My wedding day last July was full of laughter – I count myself lucky to have a witty bunch of friends and family. None of us are particularly traditional, a trait I have inherited from my parents. And so after we said our vows, and the registrar asked who the head of the household was so that they could be presented with the marriage certificate (this being Islington, they weren’t making any assumptions), it surprised no one when our then-flatmate Tom put his hand up to raucous laughter.
We were married, but nothing else had really changed. We still lived in a shared flat.
“You have a flatmate?” people always say, with slight incredulity, when they discover that not only am I married but living communally. “Is that not really awkward?”
“Not really,” I say, but they always seem unconvinced, their face implying that either they think that either my husband and I are really skint, or part of some bohemian polyamorous sex cult. Neither is the case. Tim, who works in local government and I, a writer, have always lived together – we met when I moved into our Tufnell Park flat after a room was advertised on Gumtree. He was one of the resident flatmates, and I fell in love with him over the kitchen table almost as soon as I moved in.
In the seven years since, there have almost always been other people living in the flat as well. Many of them came to our wedding. Katherine, who replaced Tom after he moved in with his girlfriend, spent Christmas with us.
House-shares are par for the course in London. High rents and limited space mean there is relatively little social stigma associated with sharing. New “co-living” spaces for millennials are even springing up, touted as the solution to a mounting housing crisis which successive governments have failed to address. But married couples living in house-shares? I have yet to encounter another of my generation. I know a few who lived with their parents, some even after marriage, in order to save up, but house-shares are different.
I like our living situation, even if it does go against societal norms. Though I am aware of several couples that live in shared houses, for some reason being married and doing it is treated as strange. There was a time in the not-so-distant past where many people lived under the same roof, not only for financial but also for practical reasons (my friend has a theory that it takes three, not two people to look after a newborn baby), and lots of cultures sensibly still live like this. I was born into a shared co-op house. But these days, we are increasingly atomised from other people. Modern Western custom dictates that my husband and I should be cocooned in our own little unit, away from the outside world.
Yet to my mind, the sociability of a houseshare is something to treasure. I have never been lonely with flatmates around. There have been many happy, boozy evenings at home playing records. The flat is as much our flatmate Katherine’s as it is ours – she has people over and entertains, and we are all looking forward to her parents visiting from New Zealand in the autumn. It feels normal, even if some people think it isn’t.
Then again, perhaps we are more unconventional than we think. Essentially, I have had flatmates from birth, so no wonder it isn’t so strange to me to have them now. Tim’s parents, meanwhile, were in a commune and then had lodgers, who would stay in the house while working in his dad’s shop. He also has eight brothers and sisters, so is very much used to sharing his space.
Though I feel as though some people judge us, there are huge benefits to house-sharing. London is crowded and expensive, and saving for a deposit can feel like an almost impossible task. This way, we can save. It also allows us to stay in our rapidly gentrifying area, where we could never afford to be if we wanted our own place. Within walking distance is my first home, which at the time was an ex-squat that had been licensed to the tenants by the council.
North London at that time was home to many such co-op houses – whole abandoned crescents were squatted, some since the 1960s – and it is the relics of this movement, and the failure of the utopian dream of collective living, that I explore in my novel, The Tyranny of Lost Things.
Reflecting on her time in London, my mother often says that her generation had its own housing crisis to contend with. That old house has been converted into flats that are now worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, and squatting has been a criminal offence since 2012. There are property guardian schemes – where tenants “look after” unused buildings for their owners much as squatters did. They can be an affordable way to live, though the rents aren’t as reasonable as you would think considering some of the conditions.
Of course, there are downsides to sharing when you are married. There is a certain loss of privacy, naturally. You can’t walk around in your underwear or have a blazing row without it being very inconsiderate to the other housemates. Sometimes, it can feel humiliating to not be in a strong enough financial position to live as our peers do, most of whom are either renting or buying their own places. It would be dishonest to say that living in a flat-share was completely a freely-made choice: politics are at the root of it. If rents were more affordable, we would probably be going it alone (I worry also that if it becomes more common for people to share, landlords will act accordingly and push rents up as they age).
Nevertheless, I love our friendly dynamic. I’ll have the rest of my life to spend with my husband, so what’s a few years at the beginning of our journey together spent in the company of other people?
They say that you can spend your whole life trying to find the ideal partner. To find not only your ideal partner but your ideal flatmate and friend, too? I feel very lucky to have them both around. As for how long the scenario works – ask me in 5 years’ time. I’m hoping something will have been done about the housing crisis by then, but if nothing changes, flatsharing may have lost its novelty somewhat.