Can Build-To-Rent tackle loneliness?

Residential real estate has a role to play in the loneliness epidemic

September 30, 2021

“No man is an island”. This famous phrase, written by English poet John Donne, expresses the idea that we need to be part of a community to thrive. After a year-and-a-half of repeated lockdowns, social distancing, and enforced absence from workplaces and schools, this rings even more true today than it did when penned by Donne nearly 400 years ago. 

Even against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, many scientists in recent years have described loneliness as an ‘epidemic’ and a real risk to public health. Even before the pandemic, a 2017 survey from the UK’s Office for National Statistics found that 7.2 percent of UK adults – or just under 4 million people - often or always felt lonely. The problem was far more acute for younger generations, with a third of 16 to 24-year-olds suffering loneliness. This led to the unprecedented move by then-prime minister Theresa May in announcing the appointment of a ‘minister for loneliness’ in January 2018. The post remains occupied today. 

The role that residential real estate plays in the loneliness epidemic can be as villain or hero. Adults living in rented accommodation are more likely to experience loneliness, and in big cities such as London, where most rental stock is one- or two-bedroom flats, the situation is worse. London boroughs with larger proportions of renters have higher levels of loneliness and Wandsworth is the city’s loneliness capital (it has London’s third largest proportion of private rental households and a third of homes in the borough are privately rented). 

The situation is reversed – and real estate is the hero – in the growing Build to Rent (BTR) sector. BTR developers put greater emphasis on communal, amenity spaces, such as shared dining areas, gyms, and co-working spaces, and incorporate shared outdoor space such as landscaped gardens. They are building spaces that foster a sense of community, where individuals co-habit, rather than just co-exist. Although BTR only accounts for 1 percent of the total rental market, our own research puts the combined size of communal living space in London in BTR accommodation at roughly 11.5 football pitches. 

The benefits of living in communal environments have been highlighted in both the Student Living and Later Living sectors. The Independent Longevity Centre report on independence, loneliness, and quality of life, published back in 2015, found that communal living in retirement villages had a positive impact on loneliness reducing social isolation and improving quality of life. The report also indicated that central and local government should identify ways of working with the private sector to deliver new, good quality retirement housing. The opportunity is clearly much wider than just retirement and student housing. 

Where and how we live, and the communities we belong to, play a vital role in how connected we are to the people around us and how happy we are. Providing a wider range of residential housing stock, with an emphasis on the provision of communal and shared-amenity space, would be a step in the right direction in tackling the loneliness epidemic. The COVID-19 pandemic is said to have reignited Britain’s sense of community – maybe it is time to explore more living solutions that promote that ideal.