“I Thought I’d Have A Heart Attack”: How The Stress Of Renting Is Making Us Sick

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell.
If damp, leaking roofs, mould, electrical hazards, gas leaks and unfriendly neighbours all sound triggering to you, that's because they are frequent issues for Generation Rent. And it’s starting to take its toll.
Almost one in four renters – the equivalent of 2 million adults in England – have become mentally and physically ill due to housing worries in the last year. A new study by housing charity Shelter and YouGov shows the dramatic impact that worries about affording rent, poor living conditions and the threat of eviction are having on people's mental and physical health.
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Nearly one in three of the 3,995 private renters polled said their concerns keep them up at night, and almost the same number said their housing situation had left them feeling hopeless. Forty-five percent of renters have experienced stress and anxiety as a result.
The report, published today, shines a light on the shocking state of the UK’s housing crisis, in which young people are hit the hardest. On average, people in their 20s spend more than 30% of their income on rent.
Andrea Deakin, Shelter's emergency helpline manager, said: "This time of year can be especially stressful and difficult for families who are struggling to cope with big rent bills or things like cold and mouldy homes during the winter months.

One in four renters have been made mentally and physically ill by the stress their housing causes them.

"Every day at Shelter, we see the toll that expensive, unstable or poor-quality private renting can take on people’s lives and their health. We know how easy it can be to lose hope and feel overwhelmed by these worries, but our message is that you do not have to face them alone."
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With so much uncertainty and insecurity looming over an entire generation, it's no surprise the situation is causing stress, depression and anxiety, all of which can have long-term physical health implications. Last year, a study from the University of Essex found that renters have higher protein levels than homeowners. Researchers said this was caused by high levels of stress and could eventually lead to heart disease or chronic inflammatory conditions such as IBS or arthritis.
From dodgy landlords and mouldy flats to having to move at short notice, young people across the UK are suffering from the uncertainty of the roof over their heads.
Below, three young women describe their experiences of living in a privately rented property and how it has affected their health.
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Jade*, 37
I am the most un-superstitious person alive but I truly feel like I am cursed when it comes to housing in the UK. I have lived in London for 10 years, and have moved nine times. It has been so disruptive and stressful. I have never felt stable anywhere. As a renter with a limited budget, you are in a very tricky predicament in London but admittedly I have also been very unlucky.
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In 2017, I found an incredible flat in Clapton in east London and convinced one of my oldest friends to move in with me. He did, leaving his flat of six years. It was a stretch on his finances but it was too perfect not to take it. It was right by the canal and we would canoe down the river on weekends and enjoy beers on our balcony. But after two months, the owners said they were selling up.

Having to leave the flat at such short notice was so stressful that I thought I was going to have a heart attack.

Jade*, 37
I was devastated and felt as though I had royally fucked over a friend. I bawled my eyes out when I had to tell him and soon my life spiralled. My mental health suffered and I was on edge all the time. We had to move with short notice (and before Christmas) which was the worst timing. I lost sleep over it and it was so stressful that I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I eventually found a place and now I am a property guardian, but it’s short-term and I live in fear of the day they call to say my time is up and I have to move again.
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Jess*, 27
I was 24 and sharing a two-bed flat in Brixton with my then-boyfriend. It was winter and there had been news reports of a man attacking women on their doorsteps near my flat, so I was already on edge walking home at night.
Our landlord was living with his teenage son at the time, who was very intimidating. He would stare at us in the corridor and demand money for his Oyster card. It got so bad that one day he started throwing beer bottles at our windows. Our rent seemed to be the only source of income for our landlord, so it was a tricky situation. We heard physical arguments downstairs and we worried for both of them, but we were also uneasy ourselves.
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The whole experience caused me to have a breakdown. I never felt safe and I suffered many sleepless nights.

Jess*, 27
We eventually asked to leave but our landlord refused and said he really needed the rent money because he was in debt. Thankfully, my dad deciphered the legal jargon in our contract to see whether our landlord had put our deposit in a protection scheme (he hadn’t, which is illegal) so we had leverage to get out of the contract and leave.
The whole experience caused me to have a breakdown. I never felt safe, let alone at home, and I suffered many sleepless nights and anxiety, which leaked into my work (my boss was very understanding) but as soon as I moved, a cloud lifted.
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Grace*, 32
Four years ago, I moved into a lovely little flat in Brighton with a housemate. It came at a good price and we were very happy there. But in May 2019, I started to feel weird. I worked from home at the time and started feeling sick. I wasn't drinking and couldn't pinpoint what was wrong with me. I felt tired and disconnected. By September, it became a nightmare.
I decided to test the carbon monoxide alarm and I was shocked when it went off. My housemate and I called the gas company who came and inspected the house and deemed it dangerous. The inspector told us that CO had been in the flat for at least six months. I had to go to the hospital and doctors told me I had an irregular heartbeat and high white blood cells.

I felt sick, tired and disconnected from myself all the time. I couldn't pinpoint what was wrong with me, until I found out that carbon monoxide had been in the flat for six months.

Grace*, 32
I realised the issue must have been with our boiler. We had been complaining about it for ages and our landlord wouldn't replace it. Instead, he would replace separate parts. It was only after we found the gas leak that he replaced the whole boiler. I am convinced the parts he replaced allowed the gas to leak. The whole ordeal was stressful and could have easily been avoided had our landlord cared.
*Some names have been changed.
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