NOTE: I originally wrote this in November 2016, before I decided to begin a blog, and it’s sat on my laptop ever since. So if anything in it is out of date that’s probably the reason.
In early 2016 a flurry of articles appeared in national newspapers concerning The Collective, a new housing development located in Willesden in north-west London. Under normal circumstances the opening of a new-build in a city which seems to be in a constant state of construction would go un-noticed, apart from perhaps a few sideways glances of disbelief through estate agent windows at how much the cost of renting has risen. However, what made The Collective worthy of interest is its heavy promotion of communal living as an aspirational and desirable option for the newly professional graduate twenty-something living in the city. This demographic, that in previous generations would be moving on to stable careers, getting married and buying properties of their own, has effectively found itself stuck in a state of economic surplusness which has remained effectively completely unaddressed since the financial crisis of 2008.
Upon the launch of The Collective, articles in newspapers reacted in sneering horror and viewed this development as symptomatic of the deepening housing crisis in London and the failure of any measures to solve the growing housing shortage by the government. However, this article argues that rather than being merely a symptom of the housing crisis – although undoubtedly that is a real and increasing problem – in fact the advent of twodios represents a far more fundamental change in British life. This change encompasses the expectations of one now living within the UK, and has potentially wide-ranging implications on the changing nature of work, the future of the family unit, and the rise of a compartmentalised and isolated existence for many.
Isolation in the Modern City
It is something of an irony that in a city with a population of over eight million people, living in London for many can be an extremely isolating and lonely experience. In 2015 ACEVO identified a chronic problem of loneliness among 16-34 year olds, dubbing it “the loneliness capital of Europe”. Although isolation has long been considered a particular issue in the elderly, a survey in 2015 by Opinium showed that 83% of 18-34-year olds are ‘often, always or sometimes’ lonely.
For this reason one of the attractions of the kind of communal living offered by The Collective could be its attempt to counter the isolation and difficulty in building social networks that many younger people feel, particularly when they are new to the city. This can be seen in areas as varied from the precarity of modern work, where fresh graduates are no longer assured careers, with many opting to become freelance and operate from co-working spaces such as Google Campus in Old Street or take on self-employed jobs in the emerging “gig economy”, to the widespread use of dating and meeting apps such as Tinder.
The Collective promotes itself as enabling to combat this isolation, not just from offering its own co-working facilities, but also noting on its website that in a passage which sounds more like a promotion of a university freshers week than the brochure for a housing complex, “From networking events and talks to spur-of-the moment BBQ’s on a roof garden, there’s always something going on.” Further, The Collective promotional materials even attempt to make not having a personal washing machine an opportunity to network, stating, “Even the laundrette makes doing laundry a less lonely experience.” Despite that this must be the first time in decades where a new housing development has attempted to portray the lack of private laundry facilities as a positive, it highlights the isolation which now exists for many in major cities such as London.
The development itself is set across ten floors with space for over 500 residents living in dwellings ranging from self-contained flats, to twodios, which are essentially small two-bedroom ensuite apartments with shared kitchenette facilities. In many ways, The Collective has more in common with the high-end privately-owned student accommodation which have now become a widespread feature of many university towns, and could be preparing many of its residents for a lifetime of living in student-style accommodation, effectively 21st century tenements from which there is no escape in a society where social mobility is becoming more and more of an impossible dream. This group, which has been widely come to be referred to as “generation rent” or “the precariat”, now finds it impossible to get a mortgage in the capital and so are now living in house-shares later in life, staying with their parents or now, possibly, opting to continue the student living lifestyle beyond graduation by living in complexes such as The Collective.
In a further similarity with many of these new high-end student accommodations, The Collective comes equipped with features such as a gym, a spa, a cinema, a coffee shop, a restaurant and a games room, all features designed to increase opportunity for social interaction and create a community in world where such opportunities are continually limited. As with many of these new student accommodations, the décor is akin to a mid-range hotel, with integrated broadband and bi-weekly cleaning, but also offer such little storage space it is a wonder that someone could genuinely live in one for any length of time.
However, if there is one thing that The Collective is not, that is a budget option. At the time of writing, the only rooms still available to rent are ensuites with shared kitchenettes and communal living spaces – the “twodios” which lend this article its title – for £220 a week. For Willesden, hardly one of the most desirable areas of London and lacking a vital nearby Underground station, this price represents quite a premium. According to a search on Rightmove in November 2016, a newly-decorated one-bedroom flat near to The Collective would cost somewhere in the region of £250 per week. While more expensive than a twodio and not inclusive of bills, it would however feature the benefits of far more space and having a kitchen all to oneself, even if it would lack the networking events and spur-of-the-moment BBQ’s that The Collective literature promises.
A Neoliberal Repackaging of the Countercultural Communal Experience
With the construction of the The Collective, an almost direct timeline can be drawn back through the decades from the counter-cultural housing movements which have proliferated in cities such as London for decades. From the widespread squatting movement of the 1960s, through to the fashion for large amounts of people to live in converted communal warehouses in areas such as Manor House, Edmonton and Hackney Wick, all movements which were to eventually become illegal or priced far beyond the means of those they originally catered for. An important distinction between these forms of communal living identified by writers such as Cox (1981) is that they often stemmed from a rejection of the capitalist system and tended to go hand-in-hand with leftist or radical politics, while The Collective removes this element of the commune and repackages it as a stable, secure and safe form of living where residents are able to participate in capitalism in safety. Indeed, residents are assured that a concierge is on 24/7 duty.
Housesharing Later in Life
Rising rental prices, people getting married less and the precariousness of employment are all contributing towards a tendency for people to house share later and later in life. Never before in history have we had such a well-educated, but under-utilised, class of people of working age. Indeed, unless one is now cohabiting or in a married couple the option of living in London is essentially an impossibility without either parental help, housesharing with others, or perhaps inevitably, in the future, with the assistance of businesses such as The Collective. For this reason, it can be considered that The Collective represents the start of a new type of living in the capital. While the title of this essay comparing twodios to the tenements of the 21st century may have been slightly alarmist, it would seem entirely possible that as the century continues we shall see more of this co-living becoming the norm.