Sunday 23 October 2016

Meet the Irish 30-somethings living in college digs to curb high rents

Have you ever considered living in college digs as a grown-up? Current rent increases, coupled with many of us opting for less materialistic lifestyles, is paving the way for shared housing

Tanya Sweeney

Published 14/09/2016 | 02:30

Roommates: Hollie Kearns, 31, Hannah McCormick, 30, are two of six long-term residents co-habitating in The Friary in Callan in Co Kilkenny Photo: Brian Cregan
Roommates: Hollie Kearns, 31, Hannah McCormick, 30, are two of six long-term residents co-habitating in The Friary in Callan in Co Kilkenny Photo: Brian Cregan

Once upon a time, housesharing was marked by grim, grotty ephemera: soured milk, passive-aggressive Post-Its on the fridge, unpaid bills and kitchen sinks full of someone else's breakfast bowls.

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But the past is a very foreign country. It's a truth universally acknowledged that Ireland is in the grip of a housing crisis. Wave after wave of rental increase has put the idea of living alone out to pasture for many. We're reacting to rising rents in various ways; taking in lodgers, Airbnb listings, moving back in with parents. So far, so typical. But few could have predicted that the house-share - once the preserve of cash-strapped students or youngsters at the bottom of the career ladder - has been upcycled.

In fact, it's become an increasingly popular option for the older professional who wants to enjoy a certain standard of living, and doesn't mind sharing that with a few others. Post-Its are out, and harmonious, communicative living (with much nicer sheets) are in.

When 31-year-old independent curator Hollie Kearns was looking for affordable private rented accommodation in Callan, Kilkenny, she was left wanting. The financially precarious life of artists/creators and Ireland's rental prices make for difficult bedfellows… although it did spark an idea. Knocking heads with the Callan Community Network, Kearns moved into a renovated Friary - previously a community space - with a handful of friends. The space has six long-term residents; most of them artists, photographers or performers.

"I'd lived in shared houses and dreaded the idea of living with a large number of people, but we made the decision to think of it less as renting a room in a house and more of an artists' residency," she explains. "It's not just a temporary space for us, we're intentionally deciding to live in this way. I knew that any way I lived had to be more creative than how my parents went about it."

Theatre producer Hannah McCormick, 30, is also a Friary resident, and lived in a similar environment as a child. "Growing up, my family lived in or on the peripheries of various Camphill Communities in Northern Ireland," she recalls.

"Camphill Communities are communities where people with and without disabilities live, work and learn together. Some communities would be home to up to 18 households. In some ways it better prepared me for (co-living as an adult). Shared living comes naturally to me but I also know my boundaries."

The three-storey space boasts vast common areas, a garden, polytunnel and adjacent meadow - ideal for its denizens to convene or retreat as they please.

"We all have our own independent careers as well as working together to build a sustainable co-living model," explains McCormick.

"I think the commonalities between us are an extremely important contributor to a successful co-living environment. With all of us working in the creative industry we can better understand each others' personal triumphs, disappointments, aspirations and struggles and are more respectful for it."

Others are waking up to the idea, too. Data from Eurostat shows that in 2014, 9.2pc of Irish households had three or more adults living in them (a rise from 7.7pc in 2013). And according to, sharing ad listings have increased 2pc year on year. A small, but perceptible hint that a sea change is afoot.

In London's trendy Hackney neighbourhood, 33-year-old Dubliner Eoin found that a seven-person household was a handy way of circumventing London's out-of-control property prices. The six-bedroom, five-bathroom house is a mixed bag, inhabited by lawyers, architects, and broadcasters.

"Teaming up allowed us to get a much larger house than sharing with one or two people," he explains. "One- and two-bed places are horrifically bad value, and we get a lot of bang for our buck.

"I like coming back to a social space, with people cooking or entertaining, having people to chat to and the opportunity to extend your friendship circle," he adds. "Improper dishwasher loading occasionally gets my goat, but that happens in family homes too.

"I probably didn't imagine 10 years ago that I would be in a share house aged 33 but nor did I think I would still be going to clubs and working in fairly transient jobs," he adds. "I think it's totally normal for my generation to be living this way. I come from a generation that missed the 'boom', never had money for a deposit after the boom when things were cheaper and haven't been able to save for one since."

It stands to reason that a looser and more fluid living arrangement might also work for a workforce that has become increasingly nomadic and transient.

In Ireland, such a living arrangement is still largely informal and generated by word-of-mouth, yet many signs point to co-living becoming a more central global trend.

In the UK, data by Spareroom showed that the number of flatsharers aged 45-53 increased by 300pc in the last five years, and by 186pc for the 35-44 age bracket.

In the US and UK, entrepreneurs are capitalising on this move, setting up companies that run large houses for professionals.

In Brooklyn, the Common co-living initiative has a project in Brooklyn that consists of four five-storey buildings connected to create a 51-bedroom space. Proving that there's money aplenty in the co-living game, Common raised $7.35m (€6.59m) from developers and investors last summer.

Co-living brands such as WeLive in New York and The Collective in London offer young and not so young (the average age of a Common member is 30, although some are in their 40s) a membership which gets them a private room, bathroom and kitchenette as well as access to shared facilities such as a large kitchen, laundry room, lounges and outside space. The fee to live in the Collective facility at Old Oak Common, which houses 564 people, is around £199-290 (€236-345) a week.

The membership fee is often more expensive than for a studio flat in the same area, but crucially, the facilities are fully furnished and the membership fee includes all bills, Wi-Fi, security taxes and a cleaning service.

"The community aspect is the main pull," says Collective's Stephanie Cornell. "You go through school and university within these communities, but then you graduate and often move to a new city, and many people feel quite alone. With the technology epidemic worsening, it's difficult to meet new people. Here, there's access to a ready-made community with people at similar life stages."

According to Cornell, co-living suits a generation geared more towards buying experiences, not material goods.

"Previous generations had bookshelves heaving with books and DVDs, and now we have a Kindle, or Netflix, or Spotify," she explains. "We are becoming more service-oriented and moving away from the idea of having to own things, including a home."

As to whether Collective would consider moving into the Irish market: "We haven't looked into Dublin as a market yet, but there's no reason why we wouldn't consider it."

And so the question arises: is the idea of co-living spaces even on radar for Irish developers and planners?

Certainly, according to a report by the Housing Agency published in April, the trend is being acknowledged: "It was noted that in England there is an emerging trend towards the provision of student type/shared living arrangements for adults," says the report. "These arrangements are also emerging in Sweden and in Florida. It was noted that there is no allowance for this type of accommodation in the guidelines. There is a growing requirement for shared apartment accommodation and that this needs to be considered when designing apartments.

Says Aidan Culhane, a consultant with real estate advisors WK Nowlan: "I don't know of any purpose-built co-living spaces (in development) in Ireland, but that's not to say they're not out there. I would imagine it won't be too long before there is, as it's quite an efficient way of using space.

"In the US, there are groups of studios and apartments with common spaces and amenities in the building like gyms, schools, coffee docks. That is definitely going to happen here."

Of the idea that co-living could soon be a thing of the future, Kearns is in agreement: "We've a long waiting list of people who want to live in the Friary," she says. "It's not just seen as an affordable room; it's a desirable living situation that people really want to live in.

"I haven't had to personally invest any money, or a massive deposit, and yet I get to live in this really beautiful house and enjoy an interesting way of living."

Irish Independent

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