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The YMCA Is Trying to Solve Britain’s Housing Problem with Prefab Apartments

The world's oldest and largest youth charity has opened the doors on its new housing initiative—but could it be more than just a temporary measure?

by Natasha Culzac
Sep 21 2015, 5:15pm

London's bloated housing market might be making life difficult for some of its young, but it's undoubtedly—and shamefully—failing its young poor. For the destitute and vulnerable, scraping together a mammoth deposit and graduating from, say, homeless hostel to the private rented sector is a cruel, near impossible slog in a capital where the average monthly rent costs £1,500 [$2,325] a month, and where annual rent increases of 20 percent are not uncommon.

London's (and the UK's) desperate housing shortage is one of the reasons rental prices have been driven through the roof. But since his appointment as mayor in 2008, Boris Johnson has failed to build barely more than a third of the 63,000 new homes needed annually. Moreover, Johnson has not set a citywide quota of how many new houses need to be affordable, instead leaving it up to London's local authorities to decide. This has led to fewer than 4,700 homes built between March of 2014 and March of this year being classed as affordable. Today, the government announced that it wants a million new homes built by 2020, with The National Housing Federation saying about 245,000 are needed each year in England.

It's against this backdrop that the world's oldest and largest youth charity, YMCA, has stepped in to help remedy the dire housing situation. Earlier this year the YMCA partnered with the firm of celebrated architect Lord Richard Rogers to launch its own cost effective, not-for-profit, temporary London housing development made up of 36 pre-built, one-bedroom units.

Half of those living in the Y:Cube, which opened earlier this month, will be young YMCA clients previously living in its hostels, while the other half will be referrals from the council.

The Y:Cube scheme, which uses a "plug and play" modular—think Lego—system, is affordable and viable, the charity says, thanks to its units being individually constructed in Derbyshire and later stacked atop one another and slotted into place, with a build time of just five months—drastically lower than a traditional equivalent.

The complex, which is a 12-minute walk from Mitcham Eastfields station, South London, ironically doesn't look as cheap as some of the pricey developments sprouting up in gentrified London. But then, architectural heavyweights Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners weren't going to come at this thing half-assed. Made from renewable timber, the eco-friendly apartments have thick sound-canceling walls and roofs dotted with solar panels.

The £1.9 million [$2.9 million] project was funded by four social investors alongside a £337,000 [$552,500] grant from the Mayor of London's Building the Pipeline scheme, and each apartment is rented to residents at £148 [$229] per week—65 percent of the market value, the YMCA says.

This is a great, positive thing. But as I meandered among Y:Cube's spot-lit corridors and poked my head into the rooms' slick, white interiors, it only made me angrier about the government systematically selling off our social and affordable housing stock at rock bottom prices. In a city desperate for square inches, it seems highly unfair that a charity has to take the lead in plugging the gap for move-on accommodation for those in need.

But it isn't just those in vulnerable positions who are struggling to keep up with London's eye-watering rents, which begs the question: could this cheaper housing alternative actually end up being the norm for thousands of London's young professionals relegated out of the private rented sector (PRS)?

Richard James, Chief Executive of YMCA London South West, thinks not. He says the units, which cost £53,000 [$82,000] each and have a lifespan of 60+ years, have been developed with clear principles in mind and are not competing with traditional housing.

"This isn't about putting up loads of houses cheaply and then making a profit out of it; this is about a social purpose and a quality to the product," he told me. "Our priorities are going to be around those who can afford things the least, and try to support those who need that help to get going. I think if somebody was earning £100,000 [$155,000] but then renting one of these units and paying below [average] rent, we'd need to think about whether that was delivering purpose and whether that was fair on those who needed it."

Richard says that they are looking into rolling these out to other parts of London and the southeast, potentially also to key workers and students. Future designs have even given the apartments two or three bedrooms, instead of one.

However, Dr. Melissa Fernandez from the London School of Economics—who this week published research on the housing crisis for the young employed—said that while the Y:Cube may not always be replicable, "it does offer a viable model for other local authorities (LAs) and housing developers to follow," adding: "Given its small living size, final rents would need to be lower than market rents for demand to be realistic and increase over time."

She went on to say: "A focus group of young employed private renters we conducted suggested that for the model to be accepted as a PRS alternative, added benefits such as coveted central locations and significantly lower rents may need to be offered as part of the prefab package in order to offset what can be regarded as an unpleasing look."

Overall, she told me, it's probably "too specific to become a development norm" and will instead just be supplementary.

Wendy Omollo

Wendy Omollo, 24, is one of the YMCA's first tenants. Like all the other occupants she is expected to spend a maximum of three years living in the Y:Cube. She was interviewed for her 85-square-foot apartment, as all residents must show some degree of independence and be either volunteering, in education, or employed.

With no upfront deposit required, moving into the Y:Cube means she can "save money up again" and she loves it. "It's gorgeous," Wendy says of the inside of her apartment. "It's so clean and white and so simplistic. You can do anything you want with it. It contrasts with the outside, which is quite bright and colorful. They feng shui'ed the heck out of this place."

Wendy has come a long way since last year, when she was made homeless after losing her job and unable to secure further employment. With no family in the country she'd spent a few days sleeping in a church, waiting for her benefits to come through, before going into hostels. She's now undertaking an NVQ and is on an assistant manager course at Greene King, a chain bar in the UK.

"People think homeless people are a certain way, standing by the station asking for money. You'd think, 'She's not homeless' [if you saw me]," Wendy said. "I've always said, unless you have a contract or a lease with your name and signature on it, you're homeless. In the YMCA we were back on our feet; we weren't homeless. But here and now, away from that building and other people, we're back in the real world."

It'll take a few weeks for all the tenants to be placed in this development, which lies on a brownfield site once disregarded and littered with burnt mattresses. The land, on the corner of two roads, was so forgotten not even the council knew it owned it.

Could this type of accommodation be copied and extensively rolled out to the rest of the population by other private developers? Is that a worry? Could it replace traditional bricks and mortar as the go-to accommodation for Britain's disenfranchised? Nobody seems concerned with those questions yet, but the whole thing is still so new and currently fairly specialized.

"We've got to find ways to house young people more cheaply and build differently—there just simply aren't enough trained bricklayers or electricians to build all the homes we need, nor the bricks or other materials to build 'conventional' homes," housing consultant and former housing regulator, Phil Morgan, said. "In London in particular, rents are far too high for young people—this offers a solution that is affordable and avoids Rachmanesque slums."