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Could microflats solve London's housing crisis?

A sign advertising a property for sale under the governments Help To Buy scheme stands next to a building site in London, U.K. on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. With Britain's future outside of the EU still as unclear as ever, the London property market is taking the biggest hit. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It’s obvious to all that London is in the grip of a housing crisis. There’s a shortage of homes in a city where the population is growing with each passing year, forecast to soon hit 10 million people.

According to the Mayor of London’s housing report for 2018, over the last two decades the city’s population has risen by 26% and the number of jobs by 42%. But the supply of homes has grown by just 16%.

That supply and demand imbalance is pushing up house prices and rents beyond affordability for many Londoners. For many, it’s challenging enough to afford the rent each month. Buying a home is inconceivable.

But there may be a way to drastically increase the supply of housing in London: microflats. They’re seen elsewhere in the world, most notoriously Hong Kong, but now also New York. Could they be a solution to the London’s housing crisis?

There are minimum space standards for new homes in London, which have a mean average floor area of 87m2. A one single bedroom dwelling—the smallest possible home—must be a minimum of 37m2 in size.

Cutting the minimum requirement would be controversial and trigger concerns about living standards.

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However, there are advantages, and modern, inventive design practices mean you shouldn’t have to compromise too much on space, storage, or quality of finish. Communal areas could also add a social element for those who need it.

Microflats wouldn’t be for everyone—the target market is clearly young professionals who want somewhere affordable and centrally-located for work and play. But the major advantage is this: smaller homes means more homes because microflats use land extremely efficiently.

Developments could increase the number of dwellings they are able to deliver, helping to ease London’s supply crisis. These properties would be cheaper than most, widening access to the property market in sought-after London locations, and acting as a stepping stone for first-time buyers who can eventually move on to a bigger home when they need to.

Some fear that greedy developers simply want to build cheap slum-style estates that maximise profits at the expense of residents’ quality of life by creating undignified “shoebox” homes.

A report by the Adam Smith Institute, a neoliberal thinktank, which made the case for microflats, countered such concerns.

"Millennials would rather pay for easy access to the city’s entertainment than for extra square meters," concluded the paper, which was titled Size Doesn’t Matter.

"Hence, developers suggest building micro-flats with that in mind. Design is what distinguishes a modern purpose-built micro-housing scheme from something the micro-housing critics are afraid of."

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The property developer JLL said in a research report titled Micro Solutions to a Macro Problem that, because there is no common definition of a micro home, there are “misunderstandings between the key parties involved in housing delivery” which “slows productivity and potentially hinders the viability of proposed new housing schemes.”

JLL sought to categorise what it said were the three product types for microhomes—compact living, co-living, and shared living—with a catch-all definition: “The provision of homes that do not conform to current minimum space standards.”

“In a world where households are smaller, we are living longer, and urban living across the planet is getting less and less affordable, we should be far more open-minded about the full spectrum of housing solutions available," said JLL's Residential Research Director Nick Whitten.

“Small doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, where more homes across the tenure spectrum can get built, planners and the industry have an obligation to take a more objective view of the complete offer.

“Bigger is not always better and space standards should not be used as a lazy proxy for good design.

“Modern technological innovations can allow us to deliver desirable Micro Living solutions in densely populated urban areas experiencing a severe imbalance between supply and demand.”

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