It is now widely agreed that the state of housing reflects the UK’s biggest long-term domestic policy failure. The decline in home ownership, and the shortage of social housing are among the presenting problems but one of the starkest signs of failure is the hopelessly high proportion of their income that renters in many areas, like London, particularly poor people and young people, spend on housing costs.
The current government is aware of the problem, perhaps reflecting ruefully on how previous Conservative administrations have used housing policy not only as a vote winner but as part of a core political narrative. Indeed, the paradigm of housing policy has reflected deeper assumptions and ideologies about the relationship between state and citizen; from the top down paternalism of the post war decades, to the aspirational individualism of Thatcher’s nation of home owners, to the harsher, more judgemental narrative which lies behind themes like anti-social behaviour, and policies like the bedroom tax.
Indeed, I am writing these words just days after Theresa May launched another initiative — this time aimed at the alleged land banking of developers — to demonstrate how seriously she takes public concern and also, perhaps, to suggest that her government is more willing than David Cameron’s to take on vested interests.
After decades when housing had low salience for national politicians it is now centre stage. The same was true in the post war period when party political broadcasts (which were then watched by millions) often featured competing boasts or promises on housing numbers. That concerted focus made a real difference with new builds reaching record levels. It remains to be seen whether today’s angst will lead to equal boldness.
The RSA was delighted to be asked to undertake this project by The Collective. This is partly because we are interested in the specific challenges and opportunities associated with co-living and are keen to place those issues in wider context. But it is also because through our proposed Housing Equity programme — described in Jonathan Schifferes and Atif Shafique’s essay — we want to encourage new thoughts and alternative approaches to our broader housing malaise.
The RSA has a distinctive, evidence-based way of viewing change, particularly change in complex areas involving human behaviour. We call this approach ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’. This is a response to two recurrent failings of policy which any observer of the housing scene will quickly recognise; on the one hand a tendency for interventions to be too scattergun rather than engaging strategically with the whole system which governs outcomes; and on the other hand to be too path dependent, either pressing on with policies which have major flaws or abandoning initiatives too early when they could potentially have been adapted in the light of experience.
This is how we will look at the wider housing system recognising that outcomes result from the combination of first, public policy in relation not just to housing but also associated areas like transport and broader economic policy; second, market processes, business goals and individual aspirations; third underlying assumptions about ways of living and working across the life course including the fact that — as Nicholas Boys Smith argues in his fascinating essay — the kind of community we sometimes say we want to live in doesn’t always align with the choices we actually make. A systemic analysis helps us understand where we are and imagine where we could be, but we then need an agile and adaptive path to change. Here the question is not so much ‘what is the change we want’ and more ‘from where is change most likely to emerge?’
This is one reason why the discussion of co-living and co-housing is so interesting. It is not a new idea but could its time have come? Different authors come at this from varying points. For Jess Steele the idea of co-living provides an opportunity (and a responsibility) to think differently about community and ownership. For Rohan Silva the imperative is to enable individuals to have choices which match modern aspirations. For Manisha Patel opportunities are being created by a combination of technology and new design thinking. For Nicholas Boys Smith it is in response not just to changes in housing but in response to wider shifts in demography and ideas about health and wellbeing.
The scope for co-living can be thought of using ‘three horizon’ thinking. Horizon one is where we are now, horizon two is the future which may occur as a result of innovative responses to the problems of the current system, while horizon three is a radically different vision, one which we can now only imagine but which could start to feel concrete and possible when we move beyond horizon one. Exploring the potential of co-living, we need to generate both horizon two and horizon three thinking but also distinguish between them.
The former sees co-living primarily as a response to current challenges; first, the interacting issues of constraints on building and affordability, second; the limitations and failings of the predominant current models of private renting in spaces of multiple occupation; third other changes in patterns of working and living and in people’s lifestyle priorities. Put simply, models of co-living are growing and getting more attention because they can offer people, particularly young people, more affordable, more convenient and more enjoyable ways of living. The strength of this argument doesn’t mean — and all our authors recognise this in one way or another — that there aren’t issues that need to be managed and dangers that should be avoided (for example that co-living options are too homogeneous and exclusive), but nevertheless it is difficult to see any reason why co-living shouldn’t become a much more mainstream housing solution particularly in areas of high demand and limited supply.
But — and again this a recurrent theme in our essays — today’s pragmatic solutions should also help us begin to bring that more radical third horizon into view. The current housing system is both one which denies people choice but also one which directs people to make choices they might prefer to avoid. Most obviously, to own a home means, for many, a career’s worth of debt to pay back, extended travel to work and the loss of existing community and attenuation of family connections. In this sense we can see co-living — at that third horizon — as both offering new choices for those who see greater communality as part of how they want to live, work and thrive, but also as a way of enabling people to avoid or delay the oppressively big choices the current system imposes. So, flexible ownership schemes can enable people to invest in their home without having to take on a thirty year mortgage. Equally, family oriented co-living can enable people to have the housing they need without having to move to the suburbs, or even enable older people to use the wealth of their old home to access support in an environment that supports ongoing independent but is designed to counter loneliness. It is interesting to see how often issues around intergenerational living crop up in our essays.
The fundamental failing of housing today in many parts of the UK is that instead of the system existing and evolving around the needs of the people, the people must bend and constrain their capabilities and hopes to fit the vagaries of the system. Co-living today offers an important way of helping some people in some places find an answer that works for them: our authors think it should and it will grow. But the champions, and friendly critics of co-living need also to take each next step with the vision in mind of a housing system in which the many different lives we might want to live are accommodated by many different types of homes that best reflect our needs and aspirations.