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Diversity is a good thing. I know this because, probably like you, I have been told so. A lot. Wherever it appears, diversity is welcomed. It is encouraged in arts, sport and political representation; big business worships it, donning it like a prefect shield when it gets it right. Internally, too, we face constant incitement to diversify, to expand our tastes – enjoying steak and The Beatles no longer cuts it, worthwhile existence means at least passing interest in baboon tajine and hyper dubstep.
Why then, I found myself asking last week, would an apparently successful businessman spend £10m building an apartment block that only accepts one type of resident? Surely, if diversity is as good as we think it must command a price premium and only a serious dunderhead would see financial rewards at the end of the equation: uniformity + similarity x sq ft =.
Well, apparently not.
In what the London Evening Standard called an “unprecedented” stroke of genius, a wealthy nightclub promoter is building houses in the West End where “only cool people can live”. In spite of sounding like the subtitle on a peculiarly bratty sleepover invite, the idea seems to be well thought through. Buyers, who must be under 40, will be handpicked to set the right cool tone, according to Nick House, the building’s developer. He goes on to describe his typical tenant as “a partner in one of the top ad-agencies or an early thirties founder of a tech start-up.”
To keep the young hipsters entertained, the block will have space for communal activities such as yoga and barbecues and, for the more outgoing, a climbing wall (hard to see how that works in skinny jeans) and subterranean party room.
So far, so pretentious.
But Mr House – his real name (I checked), who at the time of writing was on a mountaineering trip with his friend Kenton Cool – is, perhaps rather depressingly, on to something: housing is an outlier to everything sensible and, as such, diversity is a bad thing when deciding on a reason to live somewhere. Rather than looking for more of the other, people want to cluster in gangs of commonality and are willing to pay for the privilege.
This anti-diversity property movement is being played out in those supposed paragons of heterogeneity: world cities. Creative spirits often provide the building blocks for the chain, colonising entire neighbourhoods – look at Williamsburg in New York, Hoxton in London or Kreuzberg in Berlin. The flaw in the plan comes when the stability created by neighbourly cohesion makes the area more attractive to outsiders. Eventually, the arty settlers are priced out and have to make way for the next wave, usually hard-pressed media types, who are, in turn, quickly shunted suburb-ward by young financiers. Thus has been the pattern in countless gentrifications during the past 20 years.
Estate agents have learnt the game, and claim uniformity of neighbourhood to drive house prices. “This is a real tech area, you know? Everyone cycles. That grime you see, that isn’t actually dirt – its ink residue from the Guardian. People round here sometimes buy hard-copy newspapers as an ironic statement. It’s that kind of place.”
However, Mr House has gone a step further with his groovy apartments.
If there is one factor that can really inflate property prices, it is “cool”. You only need take a snapshot of some of the areas of England deemed cooler than most since the turn of the century and a remarkable trend emerges. Hackney and Tower Hamlets in London and the south coast city of Brighton – all above average in the edgy stakes – have experienced house price growth of up to 200 per cent during the past 10 years, according to data from Savills. This compares with 104 per cent for the country as a whole.
In clustering coolness under one roof, Mr House will achieve property’s perfect pitch: to make a fortune from something which sounds like utter honk to any semi-witted grown-up.
But, as is the destiny of all gimmicks, the unhumble abode is flawed. Just as neighbourhoods pivot from art hubs to banker enclaves, so coolness is inherently transient; if it wasn’t, how to explain the 1980s? Mr House’s tenants may very well be London’s hippest cats when they sign the lease. But it won’t last. What happens if one of them decides that advertising is not for them and takes a job selling insurance derivatives for a bank, or trades in their MacBook for a Dell? What, indeed, becomes of the building if a resident embraces that holy trinity of anti-cool: marriage, children and ageing? What then for this fortress of funk?
For my money, Mr House should be preparing for a slew of mail in about five years:
I feel duped, innit. The geezer at number 12 has gone bald and started driving a Volvo estate. It’s just not cool. I want my money back.
Peace and realness,
Mr Forever Young
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