As many of us learned in our history classes or, as I did, through yearly viewings of The Muppet’s Christmas Carol (objectively the best rendition of the Dickensian classic), accommodation in Victorian London was pretty awful. Entire families crammed into tiny flats. Water available only from your street’s pump. Life was tough for the urban dweller 200 years ago.
While things today are, clearly, far better, finding a decent place to live in London remains a herculean task. Unless you’ve got the money, be prepared for either a long commute or to share with a gaggle of strangers. Of course, this is common knowledge, and the debate surrounding London’s housing crisis continues to rage on.
The latest addition to the debate comes from the Adam Smith Institute, whose recent report from urban policy researcher Vera Kichanova calls for the government to give the green light to the construction of ‘microhomes’ – apartments with all facilities contained in a small, single room. Modern designs of microhomes, the report argues, offer a more comfortable and efficient way of housing multiple people than the more-common division of existing homes into flats or house-shares.
Perhaps rather predictably, this has stirred up some controversy, with many viewing the ASI’s proposal as a return to the aforementioned Victorian slum, and not the kind where your landlord is a singing Michael Caine. Some draw parallels between the concept of microhousing and Brazilian favelas or the cage homes of Hong Kong. To many, the idea of forcing Londoners into rabbit-hutches is no solution to the housing crisis.
But is this a fair depiction of microhousing or, indeed, of the proposal from the ASI? Is microhousing truly just a cover for a nefarious plot to bring about a return to the days of subpar slums dominated by robber-baron landlords?
Perhaps a better question to ask would be: ‘Aren’t we seeing that happen anyway?’. After all, people in the capital are already often forced to pay exorbitant prices to share with multiple people. An old article in the Telegraph from 2015 details well how young professionals in London might wind up paying through the nose and not even receiving their own bedrooms.
Microhousing, while offering a similar amount of personal space as a more-traditional house-share, at least offers the security of privacy in your own room, and in many cases decent communal spaces such as games rooms or open living-spaces. Rather than cramming five or six young people into an old townhouse, why not allow them the option of similar space, but in a modern, more central, more private setting?
Perhaps most central to the argument for microhousing, however, is the understanding that it isn’t for everyone. No-one would suggest that cooping up a family of four into a tiny flat provides any solution to the housing problem. Rather, legalising the construction and rental of microflats would allow young professionals and students to opportunity to choose between a small but central flat, or opt for the commute in favour of larger accommodation.
Far from a return to the cramped conditions of the 1800’s, microhousing could be the key to unlocking more central living for younger people in modern buildings, innovatively designed to maximise both space-saving and comfort. It can offer more privacy than a house-share, as well as the opportunity to live more centrally.
It might not be the solution to the housing crisis as a whole, but the proposal for legalised microhousing from the ASI poses to inject a little more diversity of choice into the market, and open up opportunities currently unavailable to many prospective residents. Get that picture of a slum out of your head; modern microhousing could pave the way to affordable and central accommodation in London.