I could tell that the room I was about to view was going to be far from “lovely” (as the online advert promised) when I entered the housing estate. It wasn’t so much the stinging nettles and mutant dandelions that snaked their way up to windows that had probably not been washed since 1976, but the door that had been kicked in and patched up with plywood and duct tape – always a red flag.
Inside, the smell of damp mingled with mephedrone as a cockroach lumbered across the kitchen sink, so I rapidly made my excuses as 'agency' rep, Carlos (in oversized trackies, with a fag dangling from his mouth) told me that I’d be sharing with five other people. “All gays” and all for £700 a month plus bills “a bargain for the area,” apparently.
My story is not unusual. I’m one of the 1.5 million “young” people who are predicted to be living in the private rented sector over the period to 2020, according to a 2011 study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Home ownership in the UK is now at its lowest level for 30 years, with property prices soaring.
According to a report by estate agent Knight Frank, a quarter of households in the UK will rent privately by 2021. Finding the “castle” that is supposed to be every Englishman’s home is not an option.
The housing crisis in London – and New York and San Francisco – is particularly acute, making competition for a shared room frequently as cut-throat as an interview for a CEO position at a multinational corporation.
My quest to put down roots has seen me boomerang from one part of London to another, with the same restlessness of a Vauxhall GHB queen on a weekend bender. In five years, I’ve moved home seven times – including a period of homelessness and couch surfing. The need to find deposits and cover necessary costs takes its toll – and that’s nothing compared to the emotional impact.
Being a gay man has, I’ve found, added to the challenge of finding an appropriate abode. The assumption that all gay guys over 35 have plenty of disposable income doesn’t necessarily apply to a freelance journalist.
Shunned by letting agencies, the options are narrowed down to Spareroom and Gumtree – or, god forbid, the horror of “speed flat mating”, undoubtedly the ultimate last resort, and one which should only ever be contemplated after several shots of tequila.
The alerts for vacancies in gay accommodation that have pinged into my inbox each morning over the years have brought their peculiar brand of joy.
“I’m looking for a gay roommate to live with who is open to possibilities…” read one. Another was not as subtle: “small double available. No rent required – seeking someone who will explore all boundaries with me – and many others. "Totally genuine offer."
More amusing still have been the repeated demands for me to send my “picture”. The first time this happened I naively replied, “you’ll see what I look like when I view the room,” but I now quip back “flaccid or hard – under harsh or soft lighting?” As I say, if you don’t learn to laugh your knickers off in this game you’re doomed.
Rents spiral in areas which the gays flock to, usually pricing out anyone who isn’t “a young professional” without a stable 9 to 5 job in finance or something similarly soul destroying.
Then, of course, you have the added complications of identifying who the “party people” are. I’ve become increasingly skilled at spotting the not too well-hidden drugs paraphernalia and the spaced out “come bang my back door in” eyes.
If I wanted to live in a knocking shop I might be better off taking a sleeping bag into the local sauna – at least I’d save on hot water, and with their 24/7 open doors policy accommodation costs would probably work out marginally cheaper than a converted living room with paper-thin walls in east London.
But one can’t afford to become too despondent. Opportunities to meet new people, in what can be a lonely city, should always be embraced, and you never know who you’re going to hit it off with while inspecting the bathroom grouting of a chicken coup above a fish mongers in a dodgy part of south London.
But after finally seeing the perfect house, and then being emailed by your potential flatmate to be told that you’re “lovely”, but he’s chosen someone else, you are entitled to feel a little peeved. Especially when said potential gay roommate later hits you up on Grindr and tells you, in a rather more explicit way – with added graphics – that your “loveliness” was why you didn’t get the room – but you are welcome to visit anytime. Thanks for that!
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