It was supposed to be “faff-free renting” – that’s what was promised on the website. But walking up to his flat at Fizzy Living’s East16 building in London, empty Amazon boxes with the names and addresses of his neighbours strewn across the pavement, resident Kailan Blanks began to suspect that it had, actually, become more than a bit of a faff.
First it was the door to the building getting kicked in. Then the on-site management office got burgled. His neighbours shared stories of people getting robbed outside the block and deliveries going missing. The parcel lockers at East16 were too small and filled up quickly, so delivery drivers left packages lying around, only for them to inevitably get stolen.
“And this happened over and over again,” Blanks tells VICE. It took months of emailing from residents to get Fizzy to agree to on-site security to help sort the problems out.
On top of the security scares, Blanks, a 20-year-old software engineer, reports maintenance issues in the £2,400 per month two-bed flat that he shares with his girlfriend. The building was brand new when they moved into it in June last year, but he says that paint is peeling and there is already a mould problem.
The overflowing parcel lockers at Fizzy Living's East16 apartment block. Photo: Kailan Blanks
Welcome to co-living: the corporate mega-brain solution to the housing crisis. Companies like Fizzy Living, The Collective and Quintain Living (formerly Tipi) each offer their own take on the idea. The emphasis tends to be on small ensuite rooms and flats, with big shared spaces to use as part of a community. Extras like gym access, wifi and room cleaning are often thrown in.
Compared to London’s hellish rental market, it can look tempting. Who wouldn’t swap messy flatmates, dickhead estate agents and landlord carpet for private cinema access, inclusive bills and sleek, Instagram-worthy interiors? But reports of break-ins, crap facilities and rip-off prices mean it’s all gone a bit High Rise.
“They sell you this dream, it’s going to be amazing. The reality is they just don't deliver on it,” says Ria Ismail, another East16 resident.
Ismail, a 23-year-old programme manager in the civil service, moved into Fizzy Living’s East16 development at the end of September last year. She says she was drawn to it because they sell themselves as pet-friendly, something that can be difficult to get private landlords to agree to.
Although she likes the one bedroom flat that she shares with her boyfriend, she says problems with Fizzy started almost immediately and have continued over the course of their seven months in Canning Town – from the extra £75 per month charge for pets to lost deliveries and concerns over security in the building.
“We've had multiple break-ins, multiple packages stolen,” she says. “There was one guy who spent the whole afternoon just going into people's flats, checking which doors weren't locked and walking in.”
Mould on the wall of a Fizzy Living's East16 apartment. Photo: Kailan Blanks
VICE spoke to other residents of Fizzy Living’s East16 building who reported further issues. One said he was left without a fridge-freezer for almost four weeks after it broke down, had sporadic access to hot water and could not use the underfloor heating in his flat because it makes the laminate flooring peel.
Another said he had a broken fridge for three months and that building management rarely responded to emails without him having to send follow-ups. Multiple residents also reported issues with the wifi that is included in the rental price.
Residents haven’t really bonded over the dog yoga classes and ping pong tables laid on by Fizzy Living, but through disdain for their corporate landlord. They have organised a WhatsApp group that now has over 100 members and say they are compiling complaints to submit to the Housing Ombudsman.
A discarded and opened Amazon package outside Fizzy Living's East16 complex. Photo: Kailan Blanks
“Across our building we've got this big sign that says ‘reinventing renting’. Yeah, reinventing how shitty it can be and charging more for it,” Ismail says. Fizzy Living did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Co-living tends to appeal to the same groups: young, minted professionals and people who are new to London – those who can afford the pricey fees to take the pressure off of finding accommodation, organising bills and meeting new people.
According to Homelet, the average monthly rent in London is now £1,800, though this includes lettings of all sizes and in all areas of the capital. Fizzy Living’s cheapest offering at the moment is a one-bed in Hayes from £1,700 per month. A “cosy studio” at The Collective starts at £1,517 per month on a 12 month contract, while the cheapest studio currently on Quintain’s website is discounted to £1,416 per month for the first 12 months of a 36-month contract.
“It's true that because it [co-living] attracts a certain type of yuppie,” Ismail chuckles. “We have made lots of friends in the building, but that’s kind of in spite of Fizzy.”
It’s not just at Fizzy Living where the co-living dream has turned into a nightmare. Residents of The Collective, which once billed its Canary Wharf building as the biggest co-living space in the world, have reported a long list of issues.
Katie*, a current resident of The Collective who does not want to be named for fear of eviction, has lived in both The Collective’s Old Oak building in Willesden Junction and its Canary Wharf tower block over the last few years. She describes her co-living experience as “a crazy, crazy rollercoaster. The highest highs and the lowest lows”.
Katie moved to The Collective Old Oak when she got her first job in London. She says she met close friends during her time there and is keen to point out how much she values its community, but concerns with security left her feeling unsafe.
Now living in the Canary Wharf building, she says she still loves the extras that come with co-living – stuff like knowing that her bills are taken care of in the monthly fee and that there’s someone on hand to change her bed sheets, but, as problems persist, she acknowledges that living in what is essentially a plush version of uni halls is a trade-off.
In September 2021, The Collective went into administration, citing a combination of debt, high operational costs and low occupancy. In a press release at the time, administrators said that an agreement had been reached so that both Canary Wharf and Old Oak could remain open.
But while they have continued to function, Katie says that The Collective’s focus at its Canary Wharf site has shifted away from long-term residents to short-term guests of the on-site hotel. Although there has always been a hotel in the building, short stays used to be confined to two floors. They are now put up wherever there is space.
“They're scattered around the whole building and it causes problems,” she says. “Like on a normal Monday night, you just want to sleep and go to work the next day, but other people are spending like £200 [a night] to be here and they're partying.”
The influx of new people has created tension. Katie says fights regularly broke out at the building’s top floor bar, MTHR, with police a common sight around the building. Communal spaces like the swimming pool are now overrun with hotel guests, testing the sense of community that The Collective is so keen to sell to its residents.
“They're like vaping, drinking, eating olives and stuff in the pool,” she says. “And there’s zero oversight, like the reception security just completely turns a blind eye.”
Abi Cartwright, a 32-year-old engineering consultant, spent a year at The Collective in Canary Wharf. She says rooms were small and stuffy, facilities were often rundown or broken and she also spoke of the problems that short-term guests and MTHR customers had caused. When her contract finished, she left.
“I was really excited to move in, but even more excited to move out,” she says. VICE spoke to other former and current residents of The Collective who cited similar problems, including brawls breaking out and poorly maintained facilities.
The Collective did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The company split with the third party operator of MTHR in May and the bar is now closed for renovation.
That Ismail, Blanks and Katie all said that they were considering staying on in their situations, despite the litany of problems they have reported, is an indictment of London’s dire housing situation. As perpetual renting becomes normal for more and more of us, bold claims by companies looking to revolutionise traditional renting setups are likely to increase.
Co-living forms just a small part of the wider move towards build-to-rent housing developments in the UK, as companies look to cash in on forever-renters. A report earlier this year by estate agent Savills said that a record £4 billion was invested in the sector in 2021, with familiar names like John Lewis and Lloyds Bank entering the market.
While the co-living dream may be dead, corporate landlords look like they are here to stay.