Co-Living and the Common Good: The RSA explores new kinds of communal housing

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This month the Royal Society of Art (RSA) published an insightful research report, exploring the potential of alternative housing models to help meet the challenges we currently face in cities and urban areas. It focuses, in particular, on "co-living". 

Co-living (as defined by the RSA) is "a form of housing that seeks to build community and social capital by combining private living space with shared communal facilities."

It is not a new idea but models of co-living are growing and getting more attention. We've blogged here already on:

As stated in the report:

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.

Can co-living offer an important way of helping some people in some places find an answer that works for them?

In an article on the RSA websiteSenior Researcher Atif Shafique presents his 5 key take-aways from the publication:

# 1 - A lack of housing supply isn’t the only issue we face

So much of the housing debate is narrowly focused on finding ways to build more homes. As important as this is, we also need to think hard about challenges relating to housing quality, security, choice, space standards and design. The types of homes we build matter.

In his essay, Rohan Silva (a former adviser to the Prime Minister) argues that our housing system is too slow to respond to the twin forces of globalisation and technological change that are transforming our lives. With more innovation in our approach to planning and the built environment, new models of housing (including co-living) could flourish and better meet our needs and ambitions.

# 2 - Community isn’t a commodity that can be manufactured

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The unique selling point of co-living is that it can foster a lasting sense of community among diverse residents. But as co-living developers are discovering, this isn’t easy - and especially not ‘at scale’ in a commercial setting, without a ready-made 'intentional community' of driven and likeminded individuals.

Jess Steele’s essay points to possible solutions using the Heart of Hastings (HoH) Community Land Trust project as an example. Using a combination of methods drawn from social enterprise, neighbourhood development and community-led housing, HoH shows how diverse communities can be brought together with initiatives that build their sense of ownership and capacity to make decisions, promote self-help and encourage community enterprise.

Traditionally, co-living has been criticised for creating gated communities. But HoH shows that communities of place, and not just communities of (homogeneous) residents, can be built with the right approach.

# 3 - Communal living isn’t alien to Britain

We tend to think of Britons as having an innate, unshakeable preference for privacy and private consumption. This is perhaps why co-living is sometimes written off as small-fry housing that won’t ever have ‘mainstream’ appeal (even though similar models are prevalent in other parts of Europe).

Nicholas Boys Smith traces the history of communal living and its policy context, and finds that this description lacks nuance. People value communality deeply, but also like to be able to retreat into the private. It is this balance between privacy and social interaction that co-living tries to get right.

The growth of the sharing economy and the rise of co-working, impact hubs and other forms of collaboration suggests there is an appetite for greater sharing and social engagement - and some would say co-living is part of this trend. As society ages, the need to live together differently (and more communally) will only grow.

# 4 - Design can help us to re-imagine housing

The housing crisis is usually presented as a political or policy problem, rooted in dysfunctional decision-making structures. However, Manisha Patel argues that it is just as much a design challenge. If we are to tackle climate change and improve the quality of social connections in society, we may need to transform how we live and how we design our homes and our neighbourhoods.

The Low Impact Living Affordable Community (LILAC) in Leeds illustrates this with its community of eco-friendly homes. Manisha examines how design principles can be at the heart of co-living (and co-housing schemes in particular). She identifies how architecture can promote “social contact,” how new forms of design can enable intergenerational living among extended families (for example, the multi-generation house), and how processes such as modularisation can achieve energy efficiency at scale.

# 5 Homes have become speculative assets, but we can redefine our relationship to them

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Speculation is rife in the housing system. It isn’t just investors, banks and oligarchs that are involved: Many of us engage in it. When people buy homes with the expectation that they will rise in value, that’s speculation. Government has supported it too, because house price growth contributes to consumer spending and broadening home ownership enables wealth accumulation, premised on the cash (and borrowed cash) to be paid by future buyers.

Despite the sheer amount of money that government has invested to get people on the 'housing ladder,' the dominant home ownership model is clearly cracking and the dangers of housing speculation (not least recession and economic instability) are becoming increasingly clear. The financial crisis of 2007-8 was triggered in US housing markets, and the home ownership rate in the UK has fallen for at least the last decade. 

It doesn’t have to be like this. Jonathan Schifferes and I argue that it is possible to support a shift away from seeing homes as speculative assets to seeing them as sources of collective and community wealth. Notions of  wealth and equity in our housing system are understood far too narrowly. They tend to mean individual ownership of  a financial asset, the value of which is determined by the market.

It is possible to broaden this understanding to encompass the benefits of  having a stake (financial, social, personal) in the success of  the community in which one lives and contributes to. Co-living and more co-operative approaches to housing can support this - experience across Europe suggests that such models can become major parts of a mixed economy of housing.

Co-living isn’t a magic bullet solution for resolving the housing crisis; nor is it an approach without significant challenges itself. The essays pick up on the problems that co-living models often face, in particular their lack of diversity and occasional tendency to produce exclusive communities.

In the for-profit private rental sector there is the added danger that they commodify community. But as Matthew Taylor notes in his introduction to the essays, if it can overcome its challenges, at its root co-living offers new choices for those who see communality as part of how they want to live, work and thrive.

    The collection of essays can be found on the RSA's Medium page and the full report "Co-Living and the Common Good" is available for download here.

    And update: an additional blog looks at how loneliness among millenials - the biggest reporters of loneliness in the UK - can be addressed through co-housing.