The two-bedroom flat in Turnpike Lane, north London, seemed run-of-the-mill. Laura Evelyn, an actor looking for a new place to stay, didn’t like the decor particularly – the fake leather sofa and glass dining table weren’t to her taste – but her would-be landlord was friendly enough. But as she was leaving the viewing, the owner handed her a sheet of paper. When Evelyn read it, she was flabbergasted.
It contained a list of 31 rules that Evelyn, aged 35, would be expected to abide by if she moved in. Showers couldn’t last longer than 15 minutes. She was allowed two visitors a month, who must be approved two weeks in advance. After eating, she must wash up, and immediately return to her room. And if she left dishes in the sink, she’d be charged £15 a pop.
Probably the most shocking thing about this story was that Evelyn still considered moving in. “As a renter who had no way of buying, the housing market had me by the balls,” she says. Because her £450-a-month budget was low, Evelyn’s options were limited. “I read [the list] with a very open mind. It took a second reading for me to be like, what the hell?”
Most people are used to abiding by rules – and good manners – when cohabiting with others. Have sex quietly, don’t hog the bathroom and never microwave mackerel, unless you are a monster. But, in effect, what Evelyn’s would-be landlord wanted wasn’t a flatmate; he just wanted her to pay his mortgage and disappear.
This is an egregious example of the worst inequalities of the housing crisis, but also not as unusual as you may think. Browse Spareroom or Gumtree, and you will see similarly extreme housemate adverts. There was the £650-a-month London flatshare where tenants were forbidden from Skyping their family in the evening. There are the rogue landlords who offer to waive rent, in exchange for sex. Then there are the lighthearted ones. Are you a postgraduate student looking for a double room to let in Brixton? Come this way – provided you aren’t an anthropologist. (Sociologists and social psychologists are welcome.)
What these adverts reflect is that Britain is going back to being a nation of renters. Home ownership levels have plunged, with a quarter of UK households expected to rent privately by the end of 2021. In 2017, British tenants paid a record £50bn in rent. Young adults form “Generation Rent”, with homeownership a distant dream for those professionals on average incomes but without the large deposits needed to get on to the housing ladder.
The night before I speak to a 28-year-old PR worker who lives in north-east London, she ate sweets for dinner in her bedroom. Why? Because she finds her live-in landlord’s rules so restrictive that she avoids communal areas such as the kitchen. She is expected to abide by a checklist taped to the back of the front door, which insists that hair straighteners are turned off, and lists the various doors, windows and skylights that must be locked prior to leaving. In the bathroom, her other housemate stuck a note to the mirror, requiring all spittle to be wiped away immediately. “The level of micromanaging … it’s madness,” she says. Her landlord even installed a smart plug on her hair straighteners, which she remotely controls via her phone. She wants to leave, but moving house is expensive and her £600-a-month budget is low, meaning that she is stuck for now. Her mental health has deteriorated. “You’re always stressed,” she says. “You think: ‘If I see her, is she going to complain about something?’”
Expecting prospective tenants to live under a quasi-feudal regime reflects the power wielded by landlords in our property-centric society. “These restrictive ads amply underline the extent to which power, like wealth, is concentrated in the hands of landlords,” says Portia Msimang of the pressure group Renters Rights London. “Some people get overexcited by that power.” Some of these restrictions may even be illegal, she points out. “The renter would have a very strong defence against any attempt at eviction on the basis of breach of unfair terms.” But without root-and-branch reform of the UK’s housing provision, such behaviour seems likely to continue. And it’s not just landlords who have the power. Existing tenants of desirable houseshares can afford to be choosy about who they live with, screening candidates on everything from their dietary preferences to their political beliefs or their star signs. (Unlike gender or sexual orientation, these are not protected characteristics under the law, and so these stipulations aren’t illegal.)
Which is bad news for Capricorns. In April, a New York City housing advert went viral after a prospective applicant was rejected for belonging to that star sign. Megan, a 24-year-old from Brighton, thinks that the no-Capricorn advert is ridiculous because, in her experience, Capricorns make perfectly good housemates. It’s Cancers you need to watch out for. “I had a housemate who was a Cancer, and it wasn’t good for either of us.” A Gemini, Megan’s preference would be to live with Leos, Taureans or Capricorns. She would ban Cancers from moving into her house should a room become available – and probably also Scorpios, if she’s being honest. “It’s like, how many more emotional Cancers or Scorpios will I live with, before I acknowledge it’s not meant to be?”
There can be darker factors at work: a 2018 Guardian investigation found that people from ethnic minorities face discrimination when looking for houseshares. For every 10 positive replies to an inquiry about a room for rent sent by a prospective renter called “David”, inquiries from a “Muhammad” received only eight. Sometimes, racism is coded more overtly: the writer and director Yero Timi-Biu recently made headlines after she posted a text exchange with a landlord asking where her parents were from and it went viral. “Where demand for accommodation outstrips supply, landlords, agents and other renters can pick and choose,” says Msimang. “If they’re bigoted people, they pick and choose in line with their bigotry.”
But houseshare ads can exclude certain groups of people for more understandable reasons. Clare is 33 and advertising a spare bedroom in her house in east London. Prospective housemates must not eat meat in the house, as Clare and her flatmates are vegetarians or vegans. “I find meat really unsettling,” she says. “Where people see food, I see something dead.” If someone moved in and then started eating meat, she’d probably ask them to leave, she says.
LGBT-only houseshare adverts are also common. For many queer people, they are necessary to create a home in which they feel safe. Jender Anomie, a 27-year-old artist from Bexhill in East Sussex, would prefer to live with fellow queer people. “I’m sure this is the same of many marginalised groups,” Anomie says. “Living with heterosexual people can be really trying, and it seems unnecessary suffering if you have access to another, more welcoming type of living space.”
At their heart, many housemate adverts are about looking for like-minded people. But you can overegg it. In 2014, Henry Blanchard, a young entrepreneur, posted an advert looking for flatmates to “come and join us in ‘Reinventing Living’”, and thereby inadvertently spoofed the toe-curling excesses of the Silicon Valley tech-bro culture. (“Do you believe in passion, integrity, positivity and working smarter, not harder? … Picture the scene – waking up at 6 every morning for a group run or yoga with the house.”)
Looking back on the ad now, the 33-year-old cringes. “I was in this startup bubble … I think the house ad was a reflection of that. I wanted to bring my work into every part of my life.” Blanchard did manage to find “like-minded creators” willing to move into his #disruptive houseshare, but they never secured a suitable property. It’s probably for the best. “I had this idealised version of what I thought my life should look like.” What would he think if he saw that advert now? Blanchard laughs. “I would think: ‘I hope it works out for you.’”
The best houseshare adverts use humour to make serious points. Travis Nemmer’s 2017 advert for a flatmate in Washington DC went viral after the 27-year-old attorney laid his political cards on the table. “I am a Republican, who will occasionally say nice things about our president. If that’s a dealbreaker, I assure you that you will have no trouble finding some kinda commune.” Nemmer says he didn’t want anyone to be “blindsided” by his political views, given that DC is a fiercely liberal city. The person who moved in was leftwing, so the advert worked. “I wouldn’t say people didn’t want to live with me because I’m a conservative. I don’t have any problems getting along with people regardless of politics. They probably don’t want to live with me because I’m messy.”
But if you are writing a humorous house-share ad, people can miss the joke, as 35-year-old Pete Williams, from Auckland, New Zealand, knows only too well. When he wrote an advert that forbade laughing after 11pm or excessive bowel movements, he thought everyone would get it. Sadly, that wasn’t to be the case. “It actually led to quite a lot of nasty feedback.” He insists 95% of the advert – which also proscribed eating baked beans, because “I need someone a little more sophisticated in here” – was a joke, and that he’s actually an easy-going person. “I don’t think I’d have had flatmates for two years continuously if I was as crazy as the ad makes me out to be,” he says.
Williams is, perhaps, also a victim of the housing crisis. He is disabled and struggles to find accessible rental properties – which meant that when he found the property, he agreed to be the lead tenant, responsible for its entire monthly rent. Luckily, he found someone to take the room; “She got the humour,” he says. But he probably wouldn’t go down the same route again. “This one didn’t quite hit the nail on the head.”
At the housing crisis continues to escalate, more of us will be forced to live with strangers well into adulthood. “I’m too old to be flatsharing,” says the PR worker. “I shouldn’t have to do it. I’m tired of doing it.” These adverts tell stories of exploitation and abuse: greedy landlords infringing their tenant’s fundamental rights in ways that are possibly illegal.
But it’s not always bad. The authors are often just searching for common ground with the people who will share their homes – whether it’s with a fellow astrology-lover, a vegan or someone who also gets what it’s like to be marginalised. For Anomie, living in queer spaces gives her access to “unconditional love and understanding”. These adverts are about more than whether you are a Capricorn or vegan, a conservative or a growth hacker. They’re about people, just trying to get along.