The slicing and dicing of housing is redefining the idea of home. Simon Usborne meets those forced to live in ever smaller spaces
JIllustration enny had run out of choices when she first walked into her basement studio flat last spring. The charity worker had been kicked out of her shared home in Bristol when her landlord sold it. She was on benefits, having been signed off sick with posttraumatic stress and anxiety after giving evidence as a victim of crime.
While being put up on a friend’s sofa, Jenny, who is 35 but does not want to use her real name for fear of jeopardising her tenancy, scoured online sites for rooms within her budget. Housing benefit claimants in the city can generally receive up to £300 a month for shared accommodation. “Rooms here were going for anywhere from £400, but even if I had that money, I could be rejected because I’m on benefits,” Jenny says.
Desperate and confined to private rented accommodation (Bristol has more than 11,000 families on the waiting list for social housing), Jenny learned that she just about qualified for the higher allowance for a one-bedroom flat, as a single occupant aged 35 or over. This pushed her budget above £500 a month. After finding her landlord on a Facebook community group, Jenny had a home. The payoff would be space. “What I didn’t know is how isolated and trapped it would make me feel,” she says.
Jenny pays £475 a month, excluding bills, for one of the smallest of nine flats carved out of a Victorian terraced house on a busy road. One of them is not more than a glorified shed crammed into the garden. She doesn’t know the floor area, but planning documents show that her room, which includes a double bed, kitchen sink, hob, oven, washing machine and a clothes rail, covers 15 sq metres. The tiny, windowless bathroom adds 3 sq m. Her whole home is barely bigger than the average living room and would fit 14 times on to a tennis court.
“When I come home I feel this sense of doom,” Jenny says. “I can’t have the window open because I’m on a noisy, polluted road, and I can’t have the blinds open because there’s a bus stop right there. I’ve had people weeing on my doorstep, doing crack outside my front door.” There are practical challenges. Jenny eats on her bed, which, like her clothes and everything else she owns, smells of whatever she cooks. Without proper storage, anything out of place can make the flat feel chaotic. The hum of the fridge keeps her awake at night.
“I think that even if someone didn’t suffer from anxiety or depression, living in this flat would affect them mentally,” she says, wondering how she might start to recover in a house like this. “You feel it – oh my God, the air is so … heavy.”
Britain’s housing crisis is pushing more of us into shoebox homes. Houses are shrinking, too. In 2014, the average new-build in the UK was 76 sq m, the smallest in Europe (Danish homes were almost double the size, research by the University of Cambridge showed). The average living room in a house built in the 1970s, meanwhile, was 25 sq m, compared to 17 today, according to LABC Warranty, which provides warranties for new-builds.