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Government and politics, Health and wellbeing, Social and behavioural

There’s no place like home

Marie Houghton on why psychologists should think more about housing.

14 November 2022

The impact that house and home can have on well-being has long been recognised in fields such as sociology, geography, and housing studies, but they are concepts that have been under-explored in psychology…

While deeply connected, housing and home are not the same. To quote a participant in Dupuis and Thorns’ 1998 study: ‘Houses are just buildings. The people in them make them homes’ (p.31). Housing offers a roof over your head and physical protection from the elements, but home promises far more.

Home (at least in the idealised version) is a place of love and support. It is a place where you can relax and be yourself, where you have privacy. It is somewhere where you have control over the environment – you can decide who is allowed to come in and what you want the space to look like. It is somewhere you can put down roots. In all these ways and more, home provides us with a sense of security that has been shown to be important for psychological well-being (Cairney & Boyle, 2004; Henwood et al., 2018; Somerville, 1992). However, these benefits are not equally distributed across all people or all types of housing.

Generation rent

Numerous studies have shown that homeowners receive a far greater sense of security (and associated well-being benefits) from their home (Byrne, 2020; Dupuis & Thorns, 1998; Saunders, 1989). In contrast, the insecurity and lack of control that people living in the private rented sector experience can make it difficult to feel at home in a rented property, which can have negative impacts on well-being (Easthope, 2014; Hoolachan et al., 2017; Soaita & McKee, 2019).

Most private renters in England have short-term tenancies (Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government [MHCLG], 2021). In 2020, 85 per cent of new tenancies in England had an initial agreement for 12 months or less. Additionally, 83 per cent of private renters in England in 2020 had assured shorthold tenancies, under which, after the first four months, landlords can generally, at any point and for any (or no) reason, give tenants two months’ notice to leave. This creates the possibility of renters being evicted at short notice and means that, even if tenants are not asked to leave, the fear of eviction can still loom large in their lives (McKee & Soaita, 2018; Soaita & McKee, 2019). Many rental contracts also do not allow tenants to decorate or personalise where they are living, or to have pets.

In addition, privately rented accommodation is, on average, more expensive and more likely to be of lower quality than owner occupied or socially rented housing (MHCLG, 2020). Across all tenures, the private rented sector has the highest proportion of properties that fail to meet the Decent Homes Standard. Private renters also pay more: in England in 2020 the median weekly mortgage payment was £147 compared to a median weekly rent of £162. In London the difference is even more stark, with the median weekly mortgage payment being £231 and the median weekly rent being £317.

Research has shown that renters tend to experience reduced well-being compared to homeowners and that living in the private rented sector, especially for extended periods, can have a negative impact on mental health (McKee & Soaita, 2018; Soaita & McKee, 2019; Vanhoutte et al., 2017). Indeed, Cairney and Boyle (2004) found that renters experienced higher levels of psychological distress than homeowners even after controlling for factors such as income, age, gender, and marital status.

Many renters have reported experiencing stress, anxiety, and, in some cases, depression, due to the precarity of their situation, their lack of control over how long they will be able to remain living in one place, the high cost of rent, poor living conditions, landlords who are reluctant or unwilling to carry out repairs, and inability to personalise their living space (McKee & Soaita, 2018; Soaita & McKee, 2019). Additionally, homeownership is frequently valorised in society and is tied up with ideas of success and of being a good citizen (Gurney 1999; Hiscock et al., 2001; McKee et al., 2017). Owning is a sign that one has ‘made it’, whereas renting is often presented as undesirable. In this way, renters can experience social stigma and may feel a sense of failure at their inability to achieve homeownership.

However, while homeownership remains the norm and the expectation (or at least aspiration) for most UK adults, rising house prices mean it has become an unreachable goal for many (McKee & Soaita, 2018). Since the beginning of the 21st century, the number of households living in the private rented sector in England has more than doubled from 2 million households (10 per cent of households) in 2001 to 4.4 million households (19 per cent of households) in 2020 (MHCLG, 2020). In London, 28 per cent of households were living in the private rented sector in 2020.

The increase in people living in the private rented sector has particularly hit younger people, giving rise to the term ‘generation rent’ (Hoolachan et al., 2017; McKee et al., 2017). More young people are renting and are renting for longer periods of time due to being unable to afford to buy a house. For example, whereas 21 per cent of 25-34 year olds in England lived in the private rented sector in 2004, by 2020 this figure had doubled to 42 per cent of 25-34 year olds (MHCLG, 2020).

House sharing: Mi casa es su casa

In the UK, there has also been an increase in the number of people house sharing – renting a property with friends or renting a room in a house with strangers, often for economic reasons (Collinson, 2015; Heath et al., 2018). This increase has not just been among younger age groups, but at older ages as well. Indeed, Collinson reported that between 2009 and 2014 there was a 186 per cent increase in the number of people aged 35 to 44 living in house shares, while the number of house sharers aged 45 to 54 grew by 300 per cent in the same period.

My PhD research is looking at the experiences of this growing group of older house sharers and the potential psychological impact of house sharing after the age of 30. This is a topic that has, to date, received little research attention, with research on house sharing typically focusing on the experiences of people in their twenties and/or on sociological questions, such as the organisation of life within shared houses (Clark et al., 2018). However, there are some findings from existing research which highlight the particular challenges that house sharers, and especially older sharers, can face. For example, Barratt et al. (2012) argue that renting a room in a house share may pose a greater threat to a person’s mental health than living in other housing situations, due to the lack of control, lack of privacy, insecurity, and stigma sharers can experience. While the precarity and lack of control that many renters experience has already been noted, people renting a room in a house share not only have limitations placed on their ability to control their living environment by their landlord but also by their housemates. For example, house sharers often have little or no say over how housemates behave or who they bring into the property. People renting a room in a house share also move residence more frequently than people renting a whole property, either on their own or with a partner (McNamara & Connell, 2007). Furthermore, while the home is often thought of as a private space where you are free to be yourself, house shares can blur the boundary between public and private space (Heath & Kenyon, 2001). Many people moving into a new house share may have only met the other tenants once before (or perhaps not even that) and may find themselves living with people they do not get on with or in a situation where they do not feel comfortable. My own research has highlighted that, in the worst cases, house sharing can entail risks to safety, with participants reporting being threatened, sexually harassed, and robbed by housemates.

House shares are not alone in being sites of potential harm. There are people across all housing tenures who have experienced violence and trauma at home (Mallett, 2004). However, house sharing stands apart from homeownership and non-shared forms of renting due to the level of stigma and shame that is associated with it (Barratt & Green, 2017). This is especially the case for older sharers because, while it has become increasingly normative to spend a period of time in one’s twenties living in a house share, many people continue to see house sharing at older ages as ‘weird’ and ‘strange’ (McNamara & Connell, 2007, p.82; see also Heath et al., 2018).

Housing, adulthood, and identity

Renting and, to an even greater extent, house sharing, do not fit with traditional ideas of home or of adulthood. While the emerging adulthood literature has recognised that transitions to adulthood are changing, a stable residence is still seen by many as necessary for adulthood (Arnett, 2000). Indeed, Robinson (2015, p.20) listed having ‘gained a fixed residence’ as one of the signs that emerging adulthood has ended.

Living in rented and/or shared accommodation may therefore lead people to feel that they are not a ‘proper’ adult. Living in a rented and/or shared property can also lead people to delay transitional events traditionally associated with attaining adult status, such as starting a family, because they feel that the insecurity of such living situations is not compatible with having children (Hoolachan et al., 2017).

However, someone’s experience of living in rented or shared accommodation does depend on personal and contextual factors, including who they live with and what the property is like. Research has found that some people renting a room in a house share do feel at home where they are living and, in some cases, housemates can even form a family of choice, providing an important source of social, emotional, and practical support to each other (Bricocoli & Sabatinelli, 2016; McNamara & Connell, 2007). Furthermore, even when housemates are not so close as to view each other as family, living in a house share can offer social benefits, such as company and companionship (Heath et al., 2018; Heath & Kenyon, 2001; McNamara & Connell, 2007). In such a situation, where housemates have friendly, supportive relationships with each other and engage in social activities together, living in a house share may help to protect against loneliness and be beneficial for well-being (Clark et al., 2018).

Uncharted territory

Housing is something that touches all our lives. I have found it fascinating researching the impact it can have on well-being and identity. However, I have been surprised by the limited amount of research that has looked at the psychology of housing and home. As increasing numbers of people are living in rented housing and shared housing, it is important to understand what this might mean and if there are things that can be done to minimise the potential risks to well-being and mental health. I would encourage other researchers and practitioners out there reading this to join me in helping to map out this relatively uncharted territory of how housing and psychology intersect.

About the author

Marie Houghton is a PhD Researcher and Associate Lecturer in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck, University of London. She can be found on Twitter @MarieHoughton and blogs on issues related to housing and psychology at housingpsychology.wordpress.com

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