Is this the answer to London's rental shortage? The secret tenant tests a flat-pack house

Our secret tenant, graduate surveyor Tim Lowe, is testing rental options for young Londoners. His budget limit is £500 a month for a home in Zone 2. This week he swaps life on a Hackney houseboat for a bright red flat-pack box.

You have to get used to rejection in this game. One of the biggest challenges I have faced in my investigation into affordable rental options in London’s Zone 2 is finding landlords prepared to accept me as a short-stay tenant — I am limiting myself to three weeks at each place.
Excuses have been many and varied. I was “too corporate” for a commune in south London, and was turned away at the last minute from a converted shipping container due to “sanitation issues”...? Theirs, incidentally, not mine.




Twitter has become useful for sourcing alternative options and that is where I stumbled across the Y:Cube, the YMCA’s pioneering initiative to provide an affordable housing solution for those moving on from hostels.
With plans for the first site to be completed next year, the YMCA very kindly agreed to let me test out its prototype, conveniently pitched outside the organisation’s London South-West headquarters in Wimbledon.
Behind the pioneering concept is Andy Redfearn, YMCA London South West director of housing, who sought to provide people leaving hostels with their own space as an alternative to going into the private rented sector.
Aware of the pitfalls of poor-quality shared accommodation managed by private landlords, the YMCA teamed up with architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners to develop self-contained one-bedroom homes on a shoestring.
Costing a mere £30,000 each to construct, Y:Cubes are factory built in Derbyshire, before being flat packed and sent to London where they can be put up and taken down in a matter of days.

Not cramped: Tim Lowe tested the YMCA’s prototype, developed by the charity to provide homes for hostel leavers

Due to their temporary status, they are the perfect fit for optimising short-term space, such as brownfield or stalled development sites. To maintain affordability, the plan is to let the Y:Cubes for £140 a week or 65 per cent of market rent. This comes in above my usual £500-a-month target, but it means the Y:Cubes should pay for themselves within 15 years.
Arriving at YMCA’s base in Wimbledon, I was taken to an empty car park where slap bang in the middle sat what can only be described as an inflated Monopoly hotel. Wrapped in vibrant red cladding, the Y:Cube is certainly an eye-catching piece of architecture and the units can be stacked on top of each other, up to eight storeys high.
Entering the unit, I couldn’t help but be impressed with its spacious layout considering its size. At just 26 square metres, the Y:Cube falls 12 square metres below the London Housing Design Guide space standard. However, as it is classed as semi-permanent, it manages to bypass this guideline.
A combined living area and fully fitted kitchen leads to a separate bedroom, which has room for a large double bed, storage units and an adjoining en suite. It felt anything but cramped.
Functional, stylish and most importantly affordable, for the first time in three months I had my own house all to myself.
The latest Knight Frank tenant survey, the largest of its kind, reports that 54 per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds said they would be happy to live in a studio flat if doing so made the rent more affordable in a central location.
My own experiences fully support that finding. I believe schemes such as the Y:Cube can provide a realistic solution to the lack of affordable rental options in central London — but they need to go a step further and become permanent structures.
This transition can only start to be achieved by allowing developers to build a larger number of studios and one-bedroom flats in central locations, while also reassessing the minimum space standards dictated by the London design guide. Not only would this make commercial sense for developers but it would also see far more affordable options coming to the market.
As for the Y:Cube, the green light has been given for 36 units to be erected in East Merton, with the site expected to be completed next year.

  • The original version of this feature appeared in Estates Gazette.
  • Follow Tim’s progress @lowecostliving or @knightfrank. Watch his video diaries and read his blog posts

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