While looking for a room to rent in Cardiff in September, Millie Machell, 22, nearly gave up. “It’s impossible to find somewhere to live here,” she tells VICE. “I had such a hard time finding somewhere that I was legitimately worried I was going to have to quit my job in Cardiff and move back in with my parents in England.”
Although she says it was “a nightmare” trying to find a room worth spending half of her monthly wage on, she managed to find somewhere affordable in a house shared with eight other people. But when she moved in, she was met with faulty appliances, broken furniture and dangerous electrics. “Neither of the two showers worked and the two ovens were also faulty," she says. “In my room, the only plug socket was cracked and produced sparks when I plugged anything in. Many items of furniture were also broken – I didn’t even have a curtain rail that went all the way across my window.”
Despite countless emails, Millie’s estate agents have shown no sign of wanting to fix any of the issues her and her housemates had been lumped with, leaving them with no choice but to get the council involved.
If she had any other option, Millie says she would find somewhere else to live. But, just like everywhere else in the country, Cardiff’s rental market is up in flames. “Where else am I going to find somewhere with £310 (PCM) rent?” Millie says. “Finding anywhere at all was a pretty impossible process. I can’t be doing that again.”
Renting alone has become somewhat of a pipe dream in the UK. Even before the cost of living crisis exploded, rent took up around 36 percent of the average solo-renters income. But research from homeless charity Shelter in September found that 32 percent of renters are now spending at least half of their income on rent.
Given the state of the rental market, it's not entirely surprising that the number of people living in shared housing has increased by 400 percent in the past decade. Data from Spare Room, a site that connects renters with potential housemates, shows that more than half of its users have returned to shared housing after renting alone or with a partner. Clearly, house and flat shares are now the only affordable option for many – and even then, demand and supply issues mean the average monthly cost for a room has increased across every region of the UK.
Now, people like Millie are getting trapped in stress-inducing living situations, and it’s having an impact on their wellbeing.
“I'm usually a very chilled, happy person but I feel myself getting so worked up whenever I’m at home,” says Sophie, 26, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being identified by her housemates. She currently works two jobs as a PR executive and freelance copywriter and shares a flat with two other women in Leeds, and frequently finds herself cleaning up after their midweek parties.
“They seem to think going out and bringing friends back intoxicated and being loud until early hours of the morning is acceptable,” Sophie, who has to wake up at 6AM for work, tells VICE. “[The stress] mostly comes from the mess but another part of it comes from the lack of respect and appreciation from my housemates. I've lost count of how many glasses, plates and vases have been smashed due to ill care.”
Unfortunately for Sophie, moving out isn’t an option. Currently, the average asking price for a one-bed flat in Leeds city centre is £842 before bills. “It’s almost impossible to find anywhere affordable, and most rentals I’ve seen require two months of rent up front. This means I'd have to save up around £1,200 before I could even look at any potential apartments.” Like Millie, she’s even considered moving back in with her parents and making the two hour commute to work, which would be more affordable than living alone.
Research by Shelter from 2021 found that one in five renters were experiencing poor health due to housing problems, with 39 percent feeling stressed and anxious. It’s no surprise: Supply and demand issues mean people are left with little choice about where they live and who they live with, says Anny Cullum, Policy and Research Officer at tenants union ACORN.
“Insecurity in the private rented sector is leading to a lowering of standards, with renters afraid to complain about poor conditions or lack of repairs for fear of being made homeless,” she adds. “As well as the negative physical impacts that living in substandard homes can have on people, there are also the mental impacts that come with living in a home in which you are not happy, the stress of covering rising rent and bills, and the fear of being evicted.”
London-based Kayla, 25, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid being identified by her housemates, lives in a shared flat with two of her best friends from university and a man they found through Spare Room. Everything was great – that is, until Kayla committed the cardinal sin of sleeping with your flatmate. At first, everything was fine – “not weird vibes at all,” she says, “it even made us better friends” – but then he got a girlfriend, and things quickly turned sour.
“He started being a massive cunt to me, ignoring me around the house and being really aggressive,” Kayla tells VICE. “It was such a 180 because we were incredibly close friends even before we started sleeping together.” She suspects it's because he hasn’t told his current girlfriend about their history but, whatever the reason, it’s making her miserable. She says she dreads coming home if she knows it will just be the two of them because, even though he acts normal in front of their other flatmates, he “flat out ignores” her when they’re alone.
She’s been seriously considering moving out, but doesn’t think it’s fair given that she’s lived in the flat for years. Plus, she has a pretty sweet deal: “My rent is £560 a month and I live in Zone 1,” she tells us. (For reference, the average price for a room in Battersea, where Kayla lives, is now £1,033 per month.) “I’m so lucky that my rent hasn’t changed since 2019,” she says, “and I’m not about to stop going out to restaurants and buying myself nice things because of some dickhead guy.”
Stuck in her houseshare, Sophie says she feels disappointed in herself. “I always thought by the age of 26 I'd have the option of affording to live by myself,” she says. “It also makes me feel very stressed thinking about possibly never being able to live my dream of living by myself.” But Sophie is far from being an anomaly.
“The dire shortage of affordable homes means a huge number of people are left paying over the odds for insecure and often shoddy private rentals,” Polly Neate, the chief executive of Shelter, tells VICE. “Rents are so high that people may have no choice but to live in house shares regardless of their personal circumstances.” On top of this, she says that almost half of private renters have no savings, making it difficult to pay their bills, let alone scraping together enough cash to put a deposit on a new place.
Rather than being a personal failure, being stuck in an unsatisfactory houseshares is a structural problem. “To help private renters at the sharp end of the housing emergency, the government must end its freeze on housing benefit,” Neate continues. “But the best way to help more people escape the private renting trap is to invest in a new generation of good-quality social homes with rents pegged to local incomes.”
But with no plans for new social homes on the horizon and an increasingly dire housing market, it seems young people will just be left with unaffordable rents, shitty living conditions and worsening mental health. Renting shouldn’t be a coin toss between disposable income and happiness – but that’s increasingly the case in 21st century Britain.