The Invisible Discrimination in Sharehousing

Sharehousing is my life. Not by way of real choice; it’s all I can afford, ever since it was no longer viable to live at home. I love my family but it’s not an option for me, the same as it isn’t for many, many others. Increasingly through the last few years I’ve seen that necessity extend past the stereotype of student living. A growing number of people embrace it as a lifestyle choice, curating families away from family or to afford higher quality accommodation; while for others whose welfare or income no longer covers typical rent costs and who can’t find accommodation through the public housing system, it is the only way to afford a roof over one’s head.

This necessity in the face of a housing crisis, along with the normalisation of sharehousing as a “lifestyle choice”,  puts pressure on a system that has seemingly grown without regulation, and that pressure is exposing its flaws. It’s common for sharehouses to look for new tenants and subtenants through social media and specialised websites such as Flatmate Finders, and the same rules preventing real estate agents from discrimination (which already appear loosely regulated, if gentrification in Melbourne is any indication) don’t really apply here, as people seek to find someone with the right ‘culture fit’.

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Facebook screenshot of a housemate search. Reasonable-sounding on the surface, while the subtext reads to those wary of it: no one with social disabilities or depression, no one too different.

And while that is necessary and good for the sake of building a safe and trustworthy home in which all occupants feel they belong, something which everyone has a right to, it does beg some amount of scrutiny and questioning; because when you make a choice about who or what kind of person you invite into a sharehouse, you are also making choices and rules about who is excluded, and why. That is unavoidably a choice which affects the people left stranded without alternative, options, people who end up on the streets, something which is notably skewed against people with varying disabilities or mental illnesses.

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Subtext: no one depressed or socially anxious or with mobility issues, no poor people who struggle to fit into capitalism and ‘productivity’

This isn’t a matter of expecting anyone to drop their own considerations for the sake of combating an unfair system. One cannot make oneself vulnerable or in danger in the intimate environment of one’s own home merely for the sake of politics. But it is worth challenging one’s assumptions. There are many things I can only speculate at, as there have not been many studies done on the structures and effects of sharehousing, but gender-based assumptions come up as one example that may colour housing availability with a surprising amount of regularity and acceptability; I’ve seen houses prioritise women as residents under the assumption that women are cleaner or more socially considerate, and given that men are slightly more likely to be homeless and much more so to be sleeping rough, one has to wonder where that interacts with the sharehousing system. That is nothing more than conjecture as it stands, but I would be remiss in my role as a feminist if I didn’t identify that idea as a troubling one.

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If you struggle to cook food or have interesting artisinal edible hobbies due to being too poor to afford to learn it, too mentally ill or have other disabilities or time demands that make cooking or gardening difficult, congrats! You now qualify as an undesirable “ghost”

Cleanliness is highly prioritised as a requirement of housemates, and as someone who is picky about cleanliness in the kitchen, I can definitely sympathise. But there is a difference between forming active processes for good quality living regardless of ability, and simply not considering when ableism is colouring your expectations.

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“No depression or disabilities that interfere with cleanliness”

I’ve only spoken to one woman who changed the way she advertised for housemates to reflect this; she also had quite regular expectations of contributing to a household, but she opened herself up to more diverse applications by making it known that they had come to past arrangements with dividing labour according to what people were actually capable of doing. Some people would sweep and mop more often in exchange for passing on their dishes to another housemate, as an example. That simple change in expectations can shift the household dynamic from one of rigidity and in-built ableism to a warm and welcoming one. The division of domestic labour in a sharehouse is often not a static or straightforwards thing anyway, changing according to differing skills and comfort levels and unique house demands, so it can be beneficial to treat those expectations like an ongoing dialogue, a project to work on together, rather than a box that gets ticked on an application.

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“no one with depression or social/food-related anxiety”

It might seem like a really small and normal request to seek someone who can fit in with a house’s culture, and that’s actually really important, but I do have to wonder when people are putting out requests for housemates—how many people realise that what they are saying is not just, ‘we want someone reasonably easy to live with’, but, ‘we want someone who isn’t mentally ill’? Given the context of Australia’s issues combating mental health problems, the home needs to be a space in which harmful attitudes cannot be ignored.

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The pinned rules on a public Housemate search group on Facebook. The intent when it comes to caveats like gender and orientation usually come from an attempt to protect vulnerable minorities looking for people with whom they’ll be safe, but the idea that these rule sets devoid of anti-discriminatory regulation won’t cause an “impact” is worth examining.

Sharehousing is a big social minefield. Everyone’s ideas of responsibility and respectability are loaded with their own histories, privileges and shortcomings. I’ve heard more horror stories from sharehouses than I have from any other type of accommodation, tales of mental and emotional abuse, even physical threats, stealing and stalking. Ultimately, sharing your personal space with others is a pretty big risk. It makes sense to try to reduce that risk in any way possible. But we try to reduce this risk on such an individualistic basis that it seems to shut down any community-wide discussions on how we can actually tackle those risks and create a system that actually looks out for us. Despite all advertising for housemates being centralised to particular websites and forum spaces, little of that social space is used to talk about any of these horror stories and bad housemates. Instead we continue trying to vet everyone one by one, with only the loosest recommendation systems, empty of police checks or pro-social, anti-discriminatory rules.

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An application to a house owned by a single mother with a child. “That’s fine” being uttered next to enquiring about levels of queer acceptance may seem rather accommodating towards homophobia, but it is sometimes a useful defence mechanism against moving into a home only to discover hidden and potentially dangerous levels of homophobia later.

It is the responsibility of our government to tackle the housing crisis, on problems of regulating real estate agencies’ discrimination and artificial price hikes, on ‘investment properties’, on the gap between public and private housing availability, and so on. That is out of our control. But the sharehousing sphere is ours. It is an odd, rapidly-growing community without a real sense of community, a broad social demographic and force to be reckoned with that seemingly lacks any internal dialogue. As time goes on, the need for change in that system will only grow. Typically, when self-regulation fails, that’s when the law needs to expand to fill that space. It seems honestly unlikely any time soon that the government will begin enforcing higher standards on the sharehousing system, since there is so much else that politicians are refusing to tackle right now. But without regulation, the number of vulnerable people for whom sharehousing becomes less and less of a viable method of living will only grow.

So, we need to ask the kinds of questions that must be asked to form a functioning and ethical society; if sharehousing is the most accessible form of housing for most people, one of the only things keeping thousands of people off the streets, how do we deal with the conflicting needs of access to a home for everybody, and control over one’s home space?

This is not a question that needs to come at the cost of our quality of living, that asks you to compromise on who you invite into your home. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of changing advertising methods so that equally capable and viable potential housemates aren’t put off applying, as companies do when they want to hire more diverse candidates. Perhaps many people are already doing what they can, in which case asking these questions can be a positive self-affirmation process for those who are, and a potentially rewarding way for others to challenge themselves and broaden their social horizons. Perhaps there is no real solution that can come from the sharehousing space, but as a community we can be aware of where we sit in the face of a housing crisis, so that we know where resources to fix it must be pointed. This is not about being a charity case, but about being thoughtful, questioning potentially harmful biases, and opening a dialogue. At the end of the day, we can’t solve problems that we don’t talk about.

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