Pocket Living in London: stylish micro-flats for singles or couples who earn under £66,000

Is building smaller homes the key to housing London's first-time buyers - or a matter of concern? Sold at about 20 per cent below local market rate and backed by the Mayor, micro-flats could be the answer for London's would-be home owners. Nineteen of the capital's high-profile architects competed to find the right size for city living.
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Everyone agrees London is in the grip of a housing crisis, but it may prove that recognising that fact is the first step towards solving the problem. Building many more homes is clearly part of the answer — but so is building more types of homes, lots with lower prices, that Londoners who are bringing in average salaries can afford to buy. 

Obvious solutions include rental and shared ownership, while community building — where a group gets together to build a development that they will all live in — is also gaining ground in the UK. But there are other ingenious solutions out there, adding to the bigger picture. One of these is Pocket Living, backed by Mayor Boris Johnson.

Pocket Living designs and sells one-bedroom flats for the “intermediate” market — singles or couples earning about £30,000 to £66,000, which is too much to qualify for social housing, but too little to buy outright on the open market. These would-be buyers find it increasingly difficult to get on the housing ladder. The average Pocket Living buyer’s income is £40,000.


Pocket Living: the story so far
Pocket Living was founded 10 years ago by former investment banker Mark Vlessing and his partner Paul Harbard, former finance director at social housing provider the Peabody Trust. Since Londoners or couples earning £35,000 to £40,000 still could not afford to buy on the open market, Vlessing’s idea was to build a flat they could afford — a smaller but well-designed home in a block. 

These flats are smaller than the existing minimum space standard for a one-bedroom new build, which is 50 square metres, or 550sq ft. This is Pocket Living in a nutshell. Stylish, carefully designed one-bedroom apartments of 38sq m (418sq ft), in blocks with outside space that’s often a roof terrace. There is no parking and the company does not offer social housing. The flats have big windows, under-floor heating, and suit singles or a tidy couple. 

To be eligible, you have to live or work in the borough, and Pocket Living homes are not sold to investors — checks are made. Buyers must also earn less than the maximum household limit set by the Mayor, currently £66,000. The Mayor has supported Pocket Living through his 2012 Housing Covenant Fund, awarding it a £21.7 million equity loan for 10 years. With the help of this loan, Pocket Living aims to house 5,000 Londoners over the decade, and 350 more by the end of 2016. 

Pocket Living homes are sold at 20 per cent below the local equivalent price, which means prices in different areas can vary.

Only just over 200 have been built so far, but developments coming up for sale soon include 13 flats in Oak Grove, Cricklewood, NW2, by architects HTA, due to become available later this year, and 25 flats in Wynne Road, Brixton, SW9, by HKR Architects, coming to the market next year.

Prices will not exceed £231,000. Other developments are being built in Ealing and Lewisham. Visit www.pocketliving.com to find out more and to register.

Pocket Living’s ambitious plans to build a lot more flats include a two-bedroom version, nicknamed the 2B2P — two-bedroom, two-person, or two people and a child. Though the size is not yet set, these flats will be bigger.

Pocket Living recently held a competition with 19 high-profile architects to design these bigger flats, and the range of layouts and ideas has been wide and ingenious, with some homes having little balconies. The architects designed between about 50sq m and 61 sqm. That top figure of 61sq m, or 671sq ft, is the current minimum space standard for a two-bedroom new-build flat.

Since the UK already has some of the smallest space standards in Europe for flats, there are those sounding a note of caution about building even smaller. They welcome well-designed homes that young Londoners can afford but they also have serious concerns about building this small.

Compact concept: HAT Project's two-bedroom Pocket Living flat was one of five contest-winning designs. Visit www.pocketliving.com 


JULIA PARK - Head of housing research at architects Levitt Bernstein

Because of the scale of the housing crisis, there probably is now a case for micro-flats, says Park. But she warns: “Smaller homes lead to higher densities; higher densities lead to higher land prices, and  higher land prices lead to crazy purchase prices. Each time a  micro-flat is sold, it sets up a chain reaction that nudges up the price of everything else.”

Park argues that when couples choose to live in small flats, that’s fine. But she is concerned when economics force young families to live in small flats with little space for play or storage.

She adds: “Pocket Living’s recent design competition is a worrying preview of where things seem to be heading.” In one “family” home, “you had to choose between a bath and a wardrobe”. 

Park concludes: “The current space standards exist to ensure decent storage and to require that rooms have space for furniture, and get natural light and a view. Interestingly, by the time the most serious shortcomings in these plans have been corrected, they will be close to the 61sq m minimum anyway.”

MEREDITH BOWLES - Mole architects 
“The Government should have taken a lead on the housing crisis years ago,” says Bowles. “You can’t expect developers to fix it. 

“The cost of land is the root of the problem. The only way you can get flats cheaper is to make them smaller. Pocket Living saw a gap in the market, using good architects, and it should be celebrated. But in my view, if you permit people to build below current space standards, you don’t know who will squeeze into them after they are sold.

Also, not everyone lives a monastic life. There’s no room for the boiler, the pram, the ironing board or books. If we are not careful we could slide into a position where we open the door to substandard building.”


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