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A People-Centred approach to overcoming our housing challenges

5 Nov , 2017,
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Opening up the newspaper on any given day will show you that it is a bleak time to be a young person in London. House prices are currently increasing at 5 times the rate of wages, taking money from those who don’t own and giving it to those who do. Young people are hit hardest; with current estimates suggesting the majority of first time buyers are close to 40 years old. As a result, we’re moving to a period of rental – by 2025 60% of Londoners will live in rental accommodation, compared to 40% at the turn of the millennium.

The problem is not unique to London, and certainly shows no signs of going away soon. Top down government policies have been criticised for being too slow to react and not incentivising suitable housing projects. Big construction companies have been chastised for developing homogeneous tower blocks and selling out to foreign investors. And local councils are having their resources squeezed so much that they are struggling to provide any suitable support to the people they aim to serve.

Whilst policy and big business will always have a huge say in the future of living, many of the current issues of housing can be solved by a bottom-up disruption that puts people before bricks and mortar. The type of people-centred innovation that AirBnB employs to dominate the hospitality industry, Uber uses to tackle urban mobility, or Netflix adopts to challenge traditional broadcasters.

One of the biggest challenges we face is how to reframe rent. As the headlines attest – properties are simply becoming too expensive for most people to buy; leaving a powerful few landlords and a powerless many tenants. This generation of renters is only set to grow as the gap between property prices and wages widens.

Rental already has a serious image problem; it provides neither stability for those looking to put down roots, nor flexibility for those with transient lifestyles.

The lack of stability with short term contracts and no power to personalise the home, mean people lack any real security. At the same time, for those seeking flexibility in their living environment, the cost of moving is exuberantly inflated by landlords and agents putting up prices and adding on all manner of suspicious fees. I recently moved to small 1 bed flat in London and with the upfront rent, security deposit, agent fee, reference fee and inventory check fee – I was the best part of £4000 out of pocket. That’s a serious amount of cash – especially given that a quarter of British families have less than £100 in savings.

Of course, the problem self-perpetuates. I don’t dare personalise the flat for fear of losing my deposit to an over-eager inventory agent; as a result, it feels even less like home. Less like a place that I want to put down roots. Yet not a place I can easily move from either.

One of the biggest challenges to overcome is in providing stability while still remaining flexible to more transient lifestyles. Working from home, taking time out to travel and frequently moving are all common attributes of young renters. And yet the process of finding a flat, signing the paperwork and moving in seems to cost the earth and take forever.

Why can’t moving house be as simple as finding a property on AirBnB? Why does rental mean I can’t put down roots and be more immersed in my local community? Why can’t I make the property feel more like my own home? Why do I have to go through the same bureaucratic process, with the same companies, every time I want to move?

The market is in major need of new innovation that puts people first. New technology may help to resolve some of these tensions; developments with moveable walls and replaceable units go some way in allowing the resident to design their own space and feel a sense of pride and ownership in the home. Whilst embedded technology such as smart walls allow residents to customise the decoration and art on display.

This helps residents see more value from their rental proposition. Indeed, the IKEA effect is a behavioural bias that suggests people place a disproportionate value on items they have partially created themselves over something created for them.

We can take this further by increasing the involvement of residents in the design of their local environment. One project we are working on in Derry/Londonderry allows local residents to control the lighting on a major public art installation. This follows on from other initiatives from companies such as Umbrellium that create public spaces that residents can control and interact with.

But it’s not just the physical design of the space around us – new innovations can help build communities of likeminded groups to tackle some of the challenges of modern living. More than just Facebook groups for new parents – community groups are forming that start to put residents in control; ranging from new community energy solutions to town management via social media. Indeed, it is these new people-centred community models that have the most potential to disrupt and sidestep the archaic actors of our current outdated system, such as estate agents, developers and local councils.

The current problems in housing have arisen from poor management and little foresight. Whilst it is true, we do need more quality, affordable homes, we must also use this time as an opportunity to put people’s changing needs at the heart of any new developments. In putting people before policy and profit we can start to tackle some of the problems that have been noticeable in the housing market for so long. And who knows – there’s probably a load of money in the idea too.

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