No housemate is a problem

More and more people flock to affluent urban centres with highly competitive housing markets, which make finding accommodations a real struggle. By renting single rooms in shared housing, strangers learn how to live together in the face of the global housing crisis.

The landlords outsource finding new tenants by allowing the staying renters to choose their future housemates. This delegation of responsibility empowers the tenants, but also leads to a more meticulous selection process that exacerbates the already vicious housing market.

Many people do not want to live with a drummer or a socially awkward person. Someone who hoards kitchen utensils in their room or practices the flute several hours a day could make for a terrible housemate.

If you live with your close friends who have similar interests, you might look for housemates who are like-minded and share your hobbies. It feels right to build a closely-knit community whose members understand each other well. At first blush, this appears to be a good idea that can help achieve social cohesion and a more comfortable communal life.

As a result, the present tenants establish sophisticated criteria that tacitly discriminate against the vast majority of newcomers and outsiders, disproportionately affecting those who do not meet the arbitrary cultural standards of the place, such as migrants, BME people, LGBTQ+ people and other marginalised groups.

Such practices lead to a situation in which the selection process is much more stringent and competitive than it should be when we take into account that housing is a basic human need.

In the culture of self-improvement and emotional well-being, people are hell-bent on optimising their environment, and apply the same competitive principles that govern free markets to the finding of a perfect housemate.

Finding a room involves submitting references and undergoing personal interviews with future housemates. Those who do not have local connections, enough social and cultural capital or money to compensate for these disadvantages will find it challenging to find a place to live.

The rich can afford to be unwelcome, but they do not rent single rooms in shared housing. The most vulnerable – the poor and the marginalised – will be on the receiving end of the perverse effects of the competition for housing.

The selection process is rigged and unfair in ways unthinkable in many other areas, such as employment or education. Unfortunately, there are few regulations that protect the privacy and human dignity of the participants in most housing markets.

When selection criteria include personal traits, the loss of an opportunity damages self-esteem and demeans human nature. It is hard to explain that somebody cannot find a place because others find them personally lacking. The basic need for housing has nothing to do with what kind of person you are, and yet it often comes down to being a ‘nice’ human being in the prejudiced eyes of your future housemates.

It is rather ingenious on the part of the landlords to allow the tenants to take the brunt of the interaction with the exasperated room hunters. The landlord trusts you to select the right housemate, and in the meantime reject those whose only failure might be that you dislike their temperament or looks. While this could lead to a more open market and more humane interactions, most tenants end up introducing higher hurdles and discrimination to the already broken system.

To find a single room in shared housing, people have to persuade the current tenants that they are a good match, which involves presenting the best version of themselves, or a fake version that would fit best the expectations.

Let us counteract this trend. If you sublet or look for housemates, try to choose either the first person who satisfies your basic requirements or pick randomly from a group of applicants. You might even inform them that you will draw a lot. Thus, those who are not selected will not feel that they failed personally but were simply unlucky.

The search for perfect housemates harms those who lose the competition for reasons that have little to do with their need for housing. The bottom-line is this: Everybody needs some place to live. Every housemate is just fine. No housemate is a problem.

We should refuse to play the Darwinian game of housemate selection and stop discriminating and humiliating each other in order to hold on to the illusion of harmonious cohabitation in this troubled world.

Housing is a basic need, and it should not be a matter of being more or less personable.

Discrimination against people for their background, hobbies or personality creates housing winners and losers: there will be popular renters, and the unpopular misfits who will be punished for not performing well in interviews that should never have taken the shape that they currently have.

The housing crisis fosters anxiety and precariousness. To add insult to injury, we hurt each other through the competitive selection of housemates.

Good intentions sometimes pave the way to hell. It is brutally difficult to find accommodation because many want to ‘find’ the right housemate.

Introducing randomness and higher degrees of tolerance to potential housemates might mitigate the crisis and help see the real culprits: the corporate take-over of the housing market and its financialisation. When housing becomes an investment opportunity, its primary purpose is often neglected in favour of monetary gains.

It is up to us to alleviate the pressure of competition and not impose its destructive laws on the basic human need for shelter. This will not solve the housing problem, but it is a step in the right direction. Finding a room to live in should not be conditional upon being the right kind of person.

Let us be more open-minded about our choice of housemates and refuse to impose stiff competition in terms of personal compatibility on those who just want to find a home.

Pavlo Shopin