The Americans call them “tiny homes”. Your parents probably called it a bedsit. And if you’re a developer, it’s most likely called a 'compact home' or 'micro-apartment'. Whatever you call it, the debate around microhousing is intense.
On one side it's hailed as a long-awaited innovation to alleviate the housing crisis; on the other, there's indignation at the temerity of developing and marketing what have been termed ‘rabbit hutches’ to desperate young Londoners.
So what exactly is microhousing? As with many chocolate bars, housing can be made cheaper by reducing the size of units, even if the price per sq metre is not necessarily reduced.
Although not defined by a set floor area, the term microhousing can cover a range of unit sizes, typically at or below minimum space standards. Such reductions are often justified in terms of the value of on-site management, purpose-built design, the provision of shared communal spaces, as well the lower cost of rent and the possibility of a more central location. As a result, planning authorities have the flexibility to accept plans for homes smaller than the designated minimum level of liveable space.
Microhousing, some argue, is a response not just to escalating housing costs, but an increasing willingness of individuals to trade space for location — a revival in inner city living and 24-hour city life which places more emphasis on the social and commercial compared to the domestic. There is also a case that building smaller units means homes can be delivered more quickly, especially where modular construction techniques are used.
The controversy lies in the argument that just because Londoners may accept a lower standard of accommodation for less, does not mean that we should give developers the green light to build it.
Opponents argue that rather than innovation, microhousing represents a lowering of ambition, precisely at the time we need to be thinking radically. Rebranded student accommodation simply does not cut the mustard.
Likeminded young people
If you look at the marketing of these properties, microhousing appears to be aimed at certain types of people at certain stages in their lives.
Properties are marketed as homes for young professionals, city makers, and ‘likeminded young people’. The underlying assumption is that once you progress up the career ladder, or decide to start a family, it’s time to move on.
This is a stark contrast to the rationale behind space standards as a means of ensuring the provision of homes that are accessible and able to accommodate changes to people’s lifestyles.
Pro-microapartment arguments say this is a strength. Young Londoners tend to move house frequently anyway, and better they spend a couple of years in a well-run co-living development than at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords, with flatmates who may or may not be ‘likeminded’.
The reality is that for a number of Londoners, the capital’s private rented sector is far from satisfactory. Few would argue against the need to professionalise the private rented sector, whether by introducing minimum contracts and better maintenance standards, or a reduction in the exorbitant agency fees required every time you want to contact your landlord.
A further challenge for proponents of microhousing is working out whether measures are needed to ensure that microhomes do not become the default means of housing delivery, at the cost of squeezing out family housing and reducing the provision of affordable housing.
The dire levels of housing affordability in the capital can make a pragmatist out of the most hardened of idealists. There are many who, while not celebrating the mainstreaming of microhomes, accept they can make an improvement in the supply of housing affordable to Londoners on low- to middle-incomes.
It will be for policymakers, both at London and borough level, to decide the extent of the role that microhomes will play in tackling London’s housing crisis. And it is a discussion that will not doubt be influenced by developers, architects, and academics, and one would hope, the views of Londoners.
Centre for London is hosting a free public debate on the role of microhousing in tackling London’s housing crisis. 29 March 6pm-8.30pm. Sign up here.