05 Co-living: Utopian dream or living nightmare?

By Tara Crean, Media Consultant

We’re hearing more and more about co-living. Most of it good (an end to inner-city isolation, hotel standards at home), but some of it bad (untidy communal spaces, house rules).

What’s clear is that it’s gaining traction as a way of living in the UK, especially in cities like Manchester and London.

Co-living sits in that gap between student accommodation and having your own high-end apartment. You have private quarters (bedroom, bathroom, maybe a kitchenette), and you share living and dining rooms, kitchens, gyms, etc, with as many as 550 other people.

That was the subject of a talk on 9th May at The Hoxton Hotel, hosted by Courier magazine, with Ben Prevezer, co-founder of soon-to-launch co-living space Mason & Fifth, Ed Thomas, head of community experience at London’s biggest co-living company The Collective, and Kristina Barger, a member of global co-living group Roam, on the panel.

Red Setter went along with one of our clients, property branding expert me&dave, who is leading the way in branding developments like this (the team is currently putting together some pretty cutting-edge marketing collateral ahead of the launch of the UK’s biggest co-living development so far).

So, who wants to co-live? According to Thomas, it’s 29-year-old young professionals earning around £28K (with prices starting at £240 a week at The Collective, that’s just about manageable). But there’s a wider demographic – The Collective is seeing people in their 40s and 50s, even families, signing up.
Another group that this type of living seems particularly suited to are ‘professional nomads’. Professors spending a term or two at a London university, perhaps, or lawyers working on a particular case.

What do they get for their money? Prevezer said that high-quality spaces and great design were a big draw. As was the all-inclusive nature of the set up. WiFi, Sky TV, cleaners, fresh linen and bills will all be taken care of at Mason & Fifth.

But can you really build a community in a co-living space? Many have digital networks, and spaces are designed specifically so that interaction is possible if wanted. When asked about transience versus community, Barger said it depends how you define community. “Lasting relationships can be forged, of course, but maybe all you’re looking for is company over dinner in a strange town.” She also pointed out that co-living provides a great forum for professional networking, too.

One thing all the panellists agreed on was that it wasn’t the job of the co-living organisation to ‘curate’ opportunities for interaction. It needs to be facilitated – but it has to be authentic. As Thomas said, “Co-living provides a platform to meet people outside your regular network of mates; it can take you out of your comfort zone a bit if you want it to.”

How popular is it? Well it seems as though supply can barely keep up with demand. The Collective’s Old Oak property in North London, which accommodates 550 people, was 97% full within four months of opening. Half stayed on for a second year. Antiquated planning laws and snail-paced local authorities aren’t helping matters, according the panel. It’s a bit new and the powers that be don’t know how to deal with it. There’s a feeling that Henry Ford’s quote – “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” – might ring true here, too.

The fact is, we all need somewhere to live and the UK rental market is in pretty bad shape. Unlike our continental peers, tenants aren’t safeguarded and are at the mercy of bad landlords. Successive governments have left a trail of failed legislation in their quest for universal homeownership, so maybe this is the answer. You pay 20% more, but you’re treated like a cherished customer and you have none of the hassles associated with homeownership.

For many people born after 1980, buying a flat is out of the question anyway – and they get that. Renting isn’t a sign that they have ‘failed’ to buy, it’s not a stop gap before the fixer-upper in the ’burbs.

They’re in it for the long haul, so it needs to work.

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