I walk five minutes from Liverpool Street station, through the streets of Hugenot townhouses to meet Rupert Hunt, the founder of flatshare website SpareRoom at his home in Spitalfields, east London.
This area is sandwiched between the tall glass towers of the city and the clubs, bars and pubs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets that have grown around it. The population reflects the diversity of the area, people in smart suits rush around alongside hipsters and young men wait outside the Brick Lane mosque.
Waves of immigrants – French Hugenots, Russian Jews and Bangladeshis have transformed this area over centuries to become one of the most diverse in the country. Today, east London is simultaneously home to some of the country’s most expensive property and highest levels of poverty.
Rupert is currently looking for two flatmates to rent out rooms in his £3million townhouse. It has 15 rooms in total. He tells me that at one point houses like this would have had a family living in every room. ‘It’s quite unusual for a hous like this to have just one person living in it, if you think about it,’ he says.
There’s an Aga, a stuffed camel, taxidermy bear, several glass-eyed owls, a disco lounge and, you might be surprised to learn, no TV. The house is very creaky, ‘possibly haunted’, and you can see layers and layers of paint artfully peeling to reveal how centuries of its inhabitants decorated the place.
He’s offering the two rooms on a ‘pay what you can afford’ basis. He doesn’t want to limit the possibilities and the people who could afford it by charging market rent. In the past, he says, ‘one housemate has even paid nothing’.
For Rupert, finding the right person to live with is more important than the money. He’s looking for people who will be good to have around, who will add something to his life, he says. So if the right person ‘can only afford to pay £1’, then that’s what they’ll pay.
Many of the articles about Rupert’s decision to publically search for new flatmates have focused on the value and size of his home. He’s a tech entrepreneur, so I’m not quite sure what people expect. He launched SpareRoom before Twitter or Instagram had even been invented, back in 2004, and it remains at the forefront of houseshare searching online.
Last year, it had, on average, 63,000 people sign up every month looking for rooms (in the UK) and 11,000 people offering rooms (which says something about supply and demand when it comes to renting in the UK). There are currently just under 70,000 rooms live on the site.
What’s interesting is that this guy, an entrepreneur who made his money out of the fact that more people than ever are living in rented accommodation later and later in life, than ever before, would rather live with other people than live alone.
Who you live with is important. ‘You can be dreading going home or it can be the time of your life,’ he says. ‘There’s support, a community feeling. I always think flatmates are somewhere between friends and family. I wouldn’t live on my own again. I’ve got a pact with my school friends, we’re going to live in the same old peoples’ home together when the time comes.’
Rupert says he really does prefer sharing his house than rattling around on his own – he’s been sharing out of choice not necessity for three years now. He really believes in the ethos of SpareRoom and, it seems, he’s in it for more than the money.
‘We really care about renting,’ he says. ‘It’s not about profiteering. We’ve been lobbying the government for the last six years to increase the rent-a-room scheme, for example.
‘We ran campaigns before the election,’ he tells me, drawing attention to how renting can be revolutionised for the better – through the regulation of letting agents’ fees, rent control and standards.
‘People need to speak up,’ he says, ‘otherwise politicians won’t listen.’
Indeed, it seems that everyone other than this country’s politicians (who voted against an amendment to ensure all rented homes are ‘fit for human habitation’ this week) has cottoned on to the fact that renting is the new normal. SpareRoom’s own statistics from its last ‘flatshare census’ found that most of its users thought it would take them longer than 10 years to get onto the property ladder, while almost 1 in 5 thought they would never own a property.
Renting was once the mainstay of the few, of the very poorest and most vulnerable people in society. However, today, that’s just simply no longer the case. Levels of homeownership have actually gone into reverse after years of rises that were fuelled, largely, by Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy initiative and the deregulation of the mortgage-lending business.
Today, more people than ever before are renting. A report, conducted by economists at accountancy firm PwC last year, predicted that by 2025, a quarter of all households will be renting privately and that the biggest increase will be seen among those aged between 20 and 39, where ‘a clear majority’ will be private tenants within the next decade.
Rupert himself was 38 when he bought his first house. ‘I watched house prices rise and property go out of sight for me. Sharing does open up possibilities, you can try and use it to your advantage,’ he says, adding that we can reframe the narrative around renting in a more positive way.
‘Living with the right people is definitely a more positive way to live,’ he says. ‘It’s the little things like having people around at the end of the day to share ups and downs with to making new friends, new experiences and influences.’
His view does seem a little romantic compared to some of the renting experiences I’ve had. Has he never had a bad experience? He says his worst experience of flatsharing was living with friends after university. ‘What makes a good friend doesn’t necessarily make a good flatmate, but flatmates can become friends.
‘You’ve got to be honest with yourself and with other people about what you need and what you’re like to live with. There’s no right or wrong, it’s just about finding compatible people.’
So do we need to let go of our obsession with owning a home, with the idea that an English person’s home is only their castle when they’re paying the mortgage? ‘There’s so much perceived wisdom about renting and progression, going up the property ladder and what you should achieve by a certain age, so it’s not going to be an overnight thing, but I’d hope that we could go some way to showing people that renting on your own isn’t necessarily an upgrade from sharing, it’s just a different thing and, in some ways, I’d argue not as positive. Germany has a very high percentage of renters, for instance.’
He thinks we need to start thinking about the positives, about what renting can do for us – not just what the money we pour into it is doing for our landlords. But beyond this, doesn’t he think we need better rights for renters?
‘I think to some extent the flexibility is one of the major benefits of renting.’ And he’s right. It’s also great that you’re not responsible if the building starts to subside or leak, as long as you’ve got a decent landlord, that is.
‘But, I do think longer tenure and better rights are important. You need to know that your rent is going to go up in the middle of your tenancy. Security, that’s an essential. Of course,’ he adds.
Between Sunday and Tuesday Rupert had already received 2,000 applications, he’s hoping that his dream flatmates are in there somewhere. He says he’s ‘pretty laidback’ to live with, but it’s ‘important to be upfront about rules, about what you need’. His main house rule is ‘no smoking and no candles’, because the house is so old it’s like ‘a tinderbox’. And, finally, no parties during the week, but he likes to make full use of the ‘disco lounge’ at weekends.
Like the sound of living with Rupert? You can apply here.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.