Michael Kirkham

The slic­ing and dic­ing of hous­ing is redefin­ing the idea of home. Si­mon Us­borne meets those forced to live in ever smaller spa­ces

The Guardian - G2 - - Style -

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.

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