LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Flat sharing - Amanda Fimiani & Elise Magna
Date of photography: 29th March 2017
Amanda and Elise are flat-sharers: they live together as so many of us did at some stage in our youth, although this mode of living is fast becoming inevitable, simply because of the chronic shortage of affordable homes. In the past, sharing a flat or house was normally associated with students, with young professionals starting off in their careers (like Amanda) with new arrivals to London (like Elise) or with those working in an area temporarily - in fact, any young person who wasn’t ready to buy a property or to settle down permanently somewhere. However, with the paucity of affordable accommodation in the capital, and with property prices amongst the highest in the world, a new phenomenon has emerged: an increasing number of middle-aged, even elderly, people are now searching for, and taking up, flat-share arrangements, most commonly when they have departed from the family home following divorce or bereavement, or when they have returned to England from working for years abroad, stunned to find themselves hopelessly priced out of the market. After a life spent in a home of their own, bedecked with familiar comforts, with complete privacy, and with unchallenged independence, returning to flat or house-sharing, with all its pitfalls, will inevitably be an unenviable experience for many.
Most young people (except the ones with rich parents, of course) arriving to a new place, especially a large city like London, will be faced both with prohibitive rents and an acute shortage of decent places to live. Some of us will have been forced, temporarily at least, into what is often now called ‘sofa-surfing’, sleeping on the sofa, or the floor, of some kindly, hospitable family, friend or distant relation. Faced with the impossible cost of buying, and the high cost of renting, getting together with a number of other people to share is a logical, if not inescapable, proposition for many; this not only spreads the cost of the rent but also divides, pro rata, the Council Charge, the utility bills and possibly other living expenses too - some shared flats and houses have communal cooking and dining arrangements, for example.
In our younger days, most of us will have found ourselves sharing a house or flat and we will probably remember those times mostly with affection, if occasionally with dread; hardly anyone recalls with indifference their own particular experience of sharing. Flat or house-sharing also has the appeal of avoiding the solitude of a bedsit, allowing one to live amongst people who are usually of a similar age, at broadly the same stage in life, and usually keen to socialise, to share meals and chores. Sharers very often bring their own friends and relatives into the house, thus enlarging the common social circle. Indeed, many romances have blossomed amongst sharers and their friends.
But sharing is not all a bed of roses, of course: if you are unfortunate and have to share space with unsociable, introvert, inconsiderate, dirty or maladjusted people, living communally can become a serious trial. Sometimes it may be difficult to retain one’s privacy and there will be times when almost everyone needs privacy, or some time to themselves to be quiet and at peace, and this can prove extremely problematic when living with boisterous flat-mates. The maintenance of common spaces, like living rooms, bathrooms and kitchens can create its own tensions too, as people vary hugely in their tolerance of mess and dirt, and their enthusiasm or aptitude for cleaning up after themselves. For well-matched flatmates, the common areas can be places for great fun, where communal living is a real joy, but these areas are more often the source of conflict and disagreement.
For me, flat-sharing in Clapham in the 1970’s was largely a good experience - at least until our selfish and unprincipled landlord evicted us, for which I have never forgiven him - and I established some lifelong friendships there. I also still have good memories of sharing a large flat on the twenty-first floor of a handsome but neglected tower block in East London, though the difficulties we encountered and had to overcome will also stay with me for a very long time.
To get an idea of how things have changed, some 40 year later, I was kindly invited by Amanda Fimiani to visit the flat she shares in south-west London, in an area that has gone through what is generally now described as ‘gentrification’. The flat has been recently refurbished and is in a much better state than the places I used to live in, and which were pretty much the norm for 40 years ago. But this higher standard is certainly reflected in the much higher rents, rents that can only be afforded by well-paid professional workers. Both professional women, Amanda shares the flat with Elise Magna, who has recently arrived from France.
Amanda Fimiani welcomes me to the flat-share and, after the photography, we talk about her experience of living in London: “I was born to Italian parents in Toronto, Canada, and that’s where I grew up, received my education, and qualified as a teacher. In view of my roots, I did contemplate going to live in Italy, the land of my parents, but fate and circumstances brought me here instead.” Amanda has now lived in London for over two years and she works in Marketing, for an education recruitment company. She goes on: “It is a fascinating working environment, working with people from all over the world although, post-Brexit, no-one knows what is going to happen to us, or indeed to the company for that matter.”
It might have been only a few years but Amanda already has some vivid, less than agreeable experiences of flat-sharing: “I shared a house with five other people in Walthamstow, where I only managed to survive for a month. Being new to London, I really needed a friendly welcome and some human contact but none was forthcoming: the couples lived mostly behind closed doors, while others just didn’t want to socialise - after a hard day’s work, there was barely a soul to talk to. The area didn’t have much to offer either, so I couldn't wait to get away.”
“Next, I moved to South Kensington, a much posher area, where I shared with two other people. In lots of ways, the place was a good deal better but as there was no communal living room, the only place I ever exchanged a few words with my flat-mates was on the stairs. Again, I felt really lonely and, while I am a quiet person myself, having caring people around me is something that I need, and that I long for. Then I got some company I wasn’t expecting: the place became infested with rats! I moved out and up the road, to share with another Canadian girl. Alas, my new flatmate proved to be a total introvert, and she had a boyfriend, so I was back staring at lots of closed doors again. You won’t be surprised to know that I never even found out what she did for a living. All in all, you could say that my first experiences of flat-sharing in London were not a great success; it seems to be such a complete lottery.”
Amanda has been more fortunate lately: she found her current flat, in a nice area; she got on well with the landlord from the outset; and, she was able to help with the selection of her flatmate, Elise, who recently arrived from France to start work in London. “We do get on. Elise is cute, a fantastic person, and a joy to share the flat with. I love good food and cooking, so I am teaching her that, and she is teaching me to speak French. We share the weekends together, and it is a pleasure to return home knowing that she will be there. London is a big place - there might be thousands of people really close to you physically - but it is easy to feel alone, to be unnoticed, and to have no-one to cheer you up if you’re feeling down.”
Elise Magna was born in Nice and, while she visited several times as a tourist, she is new to working in London, having little more than a month ago taken up a post as a speech therapist to French children living in London. With around 300,000 French people working and settled in Greater London, it has been joked that London is now the sixth largest French city. Given the smallness of most French cities, Elise is only gradually getting used to the vastness of London and its complexity but she does have one great advantage, Amanda is there to help her, to listen and to offer advice, the advice that Amanda herself never got from her previous flat-mates, at the time when she needed it most. Elise says: “I really look forward to coming home here and no, I am not a stranger to sharing either: back at home, I shared a flat for five years and that wasn’t great either. This time, I feel I have been very fortunate in being able to share with Amanda.”
Both Amanda and Elise mention the high cost of renting in the UK capital; Elise sees it as astronomical in comparison with Paris, which most French people already think of as being extremely dear. And Amanda adds: “You have to spend over half your net income just to share a place that’s clean, comfortable, in an area that feels safe, and where there’s a range of amenities and good-quality shops.”
In the past, sharing a flat or house was normally associated with students, with young professionals starting off in their careers (like Amanda) with new arrivals to London (like Elise) or with those on temporary contracts - in fact, any young person who wasn’t ready to buy a property or settle down permanently somewhere. With London’s chronic shortage of affordable housing and with property prices rising to amongst the highest in the world, a new phenomenon has emerged: an increasing number of middle-aged, even elderly, people are now searching for, and taking up, flat-share arrangements, most commonly when they have lost the family home following divorce or bereavement, or when they have returned to England from working for years abroad, stunned to find themselves hopelessly priced out of the market. After a life spent in a home of their own, bedecked with familiar comforts, with complete privacy, and with unchallenged independence, returning to flat or house-sharing, with all its pitfalls, will inevitably be an unenviable experience for many.
This is what happens when a society abandons any collective effort to build and maintain a suitable stock of affordable housing and to leave everything to ‘the market’. For ‘the market’ only accommodates those who can afford to pay, and the majority of ordinary working people, even those on what were once thought of as ‘good pay packets’, can no longer afford to mortgage homes at today’s grossly inflated prices. With only the profit motive driving and influencing UK (particularly London) housing policy, an ever-increasing number of people struggle to find a suitable place to live, or find themselves exploited in an unregulated and avaricious rental market. Is it little wonder that more and more people are obliged to share with strangers their homes and their lives ?
Text edited: 12 April 2017
Page modified: 8th April 2019