A new (or old?) model for housing

Zoe Williams wrote in The Guardian on Boxing Day about the opportunity presented by the current housing crisis: “The housing crisis is not a threat, it’s an opportunity. We need more social housing, we need a more vigorous construction industry, and we need things for a government to invest in, rather than rounds of quantitative easing, delivering money into the hands of the top 5% and eroding pension annuities. We could climb out of recession on the back of this ‘crisis’ at the same time as halting the hegemony of the private landlord, which is perverting wage spending-power and intensifying inequality.”

I agree with her, but would also suggest that it’s time to think imaginatively about our housing needs and how to fulfil them. Or maybe it’s about revisiting an earlier model and adapting it to the 21st century.

The British obsession with home ownership (see this article by Jon Palmer or this by Andrew Alexander) seems to me to be predicated on the nuclear family, a nice little unit of Mummy,  Daddy and 2.4 children living in a self-contained box, along with a lot of other little units in their own little boxes.  But many of us no longer live in such nuclear families (if we ever did), while more and more households are made up of single people, living alone.  According to Third  Sector Foresight of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, “By 2021 35% of all the households in the UK are expected to be habited by solo livers, and by 2031, 18% of the entire English population are expected to be living on their own.”  (While ‘solo livers’ may sound like a nouvelle cuisine offal dish, one gets the point.)  In our current model, in which the aspiration is for each household to own its individual house or flat, what an extravagant use of dwindling resources those statistics imply.  For each “solo liver” must have his or her own washing machine, cooker, microwave, dishwasher, TV and a host of other appliances and systems.  Plus each individual has to do their own ironing and cleaning etc., or maybe employ separate individuals for a few hours each to do such things.  Wouldn’t it make more sense if some of these resources could be shared?

I would like to be able to envisage the development of some form of multi-occupancy housing, more than a hostel or hall or residence but less than a block of separate flats, partly shared ownership, partly rented, with relatively small individual living spaces – bedroom, study/sitting room, bathroom, small kitchen area – and with communal space for laundry, more ambitious cooking (and washing up), maybe even for TV-watching and other activities.  And, given that more of us are also becoming freelance or self-employed, there could be shared office facilities too.  There might even be a restaurant on the premises.  Above all, this sort of housing would need to be genuinely affordable for the single person.

I am reminded of the Isokon building in Hampstead, a block of 34 flats designed in the 1930s as an experiment in communal living, and inhabited by a number of writers and artists who wanted to be able to devote more time to their work than to running a house.  And I think it would be a good idea to investigate this kind of communal living afresh.


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