Pride, Prejudice and The Flatmate Interview 

7 months ago Chad 5

So mummy and daddy has finally had enough of you keeping the heating dial stuck on full blast. They fume when you leave your drawers on the bedroom floor and your prolonged exodus of the baked beaned, cheesy pasta stained dishes in the kitchen sink. Splashing the bathroom with soapy water and yellow plastic ducks is no longer cute. Perhaps it’s time for a flatmate.

Over the years, you’ve seen some of your friends move out with the promise of sovereignty and heavy partying only to be met by the harsh realities of sharing bathrooms with strangers, diminished overdrafts and awfully petite, damp bedrooms.

But it will be different for you, right? You inhale that smoke of freedom. You can now binge watch Netflix and lie-in till 12 without your parents constantly whining: ‘what are you going to do with your life?’ So you decide to rent a room in a shared house because in London or New York or Paris, your budget almost certainly will not stretch beyond this. You are excited.

The blood of enthusiasm flows through your arteries. You research online on Gumtree or spareroom.com. You email and call potential properties and count up your pennies. ‘The room is available,’ you’re told. But wait. One final thing: the eligibility is not about the number of pennies you have in your pocket. No, because you are about to be cross-examined for the role. Welcome to the insidious and somewhat creepy world of the flatmate interview.

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The invisible aliens wanted to write about this phenomenon because despite claims to the contrary, it is essentially a personality test. A chance for tenants (the interviewers have merely rented the property first) to live with like-minded people who think like them, are from similar backgrounds, have similar interests and worldviews. I can say without doubt that as a black immigrant man with a Jamaican accent in London, this is a rather daunting experience. No, I do not want a drink. I’m rather antisocial so I’d rather stay in my room and read. No, I don’t want to go down to the pub. No I do not like cats or dogs, but of course as long you don’t bother me about them then I’m fine.

No, I do not want a drink. I’m rather antisocial so I’d rather stay in my room and read. No, I don’t want to go down to the pub. No I do not like cats or dogs, but of course as long you don’t bother me about them then I’m fine.

The invisible aliens first encountered this phenomenon right out of university. This alien researched and called, flattening out my accent. ‘The room is available and yours,’ I was told. I turned up a week after with my deposit, ready to seal myself in the room, go to work and play football with my friends in the evenings. Ordinary enough, right. Wrong! The tenants of Chinese inheritance saw by black mug from a mile off, shook in common terror at their mistake and stuttered and fumbled apologies as to why the room was no longer available.

This alien’s worse experiences though are with the mid twenties to thirties white university educated men and women. I once turned up at a nice, well maintained old manor house in Stockwell, London. It was the summer time and it had a huge garden. I already had visions of rolling out the garden chair and reading Gatsby for the fourth time. I was met at the door by the slightly horrified mien of a thin blonde lady; let’s say about 28 years old. Her increased breathing was visible on her leaping blouse but she managed to keep it together. She asked me to wait, closed the door to a slim crack and frantically placed a phone call to ‘Jess’ then ‘Mark.’ She needed them to be there. Urgently! Mark pulled up five minutes later out of breath and I was finally allowed in.

This was beginning to resemble my encounters with the police. I was afforded a seat, and then a grilling that would make George Bush’s terror Inquisitors in Abu Ghraib blush: do you have a significant other, and if so, how often would they be at the flat? Do you like to have friends over? How often? How long have you been at your job? How secure is it? Do you have emergency savings? Are you a Christian? We like to have a drink, do you drink and how often?

This, ladies and gentlemen, were non-racist liberals with underlying prejudices too real to bury. Unsurprisingly, I was turned away.

Experiment

In 2013, my friend (black) was looking for a flatmate, and found a place that seemed quite nice, sharing an apartment with another woman. They talked on the phone, seemed to get on well, and arranged for my friend to come around and take a look. However, my friend had not mentioned her race…When she got there, the woman took one look at her, and informed her that she was sorry, but she’d just rented it out to someone else. My friend was suspicious, and told me about it.

We got another friend (white) to phone the same woman, pretending to be another tenant interested in the apartment. She told her that it was still available, and asked her to come take a look. When she got there, she showed her around, and was quite ready to sign a contract. It is indeed happening, folks.

But the skeptics among you will understandably say, well that’s anecdotal and not representative of the situation more generally. Well, as it happens around the same time, the BBC conducted an investigation into the matter and found that Letting agents in London were refusing to rent to black tenants. BBC London was initially tipped off certain letting agents were willing to discriminate against African-Caribbean people on behalf of landlords, with the alleged misdoing rife in parts of west London.

To expose the practices, a plush three-bedroom flat in north Kensington was acquired. Letting agents from 10 firms were invited to assess its rental value. All 10 were recorded on secret camera saying they would be prepared not to show the flat to African-Caribbean people – and many detailed how they had done it before. The lettings manager at A to Z Property Services, in Dollis Hill, said: “We cannot be shown discriminating against a community. But obviously we’ve got our ways around that. 99% of my landlords don’t want Afro-Caribbeans or any troublesome people.”

The lettings manager at National Estate Agents, Willesden, said: “When someone [African-Caribbean] comes in, we won’t advise them of this property. “Even if it does get [asked about] we make up an excuse, to be honest with you.” When a black researcher asked to view the property, the National agent told him: “I’m sorry, that one’s gone.” The property was still on the market – and a white researcher got offered a viewing. The A to Z agent told the black researcher he would call him to arrange a viewing. Despite a second inquiry, the agent never got back in touch.

The agent had previously explained how he could deter unwanted tenants, saying: “We don’t say no there and then. We just don’t call them back (laughter).” Once again, the white researcher received an appointment with no fuss.

Many people think the days of

landlords hanging ‘No Blacks’

signs outside properties are long

gone, but racism clearly persists

like the stubborn stain it is.

Even Worse Now

But that was a few years ago and this has taken a turn for the worse. Flat mate sharing discriminatory ads have since become normalized and take on the tone of dating websites. Like blondes? Then click on that. Don’t fancy living with a Jamaican, (and I can only wonder why?) then unclick that box. Don’t like Asians? Ignore that box. A gay person placing an ad for only gay applicants; Polish people wanting to live only with Poles; Chinese people wanting only mandarin speakers.

Match.com matching us in love. Spotify and Pandora matching us in music. Netflix matches us to films. Facebook matches us to about everything else. This ‘matching culture’ brings positives: music we like, partners who make us happy, neighbors who want the same things. We’re more comfortable.

Prima facie, this may seem all well and fine, but the invisible aliens believe this walks the tight rope of prejudice much too delicately. There are significant collateral downsides to this comfort: heightened inequality and segregation, and decreased incentives to innovate and create. It also leads to a feedback loop and echo chambers where we only live amongst those like us; those that have our backgrounds and attitudes. Inevitably, this leads to intolerance of others; a myopic worldview that can damage society’s ability to care and empathize for our fellow man and woman.

The Long Winding Road

Indeed, this is a very serious and troubling thing. In Britain, housing discrimination towards black people, Irish, Muslims and Jews was a key aspect of the national racist framework. In the United States, discriminatory advertisements in renting were one of the mechanisms by which Jim Crow segregation was enforced. It explicitly and implicitly engenders racial steering, the practice in which estate agents steers home buyers towards or away from certain neighborhoods based on their race.

Blockbusting was used to convince white property owners to sell their house at low prices, which they did by promoting fear in those house owners that racial minorities would soon be moving into the neighborhood.

Through redlining, services were denied either directly or through selectively raising prices, to residents of certain areas based on the racial and ethnic composition of those areas. This even included supermarkets being located impractically far away from residents to result in a redlining effect. During the heyday of redlining, the areas most frequently discriminated against were black inner city neighborhoods. In Atlanta in the 1980s, for example, research showed that banks would often lend to lower-income whites but not to middle- or upper-income blacks.

Roommate 911

It’s realistically quite hard to live in some cities without a roommate (New York and London for instance). If discrimination is allowed in flatmate choice, then a person being discriminated against is at a serious disadvantage in finding a place to live in a desirable neighborhood. Renting an apartment to only certain races, sexes, or nationalities is discrimination, pure and simple.

Nonetheless, I can imagine some arguing that there are legitimate racial, religious or gender-based reasons for picking a certain flatmate (for instance, you share a bathroom or kitchen with them). Who you bring in to your private space is a very personal decision that the state has no business regulating, some would say. ‘What about safety,’ some would say. ‘I don’t want to live with a psychotic axe-wielding murderer!’

A lot of debate and new research has sprung up around this issue. It is not racist, argues a lot of professional, even self-identified liberals, if people just want to live with their own kind. What’s racist about that, eh? ‘I’m just worried about rapid change. I’m just worried about cultural loss.’ Psssh. While safety is obviously a legitimate flatmate concern, safety is merely a euphemism (a poorly framed one) and has left the invisible aliens with a bad taste in our collective mouths.

It is not racist, argues a lot of professional, even self-identified liberals, if people just want to live with their own kind. What’s racist about that, eh? ‘I’m just worried about rapid change. I’m just worried about cultural loss.’ Psssh.

The underlying biases that drive these motives should not be ignored. What exactly does the word safety imply in this context? Though often left unsaid, it implies to me that generalized racial fears about crime are an allowable justification for a person to publicly conduct a flatmate search explicitly based on race. This is the kind of thing that worries the invisible aliens. It seems to be a defense of racist, xenophobic, intolerant, bigoted thinking. While safety is a good reason to preserve people’s personal choice, that doesn’t make it a legitimate reason to using race as a search criterion before you even meet someone (as most roommate search websites do).

People ought to make an assessment about how safe a flatmate will be by speaking with them, or assessing their individual reputation. Allowing Roommate.com users to hypothetically search only for certain characteristics would go back to my worry about groups being discriminated against and not being able to find an apartment and being kept out of the neighborhood. But you know, pride, prejudice and all that.