It was supposed to be a “hassle free rental”, that’s what was promised on the website. But as she walked to her apartment in Fizzy Living’s East16 building in London, empty Amazon boxes with her neighbors’ names and addresses strewn on the pavement, resident Kailan Blanks began to suspect that she had, in fact, become more what a bummer .
First the door of the building was kicked. Then they robbed the management office on site. Their neighbors shared stories of people being robbed off the block and deliveries being lost. The package lockers at East16 were too small and filled up quickly, so delivery drivers left packages lying around, only to have them inevitably stolen.
“And this happened over and over again,” Blanks tells VICE. It took months of emails from residents for Fizzy to agree to on-site security to help resolve issues.
Adding to security fears, Blanks, a 20-year-old software engineer, reports maintenance issues at the £2,400-a-month two-bedroom flat he shares with his girlfriend. The building was new when they moved in in June of last year, but he says the paint is peeling and there’s already a mold problem.
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 rooms and en-suite flats, with large shared spaces to use as part of a community. Extras such as gym access, Wi-Fi, and room cleaning are often included.
Compared to the hellish London rental market, it may seem tempting. Who wouldn’t trade messy roommates, idiotic realtors, and landlord rugs for private access to the cinema, inclusive bills, and stylish, Instagram-worthy interiors? But reports of thefts, crappy installs and rip-off prices mean it’s all gone a bit. Tall.
“They sell you this dream, it is going to be incredible. The reality is that they just don’t comply,” says Ria Ismail, another East16 resident.
Ismail, a 23-year civil service program manager, moved into Fizzy Living’s East16 development in late September of last year. She says she was drawn to them because they are sold as pets, something that can be difficult to get private owners to accept.
Although she likes the one-bedroom flat she shares with her boyfriend, she says the problems with Fizzy started almost immediately and have continued throughout the seven months in Canning Town, from the £75 per month extra charge for pets to missed deliveries and concerns about security in the building.
“We’ve had multiple break-ins, multiple packages stolen,” she says. “There was a guy who spent the whole afternoon going into people’s apartments, checking which doors were unlocked and going in.”
VICE spoke to other residents of Fizzy Living’s East16 building who reported more problems. One said he was without a fridge for almost four weeks after it broke down, had sporadic access to hot water and was unable to use the underfloor heating in his apartment because it makes the laminate floor peel.
Another said he had a broken refrigerator for three months and building management rarely responded to emails without him having to follow up. Several residents also reported problems with the wifi that is included in the rental price.
Residents haven’t really come together over dog yoga classes and ping pong tables set up by Fizzy Living, but out of disdain for their corporate landlord. They have organized a WhatsApp group that now has more than 100 members and they say they are collecting complaints to send to the Housing Ombudsman.
“On the other side of our building we have this big sign that says ‘reinvent renting.’ Yes, reinventing how horrible it can be and charging more for it,” says Ismail. Fizzy Living did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Coexistence tends to attract the same groups: minted young professionals and people who are new to London, those who can afford the expensive rates to ease the pressure of finding accommodation, sorting out bills and meeting new people.
According to Homelet, the average monthly rent in London is now £1,800, although this includes rentals of all sizes and in all areas of the capital. Fizzy Living’s cheapest deal right now is a one-bed room at Hayes from £1,700 per month. A ‘cozy studio’ on The Collective starts at £1,517 per month on a 12-month contract, while the cheapest studio currently on the Quintain website is discounted to £1,416 per month for the first 12 months of a contract 36 months.
“It is true that because [co-living] it appeals to a certain type of yuppie,” laughs Ismail. “We’ve made a lot of friends in the building, but that’s despite Fizzy.”
It is not only at Fizzy Living that the dream of living together has become a nightmare. Residents of The Collective, who once billed their Canary Wharf building as the world’s largest co-living space, have reported a long list of problems.
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 for the past several years. She describes her cohabitation experience as “a crazy, crazy roller coaster ride. The highest highs and the lowest lows.”
Katie moved to The Collective Old Oak when she got her first job in London. She says that she met close friends of hers during her time there and she wants to point out how much she values her community, but her concerns with her safety made her feel insecure.
Now that she lives in the Canary Wharf building, she says she still loves the extras that come with living together, things like knowing her bills are covered in the monthly fee and someone is available to change her sheets, but, as they persist problems, he acknowledges that living in what is essentially a lavish version of college halls is a tradeoff.
In September 2021, The Collective entered administration, citing a combination of debt, high operating costs and low occupancy. In a press release at the time, the trustees said an agreement had been reached so that both Canary Wharf and Old Oak could remain open.
But while they have continued to operate, Katie says The Collective’s focus on their Canary Wharf site has shifted from being 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. Now they are placed where there is space.
“They’re scattered all over the building and that causes problems,” she says. “Like a normal Monday night, you just want to sleep and go to work the next day, but other people spend like £200 [a night] be here and they are partying”.
The influx of new people has created tension. Katie says fights regularly broke out at the building’s top-floor bar, MTHR, and police were common throughout the building. Common spaces like the pool are now overrun with hotel guests, testing the sense of community that The Collective is so keen to sell to its residents.
“It’s like vaping, drinking, eating olives and stuff in the pool,” she says. “And there’s no oversight, like front desk security turning a blind eye completely.”
Abi Cartwright, a 32-year-old engineering consultant, spent a year at The Collective in Canary Wharf. She says that the rooms were small and stuffy, that the facilities were often dilapidated or broken, and she also spoke of the problems that had been caused by short-term guests and MTHR clients. When she terminated her contract, she left.
“I was very excited to move, but even more excited to move,” she says. VICE spoke with other former and current residents of The Collective who mentioned similar issues, including fights and poorly maintained facilities.
The Collective did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The business was spun off from the third-party operator of MTHR in May and the bar is now closed for renovations.
That Ismail, Blanks and Katie have all said they were considering staying in their situations, despite the litany of problems they have reported, is an indictment of London’s dire housing situation. As perpetual rental becomes normal for more and more of us, bold claims from companies looking to revolutionize traditional rental setups are likely to increase.
Coexistence forms just a small part of the wider movement towards built-to-let housing developments in the UK, as companies look to cash in on forever tenants. A report earlier this year by estate agent Savills said a record £4bn was invested in the sector in 2021, with household names such as John Lewis and Lloyds Bank entering the market.
While the dream of cohabitation may be dead, it seems corporate owners are here to stay.