It’s Not Just You – House Sharing Actually Makes You Miserable

Photographed by Leia Morrison
Imagine not having real control over when you can pee, how clean your kitchen is, or how the room you sleep in is decorated. Well, actually, don’t imagine – just think about the experience of house sharing in the UK right now.
We may have moved beyond the direct stress of pandemic-induced isolation or working from home orders, but that doesn’t mean the stresses of renting a room in a HMO (house in multiple occupation) is any easier. And according to housing journalist (and my colleague) Vicky Spratt, there’s a reason for that.
As she writes in her first book Tenants, a thorough and devastating analysis of Britain’s current housing crisis, “now that private renting extends well into adulthood for millions of people, the problems that come with it have taken on new significance.” The lack of control and autonomy for all private renters is exacerbated in shared living situations, particularly if it is ‘forced sharing’ with strangers over ‘voluntary sharing’ with friends and family.
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But before digging into this, it’s important to get a clear overview of the state of housing in Britain right now. In Vicky's words, it is “a mess, to put it bluntly. I don't think there's any way of really sugarcoating this.”
This is for several reasons. For one, rent has been going up across the country since the pandemic began; after the flurry of relocations from cities like London during the pandemic, people are now moving back and causing rents to skyrocket. “Elsewhere in the country, the damage was already done during the pandemic when people relocated to places like Bristol, where rents are through the roof and they're not going down," Vicky says. "And now there's this really worrying trend that I'm hearing a lot about anecdotally – though obviously, it's hard to prove – where renters are getting 20, 30 even 70% rent hikes, as landlords passed their concerns about the cost of living on to their tenants.” There is further instability for renters due to the lack of adequate housing and the relative power landlords have in Britain. Let's not forget that while they were paused in the pandemic, Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions still haven't yet been banned.

You’re far more likely to be stressed because there is an increase in instability – your landlord could sell out of nowhere, you could be evicted, or your rents could increase.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) latest release, rents increased by 3.4% across the last 12 months across the UK, representing the fastest annual growth rate since their data series began. And simultaneously, the number of properties available has dramatically fallen, with trade organisation Propertymark finding that availability has halved since 2019, due in large part to a mass exodus of private landlords. This has led to scarcity and unchecked rent increases, meaning four in every 10 under-30s are now spending more than 30% of their earnings on rent.
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This has a particular knock-on effect on people living in house shares, whether it’s a group of young professionals renting together, or groups of strangers thrown together by whatever rent they can afford. 
As Vicky explains, “if a rent hike hits [a HMO] and not everyone can afford it, that can cause turbulence in the house share. Maybe one person starts falling behind on rent, maybe they need to start borrowing money from other people who live there – I've heard of that happening. Maybe they all have a shared tenancy and then when one person falls behind it causes a huge problem for everyone – everyone can end up being evicted or all be liable for the shortfall. And if they've got individual tenancies, which sometimes happens, it can cause turbulence having to replace people who can't afford the rent.”
Together with increasing rents, we’re also facing the cost of living crisis and the economic impact of high inflation. “[That makes] living in a house share particularly challenging because bills and food shop are going up but you're not a household," she says. "You don't have joint finances, you don't have a plan for the future and not everybody is going to be able to afford the hikes."
This has a direct impact on your mental health. In Tenants, Vicky delves into some of the research that is beginning to explore the psychological impact of housing instability for private renters. In 2019, Dr Kim McKee and her colleagues published a paper on their work on ‘Generation Rent’ where they stated that “shared properties in particular, which are on the rise, pose a much bigger threat to a tenant’s mental health."
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In particular, Vicky points to a study by Dr Amanda Clair from 2018 where she and her colleague found a correlation between poor-quality housing and health problems. By taking blood samples from private renters and homeowners, they were able to use data from biomarkers to examine what renting is actually doing to people’s bodies – specifically that private renters have higher levels of CRP protein than social renters and homeowners. CRP protein is made by your liver and is an indication of inflammation in the body, indicating various diseases like cancer and stroke.

Unlike in family homes or in homes shared with a partner, you don’t have a bond of love or family to help you work through the work of communicating.

On a more general note, you’re far more likely to be stressed because there is an increase in instability – your landlord could sell out of nowhere, you could be evicted, or your rents could increase. There is a baseline of unpredictability and uncertainty that is built into your housing. Plus, your day-to-day is built around managing the comings and goings of people, who, if you are strangers, have no investment in maintaining a good relationship. And that constant uncertainty has effects.
Vicky emphasises that uncertainty, in and of itself, is unavoidable in life. But, “at least in this life, you need some control over basic things. Like: whether your home is safe; what happens when you shut the door; how much it's going to cost you to live there; whether you can have a shower when you need to; whether you can cook when you're hungry.” These are certainties that elude people in house shares because they require so much planning and scheduling, but unlike in family homes or in homes shared with a partner, you don’t have a bond of love or family to help you work through the work of communicating. And slowly but surely that can eat away at you.
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House shares of course aren’t inherently flawed. “I think house shares can be great and I think they can be very fun, I've had some really good ones. But increasing trends of people renting later on in life, sharing with other people, particularly in large HMOs which maybe don't have enough bathrooms and they only have one kitchen... I think it's important not to underestimate the toll and mental load of living in those situations.”
The solution now is the same solution that Vicky has been arguing and campaigning for, for years – rent regulation, an end to unfair evictions and building truly affordable social housing. And this will only happen if, amongst other things, pressure is continually put on the government to actually deal with the crisis. Otherwise we're all going to continue carrying the burden on our shoulders, and in our minds.

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