When Danielle*, 32, moved in with her then-partner Michael in 2019, they had only been dating for five months. She had just got back to London after living abroad and she wasn’t making much money as a nanny. Michael was also struggling on a low publishing salary and so it seemed like there was only one housing option that made sense: Danielle should move into Michael’s shared house.
"We would never have made that decision if we could have afforded to not make that decision," she told me.
Tensions ran high between the couple and the house’s other occupants, many of whom were also couples sharing small bedrooms. Eventually they scraped together enough cash to rent a one-bedroom flat in southeast London. But it was all too much, too soon and the couple split. Danielle thinks this was largely down to having to move in together prematurely to make ends meet. "It was a huge part of a feeling I had of being trapped."
Rachel*, 26, is having to leave her shared flat in Homerton in east London because the landlord wants to renovate and then charge more rent. She is moving in with her boyfriend – too soon, in her view – because she’s afraid of being unable to find somewhere else to live within her budget. "I know a lot of people that are just struggling to find anywhere, let alone it being affordable," she said. "I’m only paid £26,000 to live in London and that’s very, very difficult." Her current flatmate is having to move back home, out of the city, because her budget doesn’t stretch to the increased rental prices. "If it wasn’t for all these financial reasons forcing my hand, I don’t think I would have been ready to live with a partner," said Rachel.
Danielle and Rachel are not unusual. The housing crisis, which has been gathering pace over the past decade, has taken a huge toll on people’s relationships. While the rental crisis predates the pandemic, the 2020s so far have accelerated the problem, affecting young couples' decisions about how and when to live together. It seems to many a no-brainer: why pay for two bedrooms when you are spending several nights a week together anyway? Why not halve your rent, and take the plunge sooner rather than later? But the effect that this is having on people’s relationships may not be worth the financial reward.
When to move in together is a question that requires careful thought and depends on each partner’s attitude to commitment, their cultural and religious background, as well as their sexuality. But in the face of the skyrocketing price of food, energy and rent, the pressure has never been higher for any non-homeowning individual to find someone to share their living costs. In April 2022, there were more than 28 applicants for every available rental property in the UK. Competition for housing is being made harder still as landlords ask for up to six months' rent in advance. And while demand is rising, supply is slipping further out of reach, with rents going up more than 10% since the end of pandemic restrictions.
Holly Roberts, a counsellor at the relationship support charity Relate, believes the strain being put on relationships due to housing insecurity is getting worse. "There has always been a shortage of affordable housing but with the pandemic unexpectedly pushing house prices significantly upwards, the increase in the cost of living and now fuel and heating prices escalating, the issues are going to be more apparent than ever," she said.
It’s not just the UK, either. More than 100 people turned up to view a single rental property in Dublin last month, generating headlines across the country. In New York, the housing crisis is as acute as it is in London, if not more so. I spoke to Megan*, 25, who has been dating her partner for two years and lives in Brooklyn. She wants to stay in her current apartment but the landlord is raising the rent by 25% and so she has to be out in a month. Her boyfriend was in a similar position, priced out of his apartment, and so he has moved in with her while he looks for a place. "I had no interest in moving in together," said Megan. When she finds a new place, she wants to live with friends, not with her boyfriend, but also doesn’t want to leave him to fend for himself if he doesn’t manage to find a place in the next few weeks.
"Tensions are a bit high right now but I think it’s too soon to move in together," she said. It’s putting a big strain on their relationship. "I don't even know if I like him as much as I did when I first started dating him," she continued. Ideally, Megan wants to live alone but that is a long way out of her reach. "I feel like I’m not really in control of what I get to do."
According to Holly, moving in together too soon is a problem affecting people over 30. But the housing crisis is taking a toll on younger people’s relationships too. More and more young people are having to stay living with parents, which stops the natural progression of an adult relationship. "They don’t have the privacy to explore an intimate and sexual relationship with the ever-lurking presence of parents," Holly said, "which can inhibit a natural expression of love and leave people feeling stuck and frustrated."
Living in the UK, particularly in expensive big cities where most of the jobs are, has been robbing people of free choice over how they want to live for a long time now. We have had to accept that living alone, as half the population of Sweden are able to do due to rent control, for instance, is a pipe dream. Other people I spoke to for this piece said that they feel like they have been deprived of the independence that a period of living alone might have given them. "I feel sad I never got to live alone because it was never an option while I was single," said one person, "and it’s such an important thing for a person’s development."
Unfortunately, things do not seem set to improve. There are simply not enough affordable homes to go around and no serious political initiative to build them.
Everyone who is not in the unusual position of having a parent who can help them buy a home is in the same sinking boat: scrabbling to make ends meet, moving constantly and putting up with living situations that are not what they would choose for themselves.
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity