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Row of small modular houses
The modular homes in Cambridge, UK. Jimmy's Cambridge, Author provided (no reuse)

Small-scale modular housing could provide a lifeline for people experiencing homelessness

There are 280,000 homeless people in the UK, and homelessness has been projected to increase even more. A key driver of homelessness is a shortage of affordable housing, and particularly social rented properties.

In Cambridge, an innovative approach to the problem has now been tested for the first time in England: modular homes. Modular homes are movable, mostly temporary kinds of small-scale accommodation which give each occupant their own front door.

Our research team set out last year to assess the success of the project. Our initial findings are very promising. After planning permission was granted, the modular homes were set up quickly and cheaply. They provided six people formerly sleeping rough or in temporary, mostly shared, accommodation, but with their own space and front door.

Quality of life

The modular housing project is a collaboration between three local organisations. Jimmy’s Cambridge is a Cambridge charity providing emergency help, support and accommodation for people experiencing homelessness. Jimmy’s was involved in the overall modular homes project planning and organisation as well as the ongoing support for residents.

Social enterprise the New Meaning Foundation was responsible for constructing the modular housing units. Allia, a social enterprise supporting organisations and projects with space, support and access to capital, brought the different organisations involved together and also organised the financing of the scheme.

The Cambridge “mods” – as they are called by the residents – have 25sqm of floor space, with separate living and cooking, sleeping and bathroom areas. They are equipped with appliances such as a cooker, TV and washing machine, and were outfitted ready for their residents to move in.

Modular housing is being embraced as a way to counter homelessness in a number of countries. In Vancouver, Canada, a project aiming to provide up to 600 units began in 2018. The first units opened in the city in 2020.

Modular homes for the homeless in Vancouver, Canada.

Around the same time, the Compass Project – a housing project for low-income individuals and couples – was established in Seattle, US. Oakland. Meanwhile, also in 2018, San Francisco’s acting mayor, London Breed, announced the start of the planning process for a modular homes project. Several sites have been approved so that the aim of opening up to 1,000 units by 2024 is still in sight.

In Scotland, the Social Bite Village is working towards a similar goal, supporting up to 20 people affected by homelessness as they move towards independent living.

In England, the charity Centrepoint has announced a project to build 300 modular housing units across London and Greater Manchester by 2021 to support homeless young people.

Independent living

Feedback from residents during the first three months of the Cambridge project has been incredibly positive. Residents are impressed with the design of the freestanding units and the space provided, happy about the set-up as a whole and optimistic about the future.

The residents overwhelmingly expressed how much they enjoyed having their own front door. One resident remarked:

It is brilliant, I am settled in fine. It is much better living on your own.

This independence gave them a sense of freedom that they had not felt in quite some time, especially as most of the residents had been in shared living before moving into the modular housing. There was a process of adjusting to this new independence. Another resident told us that “getting used to being on my own, in my space again… is very good.”

Interior view showing kitchen and seating
The interior of the modular homes in Cambridge. Jimmy's Cambridge, Author provided (no reuse)

To aid with this transition process, Jimmy’s provides on-site support almost daily. Dedicated support workers are present six days a week, and a warden, who has also experienced homelessness, lives on-site.

Each resident works with a number of support staff, especially their key workers, all of whom give individual attention to the resident’s needs. These key workers provide personalised care – for instance, to support substance use treatment or to help navigate the benefit and housing support system.

A sense of community is key to the success of the modular housing project. Residents were keen on communal dinners once a month and some have formed friendships with each other. This spirit is also present in the support that the broader local community has provided to the project. The owner of the site has been very welcoming to the residents, providing access to an additional common space nearby for bigger dinners, and a company in the neighbouring retail park has donated duvets, bedding and curtains.

While we will continue to conduct research on the project and with its residents over the coming months, we have already seen promising developments. The Cambridge project is a crucial and concrete first step.

We believe that the modular home approach can help our society provide adequate but truly affordable housing and support for homeless people. These projects serve as living testing grounds – with the necessary safety net – to help people transition to living fully on their own.

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