Area Covid-19

“GET SMALLER?” Micro-Living in the age of Covid-19

By Ella Harris, Birkbeck, University of London & Mel Nowicki, Oxford Brookes University

Over the past decade in the West, an intensifying housing crisis brought about by the 2008 financial crash and ensuing long-term austerity measures have severely curtailed access to affordable, high-quality and secure housing to all but the most privileged. This has led to a focus, from developers and local governments, on ‘solutions’ for increasing housing options without challenging neoliberal models of free market principles and the prioritisation of housing as a financial asset. As our recent paper in Area  highlights, many of these proposed solutions have focused on how housing can – in the words of one entry to an architecture competition – ‘’GET SMALLER’’. This growing ‘micro-living’ trend includes ‘micro-housing’-  housing that comes in at far below minimum space standards, Tiny Housing – similarly small but also mobile properties, and co-living – dorm-style accommodation with access to shared living space. While micro-living itself is not a new phenomenon (living in compact conditions has long been common in many South-East Asian mega-cities, for example), what is new are the ways it has been so heavily promoted as an attractive lifestyle choice in the West. Micro-living has increasingly been narrated as suitable for young urban professionals, usually single people or childless couples, who prioritise experiences and proximity to the city centre over owning material “stuff”

Enter Covid-19. For the vast majority of us the world over, this has meant partial or total lockdown in our homes for months at a time. Arguably having a safe, secure, high-quality, and spacious home has never been more important. Households are suddenly forced to add unexpected dimensions to their homes; transforming them into offices and schools, entertainment venues and gyms. For the many living in cramped conditions, the implications of the pandemic for their wellbeing may be huge. This is both in terms of those in small living spaces being more vulnerable to catching the coronavirus if another member of their household falls ill, and in terms of their mental health. Not having sufficient private space within a household can increase tension and anxiety. Equally, living alone in a small space can be extremely isolating. The appeal of a domestic space premised on the idea that you will spend most of your time out in the city, thriving on ‘experiences’ not ‘stuff’, the hallmark of micro-living promotion, has overnight become obsolete. 

Before Covid 19 hit, micro-living was on the rise. As we explored in our paper, multiple developers, as well as think tanks like the Adam Smith Institute, had been actively lobbying for minimum space standards to be scrapped in order to bolster the growth of the micro-living industry. However, as the physical and mental health implications of small living spaces become more apparent under lockdown, it’s questionable as to whether micro-housing stakeholders will be able to effectively market such developments. The micro-living model promotes small living spaces by narrating them as convenient places  to come back to for people who spend most of their time out and about in the city.

This imaginary of the social, urban lives that micro-living residents live is connected to the sharing economy, the suggestion being that ‘destuffification’ in the home can be enabled by turning to access rather than storage and undertaking more activities in public urban spaces. For example, micro-home residents can use Zip cars rather than needing a garage, can have a We Work membership rather than a desk and can even borrow items needed only sporadically from the Library of Things. However, the viral pandemic has of course made sharing a dangerous activity, putting this element of the micro-living model in jeopardy. Likewise, in many micro-housing complexes or co-living developments a large part of the appeal for residents is access to communal spaces like gyms, bars, libraries and games rooms; a less attractive prospect in an era of social distancing. Equally, those living in micro spaces in the majority of instances now have no choice but to work from home. This is an especially difficult prospect when home constitutes very small space that may be shared with family members also needing their own space for work and/or study. 

While becoming more acutely aware of the detrimental impacts of small living spaces, publics have also become more alert to the injustices of wide discrepancies in housing sizes and standards. This is evidenced by the trending hashtags #guillotine2020 and #eattherich, used on social media, including twitter and instagram, to mark resentment about inequalities made more apparent underlock down. The main target has been celebrities posting about the supposed hardships of spending lockdown in their palatial properties and purporting to empathise with fans (or ex-fans), many of whom are fighting to keep afloat financially while stuck in small confined spaces with limited or no outdoor space. There has also been hostility against people breaking lockdown to visit second homes and trying to justify it as ‘essential travel’. This rise in attentiveness to housing inequalities is so pronounced that even weather reporters use phrases like ‘if you’re lucky enough to have a garden’ when forecasting sunshine. 

As lockdown brings class consciousness to the foreground it is becoming evident that – contrary to what micro-living stakeholders would have us believe – ‘getting smaller’ is often not genuinely desirable. Micro-living is promoted as a fashionable, aspirational and modern lifestyle, but what lockdown has revealed is that those who can afford to live in bigger spaces, or to have multiple properties, still do just that. Covid-19 has torn off the mask to reveal that micro-living is not for those with a privileged range of choices. Rather, it’s for a squeezed middle-class trying to hold onto a feeling of upward mobility and quality of life despite their growing precarity. 

About the authors: Ella Harris is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Geography Department at Birkbeck University. Her current project uses participatory interactive documentary to explore the class politics of lockdown. Previously she has worked on ‘’compensatory cultures’’ arising from the 2008 recession including pop-up culture and micro-housing, explored in her forthcoming book ‘’Rebranding Precarity’’ with (Zed Books, 2020). 

Mel Nowicki is a Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography at Oxford Brookes University. Her research focuses on housing inequalities and the politicisation of home. She has published widely across academic journals, policy, and in the media. Mel’s current and upcoming projects include a study of family homelessness in London and Dublin, and a recently awarded BA/Leverhulme Small Grant that will explore Tiny House policies in Austin, Texas. 

Suggested Reading.

This post develops the authors’ recent paper in Area: Harris, E, Nowicki, M. (2020). “GET SMALLER”? Emerging geographies of micro‐living. Area

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