It’s easy to forget that just a few years ago, nobody had ever heard of co-working. Now there’s virtually a WeWork on every corner – so it was only a matter of time before the idea was applied to other areas. Enter co-living. For those not familiar with the term, it’s essentially the concept of living in shared accommodation with communal amenities and spaces, with the aim of fostering a community. It’s not a new idea – it dates back to housing schemes of a century ago, such as tenements and the hippy communes of the 1970s. But the co-living of today is different because it’s specifically targeted to the younger generations living in cities, and largely consists of huge developments made up of small units or apartments with shared recreational spaces – think glorified student halls of residence or high-end hostels.
Some are calling the rise of co-living a reaction to the housing crisis faced by younger generations – skyrocketing housing prices and plateauing wages are making buying a home in the city almost impossible, while escalating rents in the private sector (not to mention the often sub-standards of living) are making this way of renting increasingly unfeasible – sounds familiar, right? The concept has even been flaunted as an antidote to loneliness.
But at the end of the day, these co-living developments are businesses and there's a very obvious benefit for landlords: blocks like these can yield a higher return per square metre than traditional property leases. Ten tenants willing to share a living room, after all, means they need less relaxing space in their unit, leaving more room for other units, which can in turn be rented by more tenants.
Which begs the question, is co-living just the latest way for landowners to squeeze as much cash out of their assets as possible?
A point that definitely needs consideration is that as the idea of co-living is new, there is currently no minimum space standard for these units – although London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who does not support micro-flats, "will produce planning guidance for minimum space standards if necessary."
The Collective's Old Oak, near Willesden Junction, is the world’s largest co-living block. Here, the rent for a 12-square-metre 'studio' unit starts at £1,300 per calendar month. To put this into perspective, the average studio flat for rent in England (not in London, to be fair) measures 31.94 square metres. To some, it might seem crazy to pay that much for a cupboard-sized space in NW10, but the fact that people are willing to do so is testament to how bad the rental landscape has become.
"Before I found The Collective, I was looking at small one-beds and studios which weren’t great quality and I was very dubious about house shares – you're kind of stuck with people and you have no idea if you'll be compatible until you're moved in," one resident explains to me. The on-site amenities also provide a tempting lure: Old Oak boasts a gym, bar, restaurant, cinema room, roof terrace, spa and communal lounge, which is decorated like a hipster hotel. One 29-year-old tenant agrees it’s not the cheapest way to rent: "On paper it seems quite expensive, but the value is in all of the additional amenities you get and the weekly community events." The main downside for most residents is lack of space. "More private space would be beneficial; it’d be nice to curl up on my own sofa and watch terrible Netflix," another says.
Part of the allure with co-living properties is that they are totally hassle-free: bills are included, so no waiting for weeks on end for Wi-Fi connection or messing about with energy suppliers; furniture is provided (not that there’s space for you to bring your own anyway); and twice-weekly cleaning and even bed linen changes come as standard. "One of the good things here is that there's just one payment to cover all bills. It makes for easy budgeting," says another renter from Old Oak. It’s easy to understand why people would want that stress removed from their lives. Who wouldn’t? Students can move straight from halls into a shiny new apartment without much more than a couple of suitcases. But isn’t this infantilising young people? Won’t this stop them learning how to pay their bills, change their sheets and use a scouring pad in the real world? Perhaps, but then again, if this really is the future of living, they might not ever need to.
The Collective’s co-living model isn’t the only one. In London, developments such as Tipi and Fizzy Living offer self-contained one to three-bed flats with all the amenities, shared spaces and perks of developments like Old Oak, but with more generous private quarters and more autonomy (unfurnished options, pets allowed). Situated in Wembley Park near an outpost of Boxpark, Tipi’s flats start at £1,895 per month for a 50-square-metre one-bedroom unfurnished flat.
Robbie, 28, and girlfriend Lauren, 25, have lived here since December and believe that they’re getting good value for money. Once they added up bills, their flat was a little more than renting a one-bedroom flat elsewhere: "For us, it was a no-brainer. I’m happy to pay a premium for everything to be set up and take away all the stress of admin," he says. Another Tipi resident agrees: "We’re international students and just moved here from Australia, so for us it was worth it not to have to deal with bills and setting up Wi-Fi. We’ll probably stay until we finish uni at least."
The only slight downside, according to Robbie, is the location: "Compared to Balham, where we lived before, there aren't many nice pubs and cafés yet. But overall, we’d recommend it as somewhere to live. It’s just little things, like having someone to take your packages 24/7 – that’s a massive bonus." For Jemma, who’s lived at Tipi for over a year, it was the high spec of the flats (furnished with John Lewis and Samsung products) that drew her in: "I was sick of living in places that weren’t up to scratch. When you’d go to viewings with estate agents, there was always something wrong."
Like other co-living operations, Tipi runs a programme of communal events such as supper clubs and quiz nights, but joining in isn’t for everyone. "The last thing I want to do when I get home from work is socialise with people I don’t know," says Robbie. "I can’t say much for the community, I’ve never been one to participate in these sorts of activities," says someone else.
Yet this ready-made 'community' is frequently used as the main selling point for co-living. Loneliness is now widely considered an 'epidemic' in the UK — particularly for older and younger members of the population. The Mental Health Foundation reports that nearly 60% of 18 to 34-year-olds feel lonely often or sometimes. It’s thought that co-living could help to combat loneliness by fostering communities and friendships through interaction in common spaces. It makes sense that this would be a draw in a city like London. "When I first chose to move to London I was worried that I'd struggle to find new friends and integrate socially, so the collective seemed to be the perfect solution to that – a community in a box. The moment I arrived, I was greeted into a group of people of all age ranges, backgrounds and professions," explains one person from Old Oak.
Some, of course, may argue that developers are simply capitalising on loneliness, using shared spaces for working and recreation to justify the small footprint of the units and the comparably higher rents, but it’s clear some residents relish the community aspect. "I do like to get involved [in events]. I didn’t know anyone in the area when I moved here – now I’ve made friends for life. You don’t really get that just renting privately in London," says Jemma.
Co-living enterprises typically offer short-term contracts (starting from four months at The Collective). This means they can act as stop-gaps while newcomers look for other accommodation, or just trial their new digs before committing. For these people, communal living areas and a sense of community (however contrived) create a sense of belonging, but as one resident points out, the community only exists if you put the work in. "If you're looking for a room to spend all of your time in, then no, this isn't the place for you – but if you're looking for a comfortable place to sleep, a cinema room, a gym, a bar and restaurant etc, and a friendly group of friends and neighbours, then yes, it's worth every penny," says one resident of The Collective.
This summer, The Collective will open a new location in Canary Wharf, and a Stratford branch is in the pipeline. While it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, there seems to be no doubt that co-living is only going to become more commonplace.
And when you look at our increasingly outsourced lifestyles, the concept is the next logical step in many ways. Will it be the future of city living? Some early adopters think so. "I believe that the future is definitely co-living, finding the perfect balance between community and having your own space," says a renter at The Collective’s Old Oak block.
There’s clearly a range of motivations for choosing co-living, and living this way does seem to have its benefits – combating loneliness and the mental health implications associated with it can only be a positive thing. Planners and architects are even thinking this model could be beneficial to the elderly, too (with some tweaks, naturally). But as a relatively new initiative, more research and legislation need to be put in place to ensure these schemes are genuinely helping people and solving problems, not profiteering from them. Watch this space.