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16 April 2020updated 30 Jul 2021 10:31am

“There’s no option“: Meet the renters stuck with strangers, in-laws, and partners’ flatmates

Once again, the pandemic has exposed the insecurity of shared rentals and the broken economic model that made them necessary.

By Pippa Bailey

In the days after lockdown was announced on 23 March, I found myself longing for things I’d not wanted with any great urgency before: a husband, 2.4 children and a house of my own. The simplicity, the neatness of it. There would be no decisions to make about where to live and who to isolate with, just a ready-made unit to hunker down with.

Instead, I spent hours talking in circles on the phone with my parents, boyfriend and friends. The outcome was always no outcome at all: “I don’t know what to do.”

At first, my boyfriend and I had avoided public transport by cycling the 15km between our flats, but we felt increasingly uncomfortable that seeing each other while maintaining our separate living arrangements meant that our “household” in effect comprised not only each other but also our flatmates, their partners, their partners’ flatmates, and so on. A never-ending chain of potential infection.

And then, the day after lockdown was imposed, the deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries intervened. “If two halves of a couple are currently in separate households,” she said, “ideally they should stay in those households. The alternative might be that… they should test the strength of their relationship and decide whether one wishes to be permanently resident in another household.”

“There you go. Make your choice and stick with it,” added the Health Secretary Matt Hancock, as if that made everything easier.

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In non-coronavirus times, I live in a rented two-bed flat in London with a friend. We both have long-term partners we don’t live with, but there was no question of there being enough space for them to move in: my flatmate and I were already sharing the dining table as a desk.

As for moving out, both our partners have flatmates of their own whose wishes and situations they have to consider. I could have moved in with my mum, but I value my independence and the prospect felt like regression – and it would still have left me unable to see my boyfriend.

I’m not the only one whose supposedly solid living arrangements crumbled in the face of the restrictions. In flat-shares and relationships – fledgling, noncommittal, long-distance or otherwise – across the country, those not living in conventional family units have had to choose their “household” for the duration of lockdown.

Hannah, 30, a university outreach worker, lives in a shared house with three people: a close friend and two others they found through SpareRoom. At first, there was some tension in the house over “people having different views on what adhered to government regulations: ‘Can I have a Hinge date round if she only goes in my room?’ [compared with], at the other end of the spectrum, a housemate self-isolating in their room.”

Like me, Hannah found the first days after Johnson’s announcement “quite stressful” as she has a boyfriend she doesn’t live with. “We had to make a decision,” she says.

Paul found himself in a similar situation when lockdown began. He has a long-term partner he doesn’t live with and, as is increasingly common in inner-city rented accommodation, shares a flat with three people who didn’t know each other before moving in. What was once the living room has been repurposed to create the fourth bedroom, leaving the small kitchen their only shared space. “We get on fine but we aren’t friends,” says Paul, 28, a civil servant. “We live most of our lives outside the flat.”

Even if Paul’s girlfriend were to temporarily move in, “living in a bedroom is no option for two people living and working at home for at least three weeks. We had the choice of living somewhere with no space with people we didn’t want to spend much time with, or finding somewhere else.”

Ruth, an occupational therapist, had the opposite problem. “As a single 30-year-old living on my own, lockdown seemed an unsurmountable challenge,” she says. “I’m a founder and CEO of a charity and am usually good at being independent, but I couldn’t bear the thought of possibly months without physical contact.”

Faced with the prospect of being alone indefinitely, Ruth decided to move back home with her parents. “My three younger siblings are all married and isolating with their spouses,” she says, “which makes being at home with my parents feel all the harder. Despite this, I’m certain it was the right decision for me: having company and the odd hug has made lockdown bearable.”

Then there’s Leah, 28, a journalist, who was due to move in with her boyfriend of a year and a half in April, until coronavirus interrupted their plans. At the start of the outbreak, she moved into her boyfriend’s flat-share, as one of her housemates has a lung condition that leaves him vulnerable.

But, with their contract due to end in May, and anxious that the landlord would still expect them to pay rent if lockdown prevented them leaving, they moved out early. Leah was marooned. Being apart from her boyfriend “wasn’t really on the table. I couldn’t go back to my own flat because one of my flatmates had developed a cough and the house was quarantined, and I couldn’t go to my parents’ in Brighton as they’re both in the high-risk category.”

Deciding that moving into their new flat together in the midst of a pandemic would be too stressful, Leah moved in with her boyfriend’s parents. “I feel overwhelmed by how generous and welcoming they’ve been,” she says. “They have a garden, and we have dinner at the dining table every night together. I feel lucky to have a chance to get to know them in a way I wouldn’t have if we weren’t trapped in a house together!”

As for the bad, “It does feel a little like at the cusp of taking the huge step of moving in together, we’ve regressed to this teenage-like state where we’re under his parents’ roof” – none of which has done wonders for their sex life (“How can I put this… it isn’t the most arousing situation I’ve been in”). “But it could be a lot worse,” Leah adds. “And it’ll make it even sweeter when we finally move in together.”

The outcome for me wasn’t quite so drastic. My flatmate and her partner found somewhere else to stay for a while, and, after a few weeks of living alone, I moved into my boyfriend’s flat, effectively making my “household” me, my boyfriend, his flatmate and his flatmate’s girlfriend.

Unlike me, Hannah and her partner chose not to move in together: “We didn’t want to submit to the pressure of lots of other couples choosing to do that when we didn’t think it was right for us.”

As for relations in her shared house, “Now we’ve all settled into the idea that we’re going to stay here until it’s over, things have calmed down. We’re probably all getting on each other’s nerves a bit, but we’re trying harder than we usually would to be nice to each other and understand everyone’s feelings.”

My current setup cannot continue indefinitely. My boyfriend’s flatmate did not sign up to live with me, and I miss the comfort of my own space, where there are no endless games of Fifa and no one leaves their pants on the bathroom floor. Eventually I will have to negotiate with my housemate about returning to our flat, boyfriend in tow or no.

It may be trivial compared to the enormity of what we face, but the pandemic has laid bare to me once again the insecurity of shared rentals and my resentment of the economic model that makes them necessary. I can live without the husband and 2.4 children, but surely a home of my own isn’t too much to ask. Oh, replies the housing market, but it is.

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