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Is Co-living Really the Answer to the Housing Crisis?

01/07/2016 15:41 | Updated 01 July 2016

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'Co-living' is the term of the moment.

Everyone's talking about it, writing about it, thinking about it, or even doing it, and against the backdrop of rising house prices, soaring rent and a shortage of homes, many are hailing co-living as a solution to the housing crisis in London and other big cities across the globe.

There have been a number of major projects popping up which claim to be at the forefront of the 'co-living' movement. In the US, the big players moving in this space include Common and WeLive, and in the UK, we have recently seen the opening of a North London-based 551-bedroom block The Collective, complete with library, co-working space, communal gardens, roof terrace, cinema, gym, concierge, cleaning and laundry services, communal DJ decks, ping pong table, games room, spa, sauna, multiple dining areas and organised events such as cooking classes.

The housing crisis, to many, means a severe lack of affordable housing, but at a cost of around £1100 a month to rent a room in The Collective, it can hardly be seen as 'affordable'. With included services such as a cleaner and someone to change your sheets each week, it's hard not to see these units as 'luxury' flats.

Let's not forget that many of these projects are venture capital-backed, and can easily be seen as just a way for developers to make money. The 'frills' and extras do not require the overhead spend anywhere near the cost of actual physical space. With units at The Collective averaging a measly 10 metres squared, the business model here is pretty clear.

Profit-incentives aside, let's take a step back and try to understand why these tiny, fairly expensive, very basic rooms have become so popular.

Co-living, a portmanteau of 'communal' and 'living', is described by The Collective as 'a new way to live', and 'a way of living focused on a genuine sense of community, using shared spaces and facilities to create a more convenient and fulfilling lifestyle.'

The Collective offers rooms which are convenient, timesaving (for chores such as cleaning), and certainly take the hassle out of setting up and paying bills. However, overwhelmingly, it seems the rise of co-living is because of the allure of a strong community. Co-living is seen as an attractive way to find similar people with whom to make friends, create, and work together. Afterall, humans are social creatures, and big-city-living can be a lonely experience.

With more job opportunities and therefore more people concentrated in cities, those who live in them have become an increasingly individualised, stressed, anxious and pressurised people, as highlighted by studies such as the Dr Jaap Peen et al. 2010 report on 'The current status of urban-rural differences in psychiatric disorders'.

Traditional communities where people spent a lot of time with their neighbours and extended family are virtually impossible in modern city-living, and now, especially amongst Millennials and younger generations, there is a growing desire to be able to move around and live anywhere, be it for work opportunities or simply for experiences.

The Collective, WeLive and Common have created their own spaces to meet this growing trend and desire for co-living. However, if the rise of co-living is at its root, born out of a lost sense of community, it begs the question, why aren't people creating their own 'co-living' experiences themselves? Yes, the rental market needs a major overhaul, but there are many apps and startups trying to do this which go some way to enable 'platform cooperativism'  - the idea that communities can democratically own, build and manage themselves.

Communal living is certainly not a new idea, and communes, kibbutzes etc. have been around for a long time. The difference with 'co-living' is that with new platforms and technologies, people can go to places not formed around simply living in one geographical area and sharing resources, but actually curating their 'tribe' by shared interests, passions and professions.

Sites like Coliving.com and Cohousing.org.uk exist explicitly to enable co-living, and even the popular site Spareroom.com can enable users to search for like-minded people to live with.

Then there are platforms such as Splittable, an app to split costs with your housemates such as rent, bills, groceries and nights out, then apps such as Homeslice or OurHome to manage household chores. On top of this, there are on-demand apps such as Handy for hiring cleaners, plumbers etc., and food delivery services such as HelloFresh which provide ingredients to cook shared meals.

By removing the administrative burden of running a household, and making shared living as fair, transparent, hassle-free and easy to manage as possible, these apps, platforms and services enable housemates to focus on community, forming long-lasting relationships and creating their own co-living experience.

As rents and house prices rise, people are living in house shares for longer  -  whilst it was once seen as unusual, it is now very much the norm to be living with housemates well into your 30s and beyond.

The benefits of co-living could well be adopted by not just young, single people too. Actually, couples, older people, and even families could benefit  - sharing the burden of childcare would be especially useful when thinking about 'the future of living and communities'.

If technologies, platforms and mindsets allow, shared living spaces, resources and time could make for a harmonious and enjoyable experience, perhaps for life.

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