Tinder for Roommates Is Just as Awful as It Sounds

My experience using home-sharing websites to find a spare room in London showed me how closely tied the internet has become to the housing crisis.

Welcome to Roommates Week, an exploration of the highs and lows of cohabitation.

There’s a running joke that relationships are shaped by the housing crisis—that thousands of people in this country have propelled their unions forwards thanks to the promise of cheap shared rent. The joke isn’t really a joke when you consider just how many people this is a real necessity for. A 2016 study by trade site Ziffit found that of over 2,000 people interviewed, almost a third admitted that financial security was a key reason they were with their current partner.

My first real experience of love gave me an insight into what it means to share space as a couple. My boyfriend and I moved to a tiny one-bedroom flat in New Cross Gate, a new-build that cost £700 a month and couldn’t fit both of us in the kitchen. If we cooked, one of us would have to sit on the countertop. We danced around each other, restricted by meager square footage, and argued quietly before storming off to different corners of the tiny bedroom. When we broke up, a year after we moved in, the heartache was acute but made worse by the fact that I couldn’t afford to continue paying rent, so I had to find somewhere else to live.

The Splitting of Things™ led me to strange, previously concealed corners of the city. One of these was a storage facility called Big Yellow, branded in sunshine yellow for a distinctly un-sunshiny time of life, a business in part bankrolled by teary couples wandering up and down metal corridors like some kind of mad ministry for broken hearts. I paid £25.25 a week for a 20-square-foot room which housed all my most treasured things.

My timing was off kilter with my friends’ who were in tenancy contracts they couldn’t get out of, and so after a break up that snapped the muscles from my bones tendon by tendon, I was left flailing, with nowhere to live. Then, like many before me, I turned to the worst possible place for a vulnerable person in search of an ego boost: the internet.

It had become common around this time for someone in search of a spare room to participate in the unhinged, competitive process of housemate auditions. In 2014, I wrote about this trend for Grazia, which ran with the headline "The Housing Hunger Games"—an accurate portrayal of the fight-for-survival dystopian landscape of renting. In the year I was miserably scrolling through house-share sites, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation predicted that 1.5 million extra 18 to 30-year-olds would be priced out of buying their own homes within eight years. This resulted in a flooded rental market, and sites such as SpareRoom boasted more than three million registered users in the UK. And the phenomenon is global—in the US there is Kangaroom, in Singapore RoomiesTokyoSharehouse in Japan.

SpareRoom is a flatmate-finding service. It gathers all the prospective housemates in your area and lets you filter the search according to your preferences for anything from smokers, pet lovers, vegetarians, job titles to gender. Crucially, it asks you to upload a picture.

If you’re interested in a listing on SpareRoom, you send a message and then meet up for an interview. I became part of a carousel of prospective tenants, sitting in strangers’ kitchens, overhearing the person before me getting quizzed. Sometimes there were group interviews, all of us shuffling together like a sociopathic Lord of the Flies social experiment where the most brazen among us made loud jokes. Some people had the genius sales gene and chose to talk about things that were mainstream or acclaimed enough to elicit positive reaction: The Wire, Friends, how Gamu was robbed on The X Factor. Owing to my broken heart, it was too much of a strain to be fun. It was already a Herculean effort to wander around strange rooms in the city looking for housemates.

The process of finding a new housemate can reveal an ugliness in otherwise reasonable people. In my experience, when tenants are granted the power to make these selections it can lead to uncomfortable and arbitrary policing. It also enables tenants to discriminate on the basis of race, class, sexuality, gender identity, and age.

This process can be particularly egregious when the power dynamics translate to men looking for female housemates. I have been on the receiving end of a few lascivious men asking what time I go to bed, or what I sleep in. In 2019, the Women’s Budget Group reported that thanks to the gender pay gap, there was a gender housing gap too. This puts many women at the mercy of house-shares and high-priced private renting.

During this time, I was writing regularly for the music section of the Guardian and hosted a weekly music podcast for them, which unbeknown to me made me a candidate for bribery. One email I recently unearthed from this time reads:

Hey Kieran! 

So...There’s one room left in what has been a very popular house so far. Although there are about a dozen people interested in the [£]520 room, I liked you and thought we’d get on. So here’s the deal—you try and get [redacted] and I [sic] in the Guardian and the room’s yours. Deal?

There was no deal. But I did eventually find a place. After months of housemate auditions, bobbing around on sofas and in box rooms, I secured and moved to a four-person house-share in a dilapidated but very cheap (at £400 per month) house in Camberwell. I thought a lot about how refugees, or people without the ability to make the arbitrary cultural grade, would get past housemate auditions.

This process of uploading ourselves on sites like SpareRoom as part of a house-search illustrates just how much the internet has shaped us. Here, it acts as a useful filtering process, allowing us to cut through the sheer noise of housing demand. The way we are selected is invariably tied to how we perform online. Saleability has, depressingly, become an increasingly potent feature of the housing crisis.

Excerpted from All The Houses I’ve Ever Lived In: Finding Home in a System that Fails Us by Kieran Yates. Copyright © 2023 by Kieran Yates. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Top photo by Adam Webb / EyeEm / Getty.

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