In April this year, with support from Charlie Leadbeater, Jennie Winhall, U+I, Anna Minton, Josh-Ryan Collins, Linda Leslie, Tessa Gooding and Kathy Evans, The Young Foundation hosted New Perspectives, a gathering of 100 people which explored some of the key, systemic challenges within the housing sector. A compilation of essays and case studies: New Perspectives on Housing was produced to accompany the event. This short blog reflects on one emerging theme – the under-occupation and sharing of homes in the UK.
When I was very young, we moved from Dudley to Lincolnshire. To make ends meet, my mum took in Manfred, a German student. Taking in a lodger was pretty common back then. It was as common as hitch-hiking – both of which seem to be out of fashion now.
Later, growing up as a teenager in the 80’s, I watched The Golden Girls. A fairly lame American sitcom about a group of older women living together, sharing a home after all their husbands had left, died or failed to materialise. I can recall without effort, the schmaltzy tune that accompanied this TV series.
Fast forward to 2007, and my daughter is born in Bethnal Green. We make our home in a strange set of houses on the roof of Beyond Retro on Cheshire Street. Some of my neighbours became real friends and we talk of buying a big house together when we‘re old… And last month, Spare Room published stats showing an almost 2000% increase in the number of pensioners searching for flatmates.
What a home is, who we make it with – is our own business. But any understanding of 21st Century community life and our attachment to home ownership, requires us to also understand more about attitudes towards the place we call home – if we are fortunate enough to have one.
How have our attitudes and behaviours changed over time?
In Jon Lawrence’s new book, he describes the evolution of home usage to socialise over the course of the 20th Century. In the 1960’s for example, the ‘best’ or ‘front’ room in working class households was kept for use only on very rare occasions, with most social activity taking place outside the home. This eventually gave way to something altogether more open and social; with many people knocking through their front and dining rooms to great bigger ‘living’ rooms, and a growing phenomenon of socialising with people in the home, rather than the street or the garden. Growing up, I can remember both these types of houses – and the clear generational difference between the two.
Other things have changed since then. When my friend first spoke about couch-surfing back in 2004, I remember being captivated by the idea. People opening up their homes to travelling strangers, for free! It sounded great; it also sounded scary. And yet, less than five years later, AirBnB had been born, and just over a decade later – on any given night – two million people are now sleeping in an Airbnb listed home across 100,000 cities.
Sure, these aren’t all owner-occupied, but many are. And yes, the short-term rental sector has created a whole new set of housing challenges, particularly in densely populated, tourist attractive areas. But the point is that many people are now entirely comfortable opening up their homes to strangers, and many people are comfortable rocking up at a stranger’s front door to spend the night.
Why talk about home-sharing?
As Anna Minton points out in her New Perspectives essay, there is significant under-occupation of homes in the UK; around 8.3 million of the 23 million homes in England have at least two more bedrooms than they need. Government approaches to this phenomenon have often unsuccessfully focused on tax and financial incentives to encourage downsizing. And the nature of the challenge of under-occupation has been continually under-estimated; crowding some of the very real, and deeply understandable reasons why people want to remain in their own homes. But also under-estimated, is the small, but growing number of ways you can share a home; and create new homes together.
The image below plots a few of these models, which include everything from medium-term hosting for independent travellers (Room For Tea); home sharing that suit particular groups like older women (RoomMates4Boomers); homes being opened up for sharing with people who are homeless (NightStop), refugees (Room for Refugees); people who have learning or physical disabilities (Shared Lives) or young people who are looking for cheaper accommodation and who are willing to support an older person in their home (Two Generations).
Each model serves different kinds of people, with different needs.
Most of these models – apart from perhaps the most commercial and divergent of all home sharing platforms, AirBnB – exist largely at the margins. They are not mainstream models for sharing living space, but they do begin to challenge our notion of what a home is, what it can be, and with whom we can make a home. And for certain groups of people coming to live together, a whole range of positive, social, health and economic benefits are not too hard to understand.
While we are supporting some home-sharing initiatives through our Reimagining Rent Accelerator, we think there is more to explore here and are looking for partners who have an interest in:
- Sharing examples of new, less well known, models for home sharing
- Understanding attitudes, barriers and enablers to home sharing
- Assessing and synthesising the social impact of home-sharing initiatives which support vulnerable groups
- Exploring systemic approaches to supporting innovation in the housing sector
Get in touch by emailing any of the team at firstname.lastname@example.org