Susannah Bain comments on recent developments in London’s housing market, arguing that while they have the potential to constitute a revolution in convenience, the underlying reality may have damaging consequences.
Life, at least in cities like London, is increasingly ‘fuss-free’. Services such as Uber, Air BnB, and Deliveroo have cropped up in the last five years, offering customers quick and easy ways to organise and do things. With the click of a button, food, accommodation, or transport is sorted. Several providers of these services have been extremely successful.
At their core, the aspect which allows Uber and Deliveroo to supply such a ‘fuss-free’ service is their integrative nature. Services that might before have been in the hands directly of suppliers, or else devolved into the control of several companies, are managed by one intermediary company. They take control of small details out of the hands of the consumer, making it easier for them overall. Such models have proved extremely successful, making it unsurprising that a similar one is now being implemented in a new sector – housing.
Cities have always been loci for developments in housing. It seems natural that, as they evolve to have ever greater populations and develop to include technology in the workings of their infrastructure, housing is also changing. In London specifically, integrative forms of housing are emerging, due to the competitivity of the capital’s housing market.
‘Fuss-free’ living has been promoted increasingly in recent months. As a young person living in London, I have received targeted ads on Facebook. However, there has also been publicity on the tube, encouraging commuters to buy into their integrated, one-click style of living. The press gave a bit of coverage to this development around a year ago. One collection of developments called The Collective was described as something akin to student-living for young professionals.
There are resemblances between new developments and traditional student accommodation. In halls of residence, ready rooms are provided, with many amenities provided and bills included. One cannot help but wonder whether those developing these new forms of living were somewhat inspired by the recent boom in private student housing.
However, there are marked differences. The ‘fuss-free’ developments are not designed for students, and not advertised to them. They are for young professionals. Rather than a stepping stone, as student accommodation is, this new kind of housing is promoted as convenient and time saving. These are proper apartment blocks, holding flats kitted out and ready as well as gyms, laundry services and communal areas. Wi-fi, water, and heating are already set up and included in the bill. The tenant only has to deal with the company providing their housing. They act as an intermediary, in the same way as Uber, or Deliveroo, or Air Bnb.
Furthermore, just as with Air BnB, tenants do not have to stay in their apartments for extended periods of time. One provider, Fizzy Living, offers stays as short as six months. Although currently an enclave in the huge and varied London housing market, I believe this integrated model of renting will expand to take up a large proportion of the sector. Easy, technologically enhanced options will appeal to the young people constituting the so-called ‘Generation Rent’. These companies are already targeting young professionals, and their target market will expand in the next few years.
The growth of integrative housing would have some good consequences. Convenience is nice, and perhaps in dealing with larger companies there would be a degree of safety renters rarely experience with private landlords.
However, there are also many risks. As well as an almost dystopian feeling being evoked by the idea of millions of people checking in and out of these faceless locations, there would probably be serious economic and social implications. Tenants would lose out on their ability to choose, in terms of the housing itself, but also in terms of who provides services for their homes.
Furthermore, in dealing with larger companies, rather than individual landlords or property-owning companies, tenants may find it difficult to have their concerns or needs listened to. Equally, the shift would be damaging for estate agents, cutting them out as middle men. As a consequence, the sector would become less competitive, and jobs lost.
Finally, it may be hazardous for businesses supplying things to housing. Large companies would sign deals with the providers of integrated housing, giving them exclusive access to certain markets. This would mean that smaller companies and the consumers looking for better deals, more ethical providers, or even just better customer service, would miss out.
The sudden appearance of integrated housing could, therefore, be symptomatic of a change about to take place. This is an Uber-fication of the housing market. With the press of a button, we gain a home. This might come at a premium, but the owners of such enterprises are relying on the fact that the modern-day Londoner is constantly busy; they don’t have the time to get the Virgin set up, or stay on the line to Thames Water. They are therefore going to be happy to fork out that extra bit more for convenience’s sake. The consequences of this convenience, however, could be less straightforward.