What will kill you first? Living alone or co-living?

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There is a myriad of speculations about the post-COVID world.  The end of the co-living trend is one of them.

I find this one particularly sad because it is a trend I am really excited about, having recently been happier than ever after moving into a live-work space with seven others, the most people I have lived with since University (a long, long time ago).  I am, of course, not alone in this discovery, co-living has been a growing trend over the last ten years but fears of the transmission of infection between people has seen speculation that this may slow, or crash to a halt.  Research in New York City shows correlations between infection rates and household size doesn’t paint a positive picture for sharing space with a lot of other people.  On the other side of the argument, “more and more people of all ages in developed countries are living alone, and loneliness is becoming increasingly common” (Holt-Lunstad, 2010:20) and that loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes or drinking 6 alcoholic drinks a day (Xia & Li 2018).  So what will kill you first?  Happily co-living with many other potentially highly infectious people or maybe dying early of loneliness from living alone?  Let’s look at the facts.


Co-living vs overcrowding.  The research in New York City does not control for income and other factors of deprivation in the simple scatterplot.  It does look in isolation at some of these other factors and also finds correlations, so the link is likely not just about household size.  Notably it is not about neighbourhood density either but that is another story.  The choice to live together is not always about a lack of resources, however, a lack of choice but to live together always is.  The link between poverty and over-crowding is indisputable, a New York Times article from only a few years ago reported on the not un-common story of a man sharing a less than 500sqft (46sqm) apartment with five other people, this is about 9.3sqm per person.  To put that in perspective, data from A Statistical Study on New York’s Tenement Houses from 1900 and New York’s Tenement Museum shows an average of 7.6sqm per person in what is now recognised as one of the worst periods for housing conditions in New York’s history.  In Newham in the UK, stories of seven people in a one-bedroom flat are not uncommon either, and it is not a coincidence that it is one of the worst hit areas by the Corona Virus, as are Queens, The Bronx and Brooklyn in New York where overcrowding is most common.


Co-living is not living in over-crowded conditions.  “A person is considered to be living in an overcrowded household if the house does not have at least one room for the entire household as well as a room for a couple, for each single person above 18, for a pair of teenagers (12 to 17 years of age) of the same sex, for each teenager of different sex and for a pair of children (under 12 years of age)” according to the European Union definition.  Specially designed co-living spaces typically have a separate room and often bathroom for 1 or 2 persons as well as “generous communal facilities such as shared kitchens and lounges, laundry, concierge and storage” (RSA 2018:29).  If anything, modern co-living complexes, such as Canvas House in Singapore, can be more of a luxury than strictly a more affordable option for millennials that can’t afford to buy an apartment.  It is the sharing factor that most articles on COVID and co-living raise as an issue, shared space as a petri-dish for infectious material.  When I worked in Indigenous Communities in Australia – it was a combination of factors related to poverty that affected poor environmental health – not being able to afford cleaning products or a cleaner, responsible adults of the household also working full time, lack of suitable space with up to 20 people in a house with a single shared kitchen and bathroom.  The same poor environmental health conditions as in cheap university share houses.  When co-living has services and maintenance included and enough private space per person, the conditions that cause infection can be managed.


The benefit of living in a co-living arrangement is often a stronger sense of community and social connection.  Stories from co-living spaces in the US tend to suggest that this sense of connection has only become stronger over the lock down period.  That has certainly been my experience.  Conversely, over-crowding can have negative social outcomes from an “increased risk of involvement in anti-social behaviour, where young people from overcrowded households spend more time on the streets” (Mayor of London 2010).  As in the growing gap between rich and poor, the gulf between the experience of co-living and overcrowding, is vast.


Living alone vs social isolation.

What about living alone?  Will that kill you instead? There have been many articles and public enquiries into the rising ‘epidemic’ of loneliness in society.  The data is often shown next to graphs showing the rise in the number of people living alone.  As opposed to co-living, which has been around since the cave-man, solo-living is a genuinely modern phenomena that we haven’t had time to fully understand the repercussions of (Klinenberg 2016).  Now, up to 60% of people in Stockholm and London live in a single person household.

Graph courtesy of Our World in Data


However, in his book, Going Solo, Klinenberg argues that many people living alone have richer social lives and that living alone in itself may not lead to loneliness.  In fact, comparing the countries in the graph above to the ones which have high levels of self-reported loneliness and the data doesn’t match up.


Graph courtesy of Our World in Data


It seems that loneliness is not prevalent where people feel they have friends and relatives they can count on.  In other words, where there are strong social networks and sense of community.  This is backed up by meta-analysis of all studies on social isolation and mortality showing that the extent of social relationships is a far greater predictor of loneliness than living alone.


Post-COVID implications

So, what does this mean for the post-COVID world we want to create?  As it turns out, neither living alone nor living in a well-designed co-living arrangement will kill you, but inequality leading to over-crowding and lack of sense of community can.  These are the things we should focus on rather than on limiting life choices through constrained supply.   In many ways co-living could be the perfect solution in a post-COVID world, allowing you to maintain your own personal space as well as create socially supportive communities, and if people continue to choose to live alone more resources must be available to ensure cities and public spaces are created and activated in ways that foster social connection.

Simon Saint

Principal, Global Sector Leader – Residential