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Julio Marcial – San Francisco’s housing crisis
Photography Julio Marcial

How not having a living room can mess with your mental health

Recent suggestions that young people should make do without a living room are dangerous – we’re already facing an epidemic of loneliness and anxiety

Young people don’t ask for much. We want to enjoy our jobs, be paid a living wage, and live in normal-sized houses that don’t cost the earth. But as a generation, we’re constantly receiving the message that we should expect less. Most recently, ‘leading architect’ Patrik Schumacher told us that a living room is a luxury: “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.”

With landlords increasingly turning living rooms into bedrooms to maximise the amount of rent they can make, most young people have experienced communal living without the communal area. This is an important issue, not only because sleeping, eating, and panic-writing essays in the same room is miserable, but also because young people are paying extortionate prices for below-par houses.

On top of this, many young people – particularly in big cities like London – live in shared housing with strangers. Given that we’re already really, really lonely, coming home to an empty corridor and several closed doors isn’t doing our mental health any good. It’s no wonder we’re supposedly out networking 24/7 (on minimum wage, btw) – the alternative is eating dinner alone in what feels like someone else’s house. If there’s no place like home, why are we doing everything to avoid it?

Schumacher is part of the baby boomer generation, the majority of whom owned houses (with living rooms) by the age of 30. Given that higher prices and lower earnings mean that young people are half as likely to own a home at 30 as Schumacher’s generation were, it’s vital that we listen to what young people want from modern living. Experts like Schumacher would probably have different views were they to actually experience living in a ‘hotel-sized room’, as opposed to a three-storey central London house bought for a fraction of today’s prices.

Young people are already programmed to accept shit housing, for what we convince ourselves is a reasonable amount of money – bit of damp? That’s okay. Controlling live-in landlord? No problem. £800 for a single room with no windows? Sign me up!

“Mental health is already increasingly fragile among young people thanks to crippling social media anxiety, so having a real-world space to relax and gather your thoughts is even more important than ever before”

Living without a communal space is possible, but it doesn’t make it right. Cramped shared housing and one-room flats can be both claustrophobic and isolating – one minute you’re fighting to get a space at the hobs, and the next you’ve been alone in the house for two days and can’t remember when you last spoke out loud. Hosting housemates in your room can feel invasive and awkward, and might actually discourage you from socialising at all.

The lack of space can also fuck up your sleep – how does your brain differentiate between working and sleeping when it all happens in the same place? The National Sleep Foundation has consistently warned about making your bed your workspace, as it affects both productivity and sleeping patterns – your bed should be for sleep and sex only. “One of the biggest mistakes people make in their bedrooms is they try to cram too much in there,” Gary Zammit, director of the Sleep Disorders Institute in New York told Health, “They use it as an office and as an entertainment room right up until the clock strikes 10, and expect to just hit the lights and fall asleep. But the brain doesn’t work that way.” Without a living room, tenants are forced to utilise their bedrooms for working, watching TV and even eating, meaning our brains no longer associate our beds with sleep. It’s not rocket science to know that a lack of sleep can have a huge impact not only on your mood the following day but also on your mental health in the long run.

Living in poor conditions such as damp, dark and cramped housing can also have detrimental effects. A 2017 report by Shelter found that one in five adults in England suffers from anxiety and depression because of housing pressures, including insecure rental contracts and bad conditions. This only enforces how dangerous it is to encourage young people to accept poor quality houses as the norm. It’s not just affecting their mental well-being but also enabling rogue landlords to get away with doing the bare minimum, because the student housing stereotype has taught young people that’s it’s okay. 

Mental health is already increasingly fragile among young people thanks to crippling social media anxiety, among other things, so having a real-world space to relax and gather your thoughts is even more important than ever before. It seems impossible to feel completely tranquil when you’re caged in one room, while strangers watch their laptops behind closed doors around you. Having a living space encourages people to spend time together, and can have a massive impact when it comes to loneliness, particularly among people who might be new to a city. Loneliness is a national epidemic, which the appointment of a loneliness minister and the increase in dating-style apps for friendship are testament to.

It’s all well and good initiating useless Help to Buy schemes and suggesting young people get £10,000 when they turn 25 (even though that’s still not enough for a deposit on a house), but given that ‘generation rent’ is a phrase now cemented in our vocabulary, these offers clearly aren’t working. We have an entire generation facing a looming mental health crisis because there’s no stability or comfort in their housing situations. There needs to be more feasible way to enable young people to enjoy their homes, whether they own them or not. From grant opportunities to making contracts more secure for renters, we need helpful solutions – not to be told, yet again, that we should simply expect less.