satisfy this huge demand for accommodation; there was a real lack of supply. He set up an agency from LSE’s library and it snowballed from there… he sorted out flat-shares and warehouse conversions. At one point he had converted an old brothel near King’s Cross into a 50-room co-living scheme. As the demand grew, The Collective was born, and there was the move to take this idea to a much larger scale. Reza noticed that a lot of landlords in the [housing] sector didn’t really take the experience of the consumer or the end-user into account. They were just after rent. So the other gap in the market was to offer services alongside a home.”

Whether The Collective could be considered more like a home or a hotel, “depends on what you’re prepared to put in yourself”, one former resident of the Willesden site tells me. Alex*, a software engineer from Wolverhampton, spent nine months in “the cheapest room on offer at the time” during his late 20s. “The all-inclusive bill was appealing and so were the cleaners [who came once a week]. In London, it’s really easy to get overwhelmed by work, so having the cleaning and stuff taken away was helpful.”

Is The Collective good value for money? The average monthly rent for an entire one-bedroom flat in Willesden, according to Zoopla, is £1,200, with bills on top. The average amount of floor space for a flat in the London borough of Brent, according to the London Datastore, is 61 square metres; while private rooms at The Collective’s Willesden site are just ten square metres.

However, the company “runs a lot of social events, clubs and stuff like that,” Alex recalls. “There were sport clubs, music, days out… they might get people in to give career talks. If you make the most of that, then yeah, I would say it is good value.” But there were negative aspects too. “The obvious con is that you’re compromising on space; the [bed]rooms are small… most people in co-living schemes are quite social to begin with. I guess you need a certain mindset to make the most of it. I think it suits single people. I don’t think you could really live there as a couple, or if you had a family.”

Scott Corfe, chief economist at The Social Market Foundation, a think tank based in Westminster, authored a report, Co-Living: A Solution to the Housing Crisis? in February. The report considered how co-living could address concerns around space and supply, as well as public health issues such as loneliness. “Co-living is a flexible concept,” Corfe says. “There are opportunities to have co-living projects that are both part-ownership or rent-based. What underpins both types of co-living is the idea of having communal spaces or facilities inbetween private rooms or housing. Because you’re sharing the costs over a larger group of people, you’re making things available, like a gym, or a swimming pool, say. Privately, people might not be able to afford those things. I suppose pricing [for rent] would come down to the balance that the developers placed between space and facilities. Something like The Collective might be priced at a premium because it’s got a lot of high-end facilities, and smaller rooms, but you’ve got to remember it’s not the only way of doing things. Co-living could just mean a group of houses or flats built closely together with a shared communal lodge. That might be cheaper. But in any case, there’s a big benefit to co-living beyond cost cutting, which is the social element.”

Last year, a joint study carried out by BBC Radio 4 and the Wellcome Collection found that young people were the most likely group in the UK to experience loneliness. Over 40 per cent of respondents aged 16-24 said they had felt lonely on a weekly basis in a nationwide survey. Corfe continues: “Post-university blues can be quite common. We shouldn’t think about loneliness as an issue specific to the elderly… having a community is important to young people as well, especially those who might have just moved to a new city by themselves. Maybe co-living can help with introducing people to new friends.”

Atif Shafique, a senior researcher for the public services and communities team at the Royal Society of the Arts, a social reform charity, co-authored a report, Co-living and the common good, in 2018. “If done right,” Shafique says, “co-living and community-led housing can be a useful tool for urban and community planning.” He adds: “It can help in terms of creating cohesive and integrated communities, with richer social capital and higher levels of trust.”

Although Shafique notes the advantages of co-living in terms of addressing “spare space, especially in cities”, he thinks that co-living’s contribution to solving the wider housing crisis requires some context. Many co-living projects, he points out, are “clearly targeted at relatively affluent professionals and don’t necessarily provide options for people on lower incomes, particularly families. Co-living mechanisms through Community Land Trusts [not-for-profit organisations set up by local people, usually in conjunction with a local council], where price inflation is controlled, may be better at meeting broader needs.”

James Penfold wouldn’t claim that co-living projects such as The Collective can provide a “silver bullet” for the housing crisis, but rather, says they should simply “form part of the mix”. He adds: “We don’t expect everyone to move into co-living projects. But if some people do choose to live in places like this, then that reduces the pressure on existing housing stock. People need different types of housing for different times in their lives.”

YorSpace, a community-led housing project, is building a co-housing community in Acomb on the outskirts of York that is focused more on the social aspect of co-living than the convenience of multiple on-site facilities. “A 0.75-acre parcel of land on the former Lowfields School site,” explains one of the project’s directors, James Newton, “is being bought from the council. There will be 19 homes, which are a mix of one and two-bedroom flats and two, three and four-bedroom houses. These are sold at below market rate. Everyone will have their own private dwelling and there will be communal facilities that include a large shared kitchen and dining space, laundrette, kids’ play rooms, guest rooms and workspaces.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a project based in the North of England, YorSpace, which will welcome its first group of residents later this year, is more modestly priced than similar projects in London. “Our houses are typically 60 per cent of the local market value and our monthly repayments are around 70 per cent when compared to the rates of local mortgage repayments,” Newton says.

Unlike The Collective, which is a rent-based project, YorSpace is a Community Land Trust that is using a co-operative “Mutual Home Ownership” model. “We are offering residents an opportunity to buy shares in the project. If you are in one of the homes, you have a stake, relative to that home’s size, in the co-op. It gives people a chance to grow equity over time.”

Who gets to live in a YorSpace development? “Anybody is able to join YorSpace as a member and we’ve had nearly 200 members join since our incorporation as a community benefit society in 2017. Any member can apply to be a resident in our developments [of which the Acomb site is the first] and their application will be assessed against the YorSpace allocations policy which prioritises people most in housing need and those with a strong connection to the city of York.”

But while co-living offers community, it also takes away responsibility. For Emily*, a lawyer in her 20s who previously lived in a warehouse conversion flat-share with eight other people in North London, co-living was not conducive to personal growth. “I think it can be fine for a while when you’re younger,” she says. “But, actually, managing your own bills is part of growing up. I don’t think it’s good for millennials to just have everything done for them. And as you get older, you want your own personal space, not just another version of student halls when you aren’t a student. I also don’t think getting someone to look after your cleaning is a good habit to get into.”

Nevertheless, co-living does raise some valid points to be considered in the UK’s housing conversation – especially in terms of urban planning and what happens to disused buildings. “As we struggle to deliver the 200,000 homes a year the UK needs, we should consider that the answer may not lie in traditional housing alone,” notes Sadie Morgan, the award-winning designer and founder of the architecture firm dRMM, who grew up in a commune in Sevenoaks. “As demographics change and we have to deal with an ageing population. We have to be smarter about the way we live. What we in the built environment must not forget is that houses are homes, homes make a community and communities make a place.”

Of course, whether the responsibility of modernising the UK’s housing mix should fall to the state or the private sector is a matter for debate. The fact remains, however, co-living in its current form, offers community only to those that can afford it.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman