The sudden death of the London living room

Monopoly craft Pic: Pxfuel

Rent in the ELL boroughs are so high that more and more people use the living room as an extra bedroom – and increased isolation is the result. In day four of our series Is London Lonely?, we explore how the housing crisis increases the distance between people.

As house prices are getting higher, and salaries are failing to catch up, more and more people are being pushed into the world of flat-sharing. But living with strangers can make Londoners feel more lonely than living alone.

“I spend most of my time in my bedroom,” says Christina Zimmer, 23. “It’s annoying: I like having privacy, but at the same time, I feel a bit trapped when I’m in the same room all day.” Zimmer, a customer service agent, has been renting her room in New Cross for almost a year. During this time, she has only ever exchanged courtesies with her other two housemates.

Many people who are new to London hope that a flat share will help them to create connections, presenting an opportunity to get to know each other by socialising in common areas. However, when the core space to do this disappears, the residents are pushed back into their isolated bedrooms.

“Social interaction with other housemates it’s pretty much zero,” says Zimmer. “I don’t think I would be able to answer any basic questions on what’s going on in their lives. If either of them had issues with their family or something else going on, I would never know.”

In recent decades, many landlords have converted living rooms to extra bedrooms to maximise profit. This phenomenon affects London more than any other city in the UK. About half of all listings on SpareRoom in the capital have no lounge. 

“It’s sad to see so many living rooms are now being converted into extra bedrooms,” says Miriam Tierney, spokesperson for SpareRoom. “Without a living room, flatshares effectively become nothing more than a people storage solution.”

Christina Zimmer, 23 Pic: Christina Zimmer

Tierney explains, “In a house share, the living room can be one of the few communal areas – it’s a space where flatmates can come together to unwind after a hectic day, get to know each other and catch up. Having time together as a house is so important and it’s also beneficial for landlords too, the happier the house-share, the longer tenants stay.”

Zimmer had moved to London on her own. On top of the struggle to make new friends, her housing situation does not allow her to connect with the people she lives with. Her living room, that could be used as a space to get together, is instead strictly being used for laundry. This means the little room is crammed with baskets and clothes racks, even the couch is unusable as a storage facility for the landlord’s belongings left in the house.

“I definitely feel lonely in the house. I felt more social when I was living all by myself because I had a nice living room where I could have people over. But here I don’t really have a space where I can hang out” says Zimmer.

Loneliness in your own home is something that many people in London experience everyday. According to Community Led Homes and Savanta ComRes, over 20% of British adults agree that they feel lonely because of their living situation and, as a result, this could impact the mental wellbeing of this substantial part of the population.

Expert on the benefits of co-living, Scott Corfe explains: “The fact that these homes are being carved up into into smaller and smaller units, and shared spaces are being replaced with bedrooms, limiting the amount of space that individuals have both for themselves or to share, has a definitive negative impact on wellbeing and life satisfaction.”

The housing crisis plays a major role in this growing trend of maximising the number of people living in a house, while taking away their space for coming together. Because of the ever-rising house prices, many tenants settle for what is affordable, more than what is comfortable. Zimmer’s experience of moving in because “it’s an acceptable place: at least is  not a half rotten house with nine people crammed in it”, mirrors the lack of affordable options of many other London residents.

Christina’s flat in New Cross. Pic: Google Maps

“Particularly when housing is so expensive in cities like London, people want to get things quickly at a price that is affordable, and they’re not that willing to complain about it”, says Corfe. With the fear of eviction as a reality, tenants are left in quite a weak position to bargain for improvements in the quality of housing.

While systemic loneliness, deriving from the lack of affordable options in the housing market, seems to be inevitable, there are organisations fighting towards a sense community. Arcadia Co-Housing is a Christian group that aims to build a co-living commune in Tower Hamlets, because they “want to live together and to be part of each other’s lives”, says Janita Cresswell, who leads the co-housing community with her husband.

By putting in practice the principle of “love your neighbour as yourself”, Arcadia has been building a community through weekly meetings and activities for people who feel isolated in the city. “Having a community to be a part of will get rid of loneliness”.

This is day four of four in Eastlondonlines’ #IsLondonLonely? series. Read the rest of the series here

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