Co-living is on the rise, with multiple-occupancy developments coming to a major city near you. Sometimes known as beehive housing, residential buildings are sectioned off into small private units anchored by larger shared spaces; it’s the slickly marketed commercial cousin to the more dorky, and less popular, commune.
In a report last year, the estate agent Savills called it “a market poised for huge growth”. Across the UK, 24,000 units were in the pipeline at the time, according to the agent, attracting millions of pounds of investment.
At first sight these developer-led communities look the same as co-housing projects, which have also increased in popularity in recent years. Developments such as New Ground in Chipping Barnet, north London, a co-housing community completed in 2016 exclusively for women over 50, Chapeltown Co-housing in Leeds or Marmalade Lane in Cambridge.
On the surface, both concepts share the idea of living in greener and more connected ways by sharing space. But in practice they often look quite different. In the profit-driven co-living sector, you’re much more likely to see marketing centred on luxury and wellness than fairness or carbon impact. The connection is part of the lifestyle you’re buying.
Alongside shared living spaces, operators advertise in-house gyms, bars and even a schedule of social activities to prospective tenants hoping to find instant community. But for people such as me, who are part of the longstanding British communalism movement, this capitalist reimagining of the garden city is a little hard to swallow. The UK’s network of Utopians, activists and nonconformists have worked long and hard to achieve a way of life that these companies now claim they can sell you for a monthly fee. And a pretty hefty one at that.
Monthly rent at London’s largest co-living operator The Collective’s west London community of 500 units starts at £2,028 for a one-bed apartment measuring just 29sq m. Even if they throw in the yoga and mindful crocheting workshops for free, it’s still pretty extortionate.
The two “intentional communities” that I’ve been part of, most recently the community farm in County Durham where we lived for the first year of our daughter’s life, were designed around self-sufficiency and socialism, providing emergency housing from our spare room and food projects from the lounge.
I guess that’s why the explosion of commercial co-living stings a bit. Because for us, living like this is not the easy option. We would have weekly meetings and difficult discussions about community finance. There was always someone around to help look after our baby when we needed a break but it also meant we had to navigate day-to-day decisions, such as what to eat or when to turn the heating on, with two other couples.
The co-living movement has succeeded in dragging communalism out of the fringes. Through investment and scaling, it has made the carbon reduction and collaboration of communal living available to the masses. But with its profit-driven focus, it also risks bringing back the type of poor-quality, one-room housing that was rightly legislated away decades ago. “When done really badly,” says Penny Clark, founder of consultancy group Conscious Co-Living, “it becomes a way for companies to shove people into smaller and smaller rooms, have a communal lounge and give them free pizza on a Friday – then slap the word ‘community’ on the website.”
Time-starved, lonely or overworked millennials make an obvious target market. In reality, it’s a mixed bag. Last year, I toured the UK looking for fairer and more connected ways to live. I visited co-living startups and found good and shoddy ones. Some have come under fire for up-selling small spaces and unfair evictions.
But there were also several times I had to dismiss my scepticism. Jenna, who moved from Canada to the Mason and Fifth’s Italian Building in the UK, told me that “having this instant community made me love London”.
For Clark, whose job it is to guide developers on best practice, the commercial adoption of a communalism can be seen in two ways. On one hand, it is “commodified community, but on the other, it’s housing that acknowledges that we need social relationships, and that loneliness is a huge problem. It’s housing that shows that we should value our social connections and lower-carbon living over possessions and large amounts of private space.”
When Jenna talked about “instant community”, she wasn’t talking about the programme of events or even the shared space. It was all the stuff that individuals brought into that space – the baked cakes, the shared skills, the conversations.
Sure, you can sell frameworks that make it easier for community to flourish. You can redesign homes to tip the scales towards connection. But without people giving of themselves, these are just apartment blocks with good PR. You can build the beehive, but in the end, it is the bees that make the honey.