The housing market is driving young people into ever smaller living spaces
“I will not eat bugs! I will not live in the pod!”
This is the ‘anti-Davos’ mantra — the rallying cry of those who reject the supposed neoliberal vision of the future.
For those who prefer a more heroic version of capitalism — or who reject capitalism altogether — the idea that we should replace real food with insect protein, while cramming the urban workforce into ever-tinier living spaces is neither efficient nor sustainable, but instead sinister and dystopian.
So far, creepy-crawlies have yet to make a major impact on the western diet, but the notion that we’re going to end up living in pods is getting ever closer to reality.
This week, an article by Lauren O’Neil from Toronto’s blogTO website went viral. The author reports that escalating rental values are driving people to let (or sub-let) half a room. You too can have a bedsit in the big city, but it comes with an en suite stranger. And yet that’s a bargain that more and more cash-strapped tenants are willing to accept:
The market is already primed in global cities that are full of young professionals who may have already shared with a room-mate at university. Further, compared to trendy co-living arrangements which involve sharing space with several people, sharing a studio apartment with just one or two roomies may prove less stressful.
Indeed, some argue that if renters are so keen to live in a prime location then we should allow them to make major compromises on privacy and space. This would mean scrapping regulations that stand in their way — for instance, limits on multiple occupancy, the insistence that bedrooms have windows or even rules on minimum ceiling heights. Think about all the extra square footage that could be rented out if standing room and natural daylight weren’t legal requirements!
So, if young people are willing to slum it for a few years in exchange for the opportunities and excitement of city centre living, isn’t that a valid choice?
Well, it does assume there’ll never be another pandemic. Going through lockdown in a pokey flat was bad enough for millions of people, but imagine being confined for months to half-a-room — or a windowless attic.
This isn’t just about young professionals with options. Though their complaints about the rapacious rental market are entirely justified, they at least have a voice. We hear rather less from the urban underclass of low-paid workers — for whom low-quality housing is a lifetime sentence, not something you put up with while having fun in your 20s.
If young professionals accept the pod, then that lowers the bar elsewhere for people whose choices are limited. What’s more, those choices are diminishing as higher-paid workers colonise the most affordable parts of our big cities (for instance, see the trends for London and Manchester over the last decade).
Rather than relaxing regulations, we need a crackdown. If big business wants to maintain access to the labour market then it must use its clout to drive down housing costs by getting homes built where they’re most needed. The market must not be allowed to offer the pod as an option.