Photo by Simon Auffret

With homes increasingly scarce, and rents and prices rising, many Dubliners find that sharing a home is the only way to have one.

It’s not always easy, though. That’s why the housing charity Threshold is planning to give a talk on 30 May in the Rathmines library on how to cope with sharing a domestic space with others.

Stephen Large, of Threshold, says the talk will cover overcrowded accommodation, “and various issues that arise from that”.

Overcrowding is very common in some parts of the city. By the Central Statistics Office’s definition, more than 37 percent of households in the Mountjoy B electoral district in the north inner city are overcrowded.

Living in shared accommodation can be tricky. “There are rules around bringing [new] people in, and people don’t know what they can and can’t do, which could put the tenancy at risk,” says Large.

It used to be that students rented rooms in shared accommodation when they moved out of their family homes, Large said.

“But that would only be for a period, until they started working or had relationships. People are spending longer now in shared accommodation,” Large said.

“This increases pressure, and people feel they’re trapped, and that they have no options. They’re vulnerable, and have no security of tenure, when notice can be given at any time. There’s no ability to plan,” he said.

Needing Space

As people get older, they get more independent, so it can be harder for them to share a space with someone, says Damien McClean, the welfare officer for Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union.

“A lot of people would be thrilled about an apartment, because of the thrill of being in Dublin,” he says, but it gets harder over time. For example, it’s harder for people in final year, versus first year.

“People in final year tend to take their studies more seriously. When you’re under pressure it can be hard to share with strangers,” he says, but “a lot more students have to take the option of non-ideal accommodation”.

Maintenance is often an issue in overcrowded homes, as well as a lack of hygiene when many people are using the same bathroom, says Michelle Connolly, from Dublin Central Housing Action.

In cases where several adults are living together out of necessity, Connolly says, the issues are more social.

“People are putting off having kids, because there’s nowhere to put them,” says Connolly. And then, as the years pass and they’re still in shared accommodation, even more issues arise.

“If you’re in your forties and you’re house sharing, you might feel a little embarrassed, or you’re thinking, ‘What’s going to happen when I retire? I don’t have my own home,’” Connolly says.

On top of that, there can be bullying, she says Connolly, “but you don’t want to say anything in case it blows up and you’re told to leave”.

“I’ve seen a lot of mental-health problems due to this. People don’t have the space to relax or to cook for themselves … Anything that’s going on with you can be exacerbated by living with other people,” she says.

Psychiatrist Paul Keedwell, author of Headspace: the Psychology of City Living, says the long-term psychological impact of living in a shared space depends on how crowded it is.

“We know that when more people share they are more likely to retreat to their rooms – in general, or when hosting visitors and partners. It’s all about personal space and control,” says Keedwell.

“Losing control over communal facilities like the kitchen and living room causes people to retreat. When people retreat they are also less likely to look out for their flatmates and they behave less generously towards them,” he says.

“So, if you’re going to share, I would advise not sharing with more than 2–3 people. This is a general rule, of course. There will be other factors at play of course – past history, age, gender mix, personality type.”

Coping Mechanisms

People learn coping mechanisms, and their own boundaries, says Connolly, of Dublin Central Housing Action. “Some people have to learn to be around other people, and a little bit of growing up helps.”

Everyone will have different ways of coping. “If you don’t have decent space, and you don’t have your own bathroom, a lot of people will join a gym and use the showers there,” she says.

But people shouldn’t have to live like this, Connolly says, and rent shouldn’t be so high. For her, the most important thing is to join a group, or chat to neighbours, to try and change the situation.

She’s pretty cynical about the Threshold talk, she says. “I can understand why they’re doing it, but it sounds like resignation. Maybe they do have something solid, like if they’re offering psychological support.”

The list of responsibilities people have – jobs, younger family members and the like – only gets longer as they grow older, says McClean of TCDSU, and those responsibilities translate into living with someone.

“From the very start, you should start listing what the responsibilities are,” he says, “instead of seeing how it goes, which usually doesn’t work”.

A lot of the difficulties boil down to personalities, says Large of Threshold, and there’s no legislation for that. “There are no hard-and-fast rules for a tenant choosing who they want to live with,” Large says.

“If you’re in rented accommodation for a long time, the choice of who you can share with is limited, which can heighten emotion,” he says. “An argument about milk isn’t always really an argument about milk.”

Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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