Sunday, November 19News For London

Four alternative ways of living in London

With the cost of rent skyrocketing out of reach for many living in the capital, four Londoners have managed to find affordable ways to live that could prove to be viable solutions in the urban housing crisis. 

Meet David, a Scottish bus driver. David has endured great instability in his life over the last year. After getting deported from Canada, David found himself homeless in the UK. Until now. David just moved into his new home in a converted shipping container in Walthamstow. This affordable housing project, mYPad, is the brainchild of the YMCA. The mYPad project, as David explains, is about “moving in people and enabling them to save money to move on.”

David is not alone. According to Crisis.org, the affordable housing shortage in London has left over 8,000 people “sleeping rough” on the streets. Declining home ownership is yet another sign of the housing crisis in London. As the demand for housing in the capital far outweighs the supply unattainable housing costs are choking out thousands of Londoners each year.

Alternative housing and communities can provide a solution to the housing supply crisis in London. London-based architect Pau Bajet argues that “the city needs to identify the particular needs of each area and neighborhood being in touch with local communities.” The gentrification and dilapidation of certain areas has not made it to the top of the government’s to-do list and this is taking a serious toll on the housing market. While more research is being conducted to better understand the logistics, planning, politics and sustainability of some of the alternative forms of accommodation cropping up, some individuals have made a home in uncanny places. Meet four people who only pay £150 in rent combined and take tour in their alternative homes.

1. “Sea cans” with better facilities that some one bedroom flats

Creativity and innovation are essential to solve the housing crisis. Transforming unthinkable spaces into homes can be a real option, and shipping containers are proving it.

David John Ferguson just moved into a converted shipping container in Walthamstow. “I moved here today, and this is my new mYPad”, said David proudly.

He moved from the YMCA main hostel just in front of his new home, where he was staying on housing benefits. Now, he got a job as a bus driver in the local area. When supported residents get a job, they lose housing benefits. If David would have stayed at the hostel, he would have been responsible for the entire rent which is up to £292 a week. “The rent would be far too high for me”, David said.

Fortunately, YMCA has been working on an alternative housing project since 2012, to give people like David, a chance. The mYPad project, as David recognizes, is about “moving in people and enabling them to save money to move on”. For David, these “sea cans” have “honestly better facilities that I’ve seen in some one bedroom flats.”

David’s life has been a roller coaster over the last year. After being deported from Canada, he came back to the United Kingdom, where he had no chance to pay for a place to live. “I was a street homeless”, David admits. He was sleeping on the streets in the West End of London for 6 months.

YMCA East London’s mYPads are shipping containers converted into high-specification single-occupancy units. The NGO tested the first two prototypes homes in 2012, and after checking temperature, noise levels and general comfort, they were ready to give the green light to the project.

Since 2015, there are 10 mYPads in YMCA East London’s site on Forest Road which are designated for people living with the charity in the borough. Another 20 mYPads are available for working adults struggling to pay high rent and subsequently at risk of becoming homeless. As the project allows residents to save a deposit for more permanent accommodation, they can only stay for a maximum of one year. David is planning to stay for 6 months to save money and then he will be moving to private lending agencies.

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What makes “sea cans” a viable option for urban housing is the time saved on installation, the money saved on materials and the ease in relocating the containers to new plots of land.

But YMCA is not the only one considering shipping containers for housing. Private companies as Container City and Mac Containers have also given a chance to container homes. In the case of Mac Containers, they have units for sale available in a range of sizes to be installed in buyers’ private land. Container City has developed two projects of shipping containers used as a working/living space. The original and first project located at Trinity Buoy Wharf, in the heart of London’s Docklands was completed in 5 months in 2001 providing 12 work studios. After high demand three additional apartments were added. The second phase of that original project is called Container City II and is easily recognisable by its funky ziggurat shape and bright colours designed to reflect the creative nature of who occupy its 22 studios.

2. Guardianship was a massive step forward to balance work, life, and living.”

With a new innovative idea of “live in guardians”, young working class people are able to rent out places in Central London for as cheap as £30 a week. A project called ‘Lowe Cost Living’ created by Tim Lowe, 26, a graduate property surveyor, was centered on trying to find affordable solutions (less than £500 a month) for London’s young workers today. His research transformed into a full fledged company harbouring hundreds of young people through guardian schemes that allow working Londoners to live together in a safe place.

Warehouse that accommodates Live in Guardian in North East London. Photo by Jesse Hamilton

Lowe Cost Guardians, a property management company in London, helps provide property owners with an efficient and low-cost solution to the issue of leaving a building vacant. Established in 2014 by Tim Lowe, the company aims to provide London’s young professionals and key workers get affordable accommodation and effectively giving the title of being a ‘guardian’. A live in guardians job is to make sure the place is running well and the squatters are not trying to take over the vacant property.

Meriel Worboys, the operations manager at Lowe Cost Guardians said, “this is a fantastic opportunity for young people to live in a safe, affordable and convenient place”. New to the company, Meriel said she wished she had known about this alternative type of housing before and had become a part of it.

The company has various spaces over the city, one of which is a warehouse in Northeast London that is currently being renovated. Jesse Hamilton, a resident of the warehouse since 2015, revealed that for living single in the city, guardianship was a massive step forward to being able to have enough space to balance work, life, and living. “Things lined up really nicely for me and the space is such a dream – just as I was looking and in a financial position to make the deposit, this prime opportunity arose and so I took it without thinking twice” Meriel said.

3. Water is the new land

Hundreds of people have made the capital’s canals their home as common dwelling prices keep skyrocketing. However, this bohemian lifestyle is bringing unprecedented challenges.

London canals had never been busier. Boat houses in the capital have increased by 57% since 2012 – there are currently more than 3,600 boats. Hotspots like Little Venice, King’s Cross, Broadway Market and Hackney Wick are particularly crowded, with up to three rows of boats. The housing crisis is the main reason why hundreds of Londoners have left the street and taken the water. “House prices across London remain unreachable for many and boats are perceived as more achievable,” informs Matthew Symonds, Boating Strategy and Engagement Manager at Canal & River Trust, the charity who looks after more than 100 miles of canals in London.

Mia* has been living in a boat for two years and a half. She chose that option “because I didn’t like renting and it was the cheapest way of owning a property in London.” She quickly enjoyed the friendly spirit of her new lifestyle. “You get to move around and see different parts of London, and I if I want to go out of the city for a couple of weeks, I can do it and take my whole home with me. The more you cruise around, the more people you meet and the more friends you make; it’s a nice, good community.”

Despite the lack of space – most boats are just 10 feet wide and ceilings are low, living on the water has become a trendy way of life. “The lower-cost entry point, not to mention the attractions of a strong community, low-impact living and the charms of the waterway environment, means that it is an attractive option,” Mr Symonds explains.

Figures from the Canal&River Trust

However, daily life is far from the old-fashioned, romantic notion of city sailors. Energy supplies are the main headache of boat owners. Most of them use a homemade combination of both traditional and alternative sources. They rely on weather conditions, and permanent focus is paramount. “I power everything on the boat through solar panels on the roof. But in the middle of the winter I need to charge batteries,” explains Mia. Some electrical appliances like hairdryers cannot be used onboard.

Unless they get a permanent mooring – which is practically impossible and can be very expensive, London boaters have to change mooring every two weeks, which makes it even more complicated. As Mr Symonds explains, “With boaters needing to empty their toilets, fill up with water, charge their batteries and find fuel for their stoves, as well as cruise to find mooring space on often crowded spots, continuous cruising can be like a part-time job.”

There are also several hidden costs, including maintenance and repair. “You have to take the boat out of the water every five years to have the bottom blacked to prevent rust; there can be holes in the bottom; painting could cost £3,000; and there are many easy ways that you can sink the boat, which is pretty terrifying,” says Mia.

The sudden rise of boat owners has put unprecedented pressure on London’s facilities. According to Fran Read, Communications Officer in the Canal & River Trust, “the canals were built 200 years ago to serve a different type of boat traffic (freight), and the needs of the leisure and live aboard boaters are different. As a result, many facilities like water, toilet-emptying facilities, electricity hook-ups and bins are struggling to keep up. Higher usage means they get full more quickly and break down more often.”

Infrastructure is also in danger due to the rapid growth of boats in London canals. Fran Read warns “more boats using the locks and putting mooring pins into the towpath means there’s more wear and tear that needs repairing. There are other problems like sections of canal being drained overnight due to incorrect use of the locks, possibly caused by new or inexperienced boaters.”

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Despite the sudden rise of boats, according to the Canal River Trust, limiting boat numbers in London is out of the question.

Overall, looking at the big picture, architect Pau Bajet argues that “the boat issue is merely incidental given their low density in the city compared to other options. Boats are a symptom of the problem, but they are not part of the solution.”

* The Interviewee requested her name to be changed.

4. Squatting in London’s most expensive properties

With an increase in the number of abandoned houses, this alternative housing method has been adopted by thousands of people in the light of the housing crisis in the U.K. Imagine waking up to the view of the Buckingham Palace without paying a penny? This is now possible with the next alternative housing idea.

19 Buckingham Gate

Squatting, which involves occupying an empty property that you do not own or pay rent for, is a popular option amongst 40% of single,homeless people according to a 2011 report on homelessness by Crisis. This communal way of living could be the next best solution to solve the housing crisis. Squatters often find ways to occupy empty homes of the wealthy or properties abandoned as a result of poor governance.

Tom Fox, has been leading this lifestyle for 6 years and is a member of the squatters group, Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians. A.N.A.L. (as they go by on social media) pride themselves on overtaking some of London’s most high profile buildings in the name of anarchism and anti-capitalism.

Tom, living with 29 other people prefers to squat luxurious buildings and has occupied a grand seven-storey property on Buckingham Gate. He admitted that they prefer to squat large buildings with significant locations and a great view is always a plus.

The major contributor to squatting is low or no income, in the midst of unaffordable housing. Whereas, some simply choose to squat due to political movements and social reasons. A lot of us need squatting as a means to socialise, we can’t really handle living within the housing system and I personally can’t do that which is why I choose to squat over living a house.”, Tom Fox said.

Squatting may seem like an appealing way to live in London, with the exorbitant housing prices. Tom talked about the advantages of being a squatter, “there is no rent that you have to pay, it’s probably the best way of living really, in terms of living costs.”

This lifestyle may have it’s perks but it also demands you to adapt to change easily and be prepared to co-exist with others, sometimes animals too. “Privacy is an issue in squats, also having an open door policy can lead to wrong types of people who like to cause disruptions in the squat”, he admits.

People from all walks of life squat regardless of their age, appearance or economic status. A common misconception widely held about squatters is that they are only a group of “hippies”, “but we aren’t just unwashed hippies or lower middle class students rebelling, we do care about our hygiene as well,” he said.

Normally you will have to make sure a property is empty before you occupy it. It is best to research a place thoroughly beforehand. The group, Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians has an open door policy that welcomes all squatters. You can follow them here.

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While the housing crisis will not be solved overnight, these four Londoners have demonstrated four viable and potentially scalable ways of working around the housing shortage and unattainable housing prices. Moving forward many hope to see more action from local and national government to address this issue that is putting significant strain on people who have always called London home sweet home.