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Generation homeless: The psychological toll of the rental crisis

The impact of the rental crisis is having devastating effects on both our physical and mental health

It’s an old truism that, alongside the death of a loved one and getting divorced, moving house is one of the most stressful events you can live through. But whenever people raise this cliche, they seem to have specific scenarios in mind: a middle-class family moving up the property ladder, which is a seismic event that only takes place once every 23 years; the hassle of managing removal companies and other contractors; the emotional strain of leaving your home, along with all the memories accumulated there over many years. What people don’t generally have in mind is a 23-year-old slinging their belongings in a couple of bin bags and getting an Uber XL from one grotty flat-share to another. But for young people today, this is the reality of ‘moving house’, and we are doing it far more frequently than our parents’ generation ever did.

The housing crisis is nothing new, of course. But since the pandemic, things have gone from bad to worse. It’s typical for young renters to move homes as often as once a year, and that’s if they’re able to find one at all. No-fault evictions have soared by 41 per cent, and last week a former head of the civil service warned the government that, if they don’t reintroduce the pandemic-era eviction ban, the UK faces a “catastrophic” homelessness crisis. Given how prevalent homelessness already is, it’s difficult to imagine what that would even look like.

Eviction can take many forms: it could be bailiffs turning up at your door, it could be your landlord raising the rent to the point you’re forced to make the decision yourself. However it happens, it’s a disempowering thing to experience: most of the time, you have no recourse, or at least it feels that way. Even if the law is in your favour, your landlord will almost certainly have more money and resources than you. If you get evicted now, it’s harder to find another flat without increasing your budget; you might not be able to stay in the same area or even the same city. As journalist Danny Dorling argues in All That Is Solid: How the Great Housing Disaster Defines Our Times and What We Can Do About It, the housing crisis entails a “disastrous loss of freedom.” We have less freedom to choose where we live, less freedom to feel secure and to live good lives.

Today, all but the most well-off young people are subject to housing insecurity in some form (a term which encompasses having trouble paying rent, overcrowding, having to move frequently, or spending a high proportion of your income on housing). But we are not all equally vulnerable: depending on the resources you have at your disposal, housing insecurity might mean having to move to a more expensive flat in a less cool area; a stint living back home with your parents; or being crammed into slum housing, or sleeping on the street. Unsurprisingly, these disparities in outcomes are tied to class, migration status and race (Black people are significantly more likely to be evicted than white people). But while these inequalities exist, if you’re bouncing from one short-term lease to another – and you never know when your landlord might decide to chuck you out – then you are experiencing housing insecurity, regardless of how ‘privileged’ you are in other respects.

This widespread precarity is having profound consequences on our wellbeing. There is an enormous body of research that proves a link between housing insecurity and poor health, both physical and mental: it’s correlated with alcohol use, drug use, higher incidence of chronic illness, poorer diet, increased blood pressure, higher rates of sexually transmitted illnesses, and higher rates of cardiovascular-related deaths – just about any way that a person could be unwell or unhappy. Getting evicted has been shown to have a particularly major impact on mental health, and those with preexisting mental health problems are likely to be affected more severely.  Mental illness is complex and rarely down to any one factor, but if you did want a reductive, silver-bullet explanation for why it’s so prevalent among our generation then you could do a lot worse.

“When our housing feels insecure, we feel insecure,” writes Dorling. Getting evicted acts as a reminder of your own vulnerability, and the limitations of what your friends and family can really do for you. Suddenly, the life you’ve built for yourself is revealed as flimsy, insubstantial, built on sand. The state owes you nothing. You are at the mercy of market forces beyond your control; your sense of security is dependent on a stranger who has no obligation towards you, perhaps someone you’ve never even met. It’s not that it’s impossible to create somewhere that feels like “home”; it’s just that if you manage to do this, there’s no guarantee it won’t be yanked out from beneath you. And as bad as it is while it’s actually happening, what’s more insidious is the threat of knowing that it could happen again at any moment: this kind of precarity causes an ambient, low-level anxiety. It makes it harder to relax in your own life and to enjoy what time you do have in the place where you live. If you like the area, it stings knowing that you won’t be able to afford to stay there if you get evicted: you feel a sense of anticipatory wistfulness, looking ahead to the day you get cast out. Allowing yourself to feel any kind of attachment seems pointless: why bother engaging with your local community when you know you’re there on borrowed time? It’s no wonder that loneliness is so common when people are disincentivised from building roots in the areas in which they live. A home is supposed to provide security, protection, some kind of buttress from the outside world. Whether it actually works that way in practice, I'm not sure, but its absence can certainly be felt.

“It made me feel like absolutely nothing. I understood mentally that what I was doing was necessary to survive and live... But it just felt like it was all my fault, and that insecure housing was a choice I’d made” – Amrit

Every decision I’ve ever made has centred around trying to maintain whichever impermanent housing situation I’ve found myself in, which makes trying to imagine a future almost impossible,” Emma*, a young person who has experienced housing insecurity throughout her life, tells Dazed. No matter what she did, she realised there was no guarantee of not being kicked out with no notice anyway. “It’s totally draining, it creates this exhausting emotional state.”

Amrit*, a trans hospitality worker and organiser who lives London, had to move out of their home because it was not a safe place for them to be as a queer person. They ended up spending seven months couch-surfing around the city; sleeping in cupboards and communal areas of warehouses, even spending some nights in the streets. “It made me feel like absolutely nothing,” they tell Dazed. “I understood mentally that what I was doing was necessary to survive and live, that I couldn’t make any more social compromises in terms of my gender expression in order to have somewhere to stay. But it just felt like it was all my fault, and that insecure housing was a choice I’d made.” For Amrit, to expect something better – stable housing that was safe and affordable – felt “greedy and gratuitous”. The housing crisis diminishes all of our expectations; it makes us grateful for the least bad option.

Realistically, tackling the housing crisis will require government intervention on a vast scale. At one point, in the late 1970s, almost half of the British population lived in council housing, something which was not intended only for the most marginalised in society. We need to expand the stock of social housing and make this an option for anyone who wants it. Introducing longer-term tenancies and rent controls, which are the norm in many European countries, would also afford us more stability. Unfortunately, there’s little political will to do any of this at the moment. In an ideal world, housing would be an alienable human right (the UN has deemed it as such); in practice, it doesn’t work out that way. It’s true that we are not all equally vulnerable, but at a societal level, there is no safety net; there is no limit to how far you can fall. The welfare state was introduced with the idea that people should be given protection from the cradle to the grave, and that has been eroded completely. No matter your individual circumstances, everyone should feel uneasy at the knowledge that, when the chips are down, they are not entitled to shelter. Billionaires are unlikely to end up living on a friend’s sofa, it’s true, but things can go wrong even for the more fortunate among us, and sometimes that happens very quickly.  It’s in the interest of just about everyone for housing to be guaranteed by the state.

But we don’t have to wait for the radical overhaul of society to exert agency in the face of the housing crisis. While being evicted can feel disempowering, in reality, it’s sometimes the case that we have more power than we realise. Landlords might take it for granted that their tenants don’t know their rights, but organisations like Shelter can offer advice, while mass membership organisations like ACORN and Living Rent are fighting for concrete advances in the here-and-now. Young people today are often scolded for being ‘entitled’; when it comes to housing, whatever sense of entitlement we have is justified. We should try not to internalise vast failures by the market and the state: we deserve a lot more.

*Names have been changed