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A collage of life without a living room
Image: Steve Beech / Time Out

Life without a living room: how young renters are losing their communal space

Around a third of people aged 20 to 30 in London are having to hang out in their hallways. And the problem is spreading beyond the capital

India Lawrence
Written by
India Lawrence

For two years, I lived in a houseshare with four other people. We had five bedrooms, one kitchen, two toilets, but no living room. The seemingly barbaric layout of our house was thanks to our landlady who decided to make the most of her property, a former council house on an estate near Camden, and convert the first-floor lounge into a large bedroom. Granted, that bedroom was supposed to act as a hybrid living-slash-sleeping space, complete with a decrepit leather sofa, coffee table and TV. But though we tried, our living area never fully materialised, and we were forced to hang out in the fruit fly-infested kitchen, watching Love Island on my flatmate’s iPad under flickering fluorescent lights. 

I’m just one of the hundreds of thousands of people in the UK who has had to make do without a living room in recent years. In 2019, research by The Times found that less than a third of room rentals were in properties that had a separate lounge. In London this was even worse, falling to 10 percent of house-shares. Similarly, a 2019 survey by SpareRoom showed that a third of people aged 20 to 30 in London didn’t have a living room. Renting in 2022 feels like a particularly wild ride: in July, average UK rent reached an all-time high of £1,126 per monthAsk any tenant, wherever they are in the country, and they’ll have probably heard countless horror stories about overcrowded house viewings, bidding wars, no-fault evictions, eye-watering rent hikes – and damn lousy living conditions. 

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Back in 2018, London-based architect Patrick Schumacher published a controversial paper saying that young people didn’t need communal spaces. ‘For many young professionals who are out and about networking 24/7, a small, clean, private hotel room-sized central patch serves their needs perfectly well,’ Schumacher wrote. All the while, teeny homes are being repackaged as chic living alternatives, with channels like ‘Never Too Small’ amassing two million subscribers on YouTube and Netflix shows like Tiny House Nation serving up architecturally impressive micro-homes as apparently enviable places to live.

And as hilarious as Schumacher’s notion of young people spending 24/7 ‘networking’ is (we can barely afford a pint, mate), the reality of having no shared space means living a cramped life, not being able to spend quality time with your housemates and having no way of separating sleep, work, eating and downtime. To make matters worse, renters usually aren’t given the privilege of being able to properly customise their homes, so are often stuck with cheap furniture and grim linoleum flooring that they’re forbidden to change. 

‘I would have breakfast in bed, lunch in my bed or at my desk, and have dinner in my bed or at my desk,’ says Lillith Hudson, 23, who moved to London in 2021. ‘That’s just not a healthy way to live. Your bed becomes a multifaceted space that is supposed to serve every purpose of your day, which is so stupid, because bed is for sleeping, and sex, that’s it.’

I would have breakfast in bed, lunch in bed or at my desk and dinner in bed or at my desk

Hudson was sharing a four-person flat in east London. Between them, their only communal space was a small kitchen with no dining table. ‘I had a decent-sized room, but it was quite pokey for an entire living space,’ Hudson recalls. ‘Where I’d usually spend time with my flatmates in the evening, I ended up just spending it on my own in front of Netflix. I think it made me feel more lonely and isolated than I would have done otherwise.’

Having friends round to the flat felt awkward with the lack of space, so Hudson stopped inviting people over altogether. And during the cold winter months (plus, y’know, the whole cost-of-living-crisis thing), being required to go out every time you want to see friends becomes even less viable. ‘During five months of the year when it’s freezing cold, you can’t exactly just go to a park,’ Hudson says. 

And the affliction isn’t confined to London. It’s affecting renters across the UK, especially young people and students. Cisy Ye was a university student living in Edinburgh when she rented a lounge-less house. ‘We were quite desperate,’ she recalls. ‘We’d never lived without a living room before and thought it wouldn’t impact the way we lived. That completely changed after we moved in. Two of my flatmates completely fell out because they didn’t really know each other. And because they never hung out, they grew apart.’ For students, whose lifeblood is drinking Echo Falls in sticky-floored flats, it can also be a real vibe-killer. ‘We threw a party in the kitchen and it was tiny,’ says Ye. ‘It didn’t go very well.’ 

For students, whose lifeblood is drinking Echo Falls in sticky-floored flats, it can be a real vibe-killer

We aren’t going to escape rental hell any time soon either. According to Amy Norman, a housing expert at the Social Market Foundation think tank, flat-sharing is on the rise and young people are going to be renting even later into life. ‘There is a proportion of people who would like to leave the private rented sector in 15 years’ time, looking to their future, but they don’t expect they’ll be able to afford it,’ Norman explains. ‘There is a notable group and proportion of renters who, in the coming decade or so, are going to be quite unsatisfied with being a renter and with their living experience.’ 

Renters are also blowing all their money on places they don’t even want to live. Because the demand for private rentals far outweighs supply in most UK cities, renters are having to settle for what’s affordable and available, rather than what’s desirable or even comfortable. And while it’s suggested that renters should spend around a third of their salary on rent, Londoners are shelling out close to half of their paychecks. ‘Housing is a significant proportion of household budgets,’ says Norman. ‘That proportion has been increasing over time with rising housing costs and stagnant wages.’

For Tom Bryant, living in a flat with no lounge wasn’t exactly a money-saving option: for a room in a houseshare in north London with no living space in November 2021, he paid £1,080 a month. ‘It bothered me that there wasn’t a living room but at that point, I was pretty desperate because there was nothing else,’ Bryant says. ‘I’d been homeless and sofa-surfing for two months so I just took whatever. The boiler was in my room: that was so bizarre. They obviously converted the lounge into my bedroom.’

You’re in a very vulnerable predicament if you can’t get support from your parents in London now

The 27-year-old ended up spending an extra £40 to £50 a week just so he could get out of his cramped home. ‘It’s hard to save money if you don’t have a lounge and you want to socialise,’ he says. ‘I made sure I was doing something in the evening every day. And when I did invite people round, it was a case of: “I’ve cooked up this dinner, do you want me to microwave you some of it?”’

It also led to a more transient existence, with housemates often coming and going. Bryant’s flatmates would treat the place as a ‘base to dump their stuff’, rather than an actual home. ‘It wasn’t homely at all,’ he recalls. ‘Most people in that house were not very happy.’

According to Andrea Gilbert, a housing activist who runs the Wandsworth Action Against Empty Homes group, the precarious state of renting in London ‘messes you up mentally and then eventually gets to you physically’. This disproportionately affects young people, too. ‘You’re in a very vulnerable predicament if you can’t get support from your parents in London now,’ she says.

Having a squishy sofa to sink into after a long day is a luxury I won’t take for granted again

But there is one small light at the end of this grim and living-room-less tunnel. Both Norman and Gilbert point to the white paper that’s currently being discussed in Parliament and many hope could create a fairer private rented sector. If it does become legislation, something called the Decent Homes Standard would apply to private rentals, meaning that homes would have to be in a reasonable state of repair and have appropriate modern facilities and services.

Landlords would also be required to go on an official register, giving tenants more of an ability to hold them accountable. ‘If that was enforced it would improve living conditions for those who are usually the most vulnerable and on the lowest incomes,’ says Norman. Crucially, the bill could help to improve tenants’ rights to adequate communal living space, the autonomy to customise homes and being allowed pets.

As it turns out, minimalism in practice isn’t as chic or desirable as it is made out on episodes of Tiny Homes. And although my tenure in my lounge-less home brings back (mostly) fond memories, having a squishy sofa to sink into after a long day is a luxury I won’t take for granted again: long live the living room. 

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