By Vivienne Shirley, Senior Consultant
As Londoners spend almost a third of income on rent, and the number of homeowners under 45 falls by almost a million from 2010 to 2016, is it time to look at micro-homes?
The housing crisis shows no signs of abating, with the number of homeless people who have died on the streets or in temporary accommodation in the UK more than doubled over the last five years. Policies such as Help to Buy and Right to Buy garner positive soundbites for the government but may not actually be helping the situation. Meanwhile, average house prices have quintupled over the last 50 years. As the sector explores new ways to provide truly affordable housing, the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) has released a controversial new report arguing micro-homes could be part of the solution.
The report points out that many Londoners are ‘forced to endure long commutes, live in overcrowded shared flats, or leave the city’, as housebuilding fails to keep up with population growth. By scrapping space requirements for flats to allow the creation of ‘micro-housing’ – homes smaller than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space – young professionals who value location over size could live centrally at an affordable price. While author Vera Kichanova admits micro-housing would not suit everyone, she argues it would expand the home options for city dwellers and consist of custom-designed units that make good use of space, often accompanied by communal amenities.
Co-living comes forward
Micro-housing overlaps heavily with co-living, in which residents generally live in studios with en-suite bathrooms, and get the use of the building’s communal facilities such as gym, bar and cinema. Co-living is therefore a sociable option for renters, with several schemes already up and running in London having innovated around the planning system.
However, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) only counts co-living homes as part of councils’ five-year housing land supply in so far as they release ‘traditional’ homes to the market – which likely leads councils to discriminate against co-living schemes. Another issue is the fact that co-living does not have residential use classification, making it harder to carve up and sell properties. Kichanova notes the new draft London Plan sets no minimum space standard for co-living units, but argues its definition of co-living is too narrow and introduces arbitrary rules – many micro-housing schemes would not qualify.
Impact on mental health
After housing, another major crisis facing young people today is loneliness, with research by the Mental Health Foundation showing that loneliness was a greater concern for 18 to 34-year-olds than over-55s. With the rise of social media and uncertain working and living conditions, perhaps this is not surprising. While co-living schemes aim to help with this – for example, The Collective Old Oak in London, the world’s biggest co-living development, runs yoga classes, film nights, and running clubs – there are concerns that micro-homes that lack communal areas could fuel mental health issues. Anecdotal evidence describes people living in confined spaces feeling claustrophobic, chaotic and embarrassed to invite people over. However, there is not yet enough research to show if well-designed, purpose-built units would have as negative an effect.
Money money money
While the report argues that micro-homes would enable people to live centrally at an affordable cost, the evidence of existing co-living schemes suggests otherwise. They are often expensive – the smallest rooms at Old Oak cost upwards of £850 pcm – and do not require affordable housing provision. While micro-housing schemes that lack communal facilities would likely be cheaper than co-living developments, it is unclear how much cheaper – and some fear that scrapping minimum size requirements would simply lead to developers squeezing in more units and upping profit, while lowering quality and space. Though rent levels might be lower per flat, they could be higher per square metre than under existing rules.
As the country continues to grapple with the housing crisis, it remains to be seen whether policy-makers embrace micro-housing as part of the solution or reject ‘rabbit hutch’ housing.
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