Last year, one memorable headline hit the UK Press: London rents are so high it is now cheaper to live in Barcelona and fly to work. While most of us aren’t yet prepared to pack up our bags and move to sunnier – more affordable – European destinations, this statistic epitomizes the scale of the affordable housing crisis now facing the UK.
On average, house prices in the UK are almost seven times people’s incomes, and house prices in London have risen by 222% since 1999 (Shelter, 2016). While many of us have gradually become immune to these housing statistics and have quietly resigned ourselves to the knowledge that we’ll never be able to afford a place of our own, we can forget that the housing crisis isn’t really about bricks and mortar, but people. It’s the young family lying awake at night wondering how they will meet next month’s mortgage repayment. It’s the children, facing yet another first day at school, as they have been forced to move homes again. It’s the 3,500 people across the UK – double that of 2010 – who will sleep rough tonight, without any roof overhead (Crisis, 2016).
Britain’s housing crisis is nothing new. In 2004, a review into the UK Housing situation concluded that 250,000 homes would need to be built each year in order to keep up with demand (Barker Review, 2004). We have failed to reach this target every single year since. Instead, the government has focused on initiatives, such as the help-to-buy scheme, which have made it easier for people to borrow and build up deposits to afford increasingly expensive properties. These schemes have done little to address the underlying supply shortage of homes, and have left people on ordinary incomes unable to afford to buy or rent for the long-term. It is clear that a different approach is desperately needed. Short of commuting from Barcelona, what alternatives are out there?
When we think of “smart homes”, our minds immediately jump to thoughts of lights that turn on with the click of a finger, or a fridge that can tell us when we’re low on milk. However, for many of us affected by the UK housing shortage, our vision of an ideal home is instead one that is simply comfortable and affordable. Yet, somehow, this vision seems more unattainable at times than the futuristic gadgets of the smart home era. Instead, Chototel is using “smart home” technology to make housing more affordable and better to suited to what we really need. Chototel is building “super-budget” hotels, with rents starting at just $2 (£1.50) a night! Guests can stay for as long or a little as they like, and rooms include all the necessary home comforts along with access to uninterrupted utilities. All this is made possible through the use of innovative IoT technology, which has automated many of the tasks previously reliant on staff. Guests can check-in and out using their Smartphones, as well as monitor and pay for utilities on a real-time basis. Chototel is also committed to fostering a sense of community for its residents: it’s pilot project, based near Mumbai, India will include a community kitchen, a crèche and a children’s play area. If brought to London, Chototel could potentially cut Londoners rent to 1/12th of the current cost of a double room in East London, meaning we can forgive the absence of a talking fridge, for now (Workgateway, 2016).
Self-styled as a “disruptive alternative to the way people live”, Welive offers flexible, co-living spaces with a built-in sense of community. The project is the sister brand of the hugely successful co-working company, Wework, which has spread its innovative concept of collaborative, community-based workspaces to cities across North America, Europe, Asia and South America. Welive’s flexible contracts enable tenants to stay on a month-to-month basis, shaking up the rigidity of the current rental sector, that locks tenants into long-term lease agreements of twelve months or more. What really distinguishes Welive from the current rental housing market, however, is its commitment to community. The co-living space offers campus-like perks such as housekeeping, yoga and even free beer, that manages to successfully strike the balance between student housing and hotels. With the co-working model, Wework, now valued at $16 billion, it seems the “We” brand’s tenets of flexibility and community are in high demand. While the current cost of living in Welive does not come cheap – a place in Welive’s central New York branch will set you back £980 per month – what is certain is that the modern concept of “co-living” is something quite different to the hippy communes of the sixties and seventies. Co-living responds to our modern need to live as part of a community and, if made more readily available, could be the answer to high housing prices as tenants share costs, as well as space.
The quirkily named Fizzy Living promises to “reinvent renting”, and now has apartment buildings in 5 locations across London. Similar to Chototel and Welive, Fizzy has recognised our need for more flexible living, and offers tenants flexible monthly lease terms. Fizzy’s target demographic is clearly defined: young professionals seeking high-quality private rental accommodation. Like Chototel, Fizzy has embraced technology to simplify guests’ rental experience by providing an online tenancy portal where tenants can pay their rent and check their tenancy information. Above all, Fizzy has positioned itself as the straightforward, reliable landlord in a private rental market tainted with bad reputations. With more than 170 tenants being evicted from their homes in England and Wales every day in 2015 – a record high – it is clear that more flexible contracts and straightforward rental terms are a must in our challenge to mitigate the effects of the UK housing crisis (The Guardian, 2016).
What does this mean for the UK housing crisis?
With the UK housing crisis showing no signs of abating and a public sector failing to adequately respond, it appears there are a few companies out there presenting us with alternative – and cheaper – ways of living. What is clear is that tomorrow’s homes will not be have the inflexible, rigid rental agreements of a bygone era. The future homes needed to address the UK housing crisis will be flexible, community-centred and technologically-driven.