This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Rosa* doesn’t normally argue with her housemates. In their flat in east London, she and the two women she shares with get on fine – bar the occasional petty squabble over missing food. So, when Rosa found herself unexpectedly at her boyfriend’s house on the night that the lockdown was announced, she didn’t think that it would be a problem.
“I ended up staying [at my boyfriend’s], assuming [the lockdown] would be short term,” she tells me over the phone. “I raised that with my flatmates… and they came down really, really hard on me.”
Rosa’s housemates refused to let her back in the flat: "[They're not] letting me collect any stuff or make any arrangement to work out how to manage this. I'm stuck here.”
Thanks to coronavirus, people living in shared accommodation are spending an unprecedented amount of time with their housemates. In England and Wales, there are around 497,000 in houses of multiple occupancy, meaning that thousands of people now find themselves quarantined in shared homes for the foreseeable future. Being around the same group of people 24/7 – whether friends or strangers – would be difficult at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic when anxiety and depression have spiked. And with unclear lockdown exit strategies and no power over what your housemates get up to, it's hardly surprising when coronavirus-related conflicts break out.
Rosa found this out the hard way when trying to make plans to return to her flat, which is within walking distance of where she is currently staying with her boyfriend. “I was surprised at how quickly it escalated during this COVID thing,” she says. “I do think, as people, [my housemates] are naturally quite highly strung, and this had pushed it over the edge.”
Despite being legally entitled to enter her flat, Rosa is not sure whether she wants to return. “If I go back, it will just be such a hostile atmosphere,” she says. “I'm still paying rent, I'm still paying bills. I'm not actually asking to break the rules, I'm just trying to work out how I can get home eventually or how I can even get my stuff.”
While Rosa's conflict arose from housemates who take the quarantine guidelines very seriously, others have issues with housemates who simply refuse to follow the rules. Isabel Schifano is a final year student living in a house of seven, and has struggled to get all of her housemates to adhere to basic lockdown safety.
“We all have very different ideas of what 'isolation' actually means,” she tells me. “It's hard with housemates because we're all friends and peers, it's not the same as if you were at home and your mum was telling you off for doing something.”
“One of my other housemates was still going to the library because it was 'essential' – he used the computers for a piece of coursework,” continues Schifano. “We told him that just preferring to do something isn't what 'essential' means, and he got really mad at us.”
Schifano and her housemates have also asked one of her seven housemates not to return after a trip home. “The rest of us have basically had to tell her she can't come back as she's been on the train and we all have vulnerable family members,” says Schifano. “She's now just ignoring our messages, so we're assuming she's going to just rock up back at the house and then we're going to make her isolate in her room.”
For some, housemate beef stems from the stressful reality of living through a global pandemic. For others, coronavirus has amplified existing issues. Daniel had such a problem with his housemate that he ended up moving out of his flat.
“At the beginning of quarantine, I lived in a four-bed in Bethnal Green,” he tells me. “Cute house, reasonably priced, perfect location.”
The catch was Daniel's housemate. He claims that she would move his food out of the fridge and interfere with his toiletries, and once put a wardrobe in the corridor, all while refusing to communicate with him and the other flatmates.
When the lockdown came, things got worse. Daniel tells me that he confronted his housemate about her behaviour, which he alleges led to him being woken up to the sound of his housemate’s boyfriend attaching a lock to her door. “I was woken up at 7AM the next day, to incessant drilling and banging,” he says. “The rage I experienced was just unholy, so I politely asked if they would mind doing it a bit later because it was early and I had to work from home. Her boyfriend told me that I should already be awake [and] called me a prick. I decided I had to move out.”
Luckily, Daniel’s landlord allowed him to leave his tenancy early and he is now living with his mum. For most people, however, staying put in their rented accommodation is the only option, especially with no government scheme available to help tenants pause or suspend rent payments. With the lockdown recently extended for another three weeks, it’s unlikely anyone’s going to get a break from their housemates any time soon.
While Daniel’s experience was stressful, he’s thankful that the lockdown eventually led to a better living situation. “Lockdown was definitely good in a way because it meant that there was something concrete that snapped,” he says, “and I just couldn't take it anymore.”
“I'm basically on [my mum’s] sofa for the foreseeable,” he concludes. “But it’s a million times better than the situation I was in before.”
*Some names have been changed for anonymity.