“Creativity thrives when we feel safe”: How is the rental crisis affecting creative practices?

As rental prices go up and up in the UK and beyond, creatives are struggling to secure affordable spaces to live and work. We speak to artists and makers about their experiences – from moving back in with parents to living in grim conditions – and how they’re keeping their creative spark alive.


As the cost of living crisis continues, one of the many challenges to arise is the lack of affordable space. Spikes in rents; dire living situations; ignored SpareRoom messages; landlords selling up or moving back into their rental properties – it feels like everyone is currently looking for somewhere to rent, and many of them aren’t having any luck.

Space is an important part of the creative process. A quiet nook free of distractions can help with focus and concentration, while larger, more communal areas are ideal for those seeking to collaborate or build at scale. Space is vital for fuelling creativity and the ability to produce work you’re passionate about. Without studios – let alone somewhere healthy, warm, and mould and mouse-free to lay your head at night – the creative industry at large will be at breaking point. So, what happens when creatives can’t rent a studio or a place to live? What if they’re having to relocate due to increasing costs? And what about the endless hours spent trawling through housing ads, only to be met with silence? What happens when there’s nowhere to go?

The number of available homes to rent in the UK has fallen by a third over the past 18 months, causing rents to increase by 11 per cent, as stated in a recent report from the BBC. As such, the rental market has drastically depleted and demand for accommodation has increased by 50 per cent. The government has announced a new Renters Reform Bill in an effort to change the laws around rented homes, yet many are calling for further action to crack down on unfair evictions and rent increases.

And this is not just a UK issue. Hong Kong’s soaring prices have meant that those applying for public housing are having to wait for over six years. In Spain, as rightwing parties win more seats in local and regional elections, a new housing law modifying caps in rent increases, abolishing estate-agent fees and changes in squatter evictions is in danger. Australia is also in the middle of its worst-ever housing crisis. The solution to this, according to Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe, is that young people should live with their parents for longer, and rather than live alone, people should continue living in shared housing. Is that really an ambitious vision for the future?


Kohenoor Kamal: Palm (Copyright © Kohenoor Kamal, 2023)

To find out what the situation is like in the UK, we’ve turned to five creatives to hear about their experiences. Of course, there are many in this country whose experiences of the housing and cost-of-living crises are unimaginably awful; this small pool is not intended to be a comprehensive survey. Yet it’s important that we understand the effect that the rental crisis is having particularly on emerging creatives starting to build their careers and their creative practices as well.

Kohenoor Kamal, a Liverpool-based illustrator, feels like she’s had one of the “weirder experiences”, having moved back into her childhood home after her tenancy ended. It all started when the pandemic hit and Kohenoor was in her third year at university in Leeds. Her housemates fled back home due to the impending lockdown restrictions, but she had to stay put. “I had no way of moving back home as no one in my family had a car at the time and I was hours away from home,” she says. “As the months went on, I was struggling for avenues in terms of my finances. My parents were on low incomes and didn’t have the means to support me and it felt like I was in a bit of a limbo.”

After a bout of unsuccessful job applications and applying for Universal Credit, Kohenoor felt “shoe horned” into jobs that weren’t anything to do with her illustrative practice or the degree she’d studied. Then, the tenancy came to an end and she reluctantly relocated back to the North West. “It was already a small space for an entire family,” she says. “I was fortunate that I had my parents to move back to but the looming pressure to find work and the desire to move out of my parents’ was challenging.”

Kohenoor moved out last April, but struggled to find anywhere suitable amongst the mass of SpareRoom messages and roadblocks when it came to renting as a freelancer – rejections from landlords, late payments, missed rent dates and the negative affect on her mental health are just a few examples of the pressures she has experienced. Thankfully, she’s now based in a privately rented space she found through a creative connection (a common occurrence these days), with a landlord who understands the struggles faced by freelancers, such as needing guarantors or being turned away for being on Universal Credit. “This can be very unfair to those who are reliant on that as their income,” Kohenoor says. “It’s definitely a factor which prevented me from finding places in the North West and Yorkshire.”


Kohenoor Kamal: Stories Untold: Illustration from Chapter 4 (Copyright © Kohenoor Kamal, 2023)

boihugo – a queer artist, publisher and tutor who recently moved back to London after living in Shanghai for three years post-university – has also had their fair share of SpareRoom disappointment. Warned by their friends about the increased difficulty of finding somewhere to live in the city, boihugo didn’t take it all too seriously at the time, having been fortunate with house hunting in the past. “Little did I know it was only in the pre-Covid years,” they say. In the first week after their arrival, they sent around 40 messages on Hackney and queer flatshare Facebook groups with a reply rate of 10 per cent – a stark comparison to boihugo’s pre-Covid reply rate of around 70 per cent. As a result, they paid for a SpareRoom membership (around £30) only to be met with more disappointment, especially when it came to the viewings. “It was like a job interview, and maybe my CV was not impressive enough,” they say. “But then a friend told me they’d received 400 messages after posting a listing for two days, and they didn’t even read any of them because they rented it to a friend.”


boihugo: Artwork from their series The Swage (Copyright © boihugo, 2023)

boihugo secured a place to live after posting a flat-hunting ad with an introduction on Instagram, which was picked up by friends of mutual friends. Without the support from those closest to them while searching for somewhere to live, boihugo admits that they would have struggled. “I don’t know how I could have mentally gone through all that by myself,” they say. It also had a large impact on their artistic practice. “Creativity thrives when we feel safe, and the thought of having nowhere to live is detrimental to it.” For comparison, boihugo lived in a nice, affordable flat in Shanghai and didn’t move for three years; they had time to read, imagine and let their mind wander. In London, boihugo’s rental experiences have been void of anything like this. “A precarious living situation and the scary hunting process forced me to be in a constant exhausting loop of looking, being hopeful, being disappointed, looking again and being desperate,” they say.

When times are hard, having a network of people who love and uplift you is important. This is especially true when you live with them and share the same living room as a workspace. Without affordable studio spaces, creatives – like photographer and director Tais Sirote – are having to set up desks at home. Born in Argentina and having grown up in Tenerife, Tais moved into a studio flat in London after finishing her studies in Graphic Design and Illustration. Working now as a freelance photographer, Tais is feeling the effects of the current rental spikes as she searches for a new, larger flat. Tais’ friends in Europe have also expressed similar dismay, with their rent increasing by over €400 from month to month. “We are now seeing how the situation worsens,” says Tais, “as every time we go for a viewing, so many people are bidding to get the flat, increasing the rent over the original price.”

Tais and her partner are making do with their set-up, but it’s taking an enormous toll on her creativity, which often entails airbrushing and other chemical techniques – things that are “too messy” to do at home or in a shared space. “The situation will get to a point where artists must leave the cities as they cannot afford to live there,” she says. “This tendency will result in the impossibility of artists working within a community or being surrounded by other people with similar interests.”


Tais Sirote (Copyright © Tais Sirote, 2023)


Tais Sirote (Copyright © Tais Sirote, 2023)


Tais Sirote (Copyright © Tais Sirote, 2023)


Tais Sirote (Copyright © Tais Sirote, 2023)

For those fortunate to find somewhere to live during the rental crisis, there may be other hurdles lying ahead – hidden secrets that estate agents and landlords will never reveal during house viewings. Mould is now commonplace in many of the UK’s rental buildings, while people are having to live with a rodent or two (or more) – both of which tend to fall low on a landlord’s priority list. Friedrich Mueller knows this all too well. When he moved back to London after an internship in Berlin, he felt “very lucky” to have found somewhere in a matter of days – an “uncomplicated” flatshare found on SpareRoom. But, as he puts it, “that’s not to say it has been all roses.” It was a draining process that involved countless messages, high hopes, crashes of disappointment and long journeys across the city for “pointless” viewings. He also had to deal with mice and fleas “plaguing [his] down time”, meaning he had to jump ship once again. And when he needed fast internet, he resorted to working from cafes.

Having lived in many places – Berlin, Maastricht, New York and now London – Friedrich reveals how the crisis and its impact is mirrored in other cities. In Berlin, for instance, every flat that pops up gets at least 100 applicants and the rent has doubled over the past 10 years. “Your best chance of finding a place to live is through word of mouth,” he says, “which usually means looking out for friends of friends sharing their room ads on social media.”


Friedrich Mueller: Artwork from the series Artefacts of Digital Memory (Copyright © Friedrich Mueller, 2023)

Photographer Tove Barnes has also had some negative experiences. Tove and her boyfriend Olly recently relocated to Wales from Guernsey due to high rental prices. They’re now paying half the price, but with Olly now studying, the pair are still feeling the brunt of it. Not only is their living space small – it’s a studio flat with a mezzanine – but they’ve also struggled to heat up their home during the winter months. “Bills are a shocker so we never have the heating on,” says Tove. Olly works as much as he can alongside his studies to be able to afford the price of utilities, “which is something I was lucky enough to not have to do when I studied,” says Tove. “I honestly don’t know how people are managing it, especially those with a lower income than us. I really hope things get better in the UK. It honestly feels like we’ve reached an all-time low.”

There’s no real sign of the situation getting any better, so how are creatives overcoming the rental crisis and what are they doing to keep their craft alive? Financial security, mental wellbeing and speaking to others both online and off seem to be more valuable than ever. As does avoiding “anxiety-inducing” estate agents and reaching out to landlords directly for a more human experience, according to Friedrich, who says that this is the best way to get considered and find deals where bills are included. boihugo, on the other hand, has found Instagram to be the best tool for finding suitable housing, as “people tend to trust a friend of a friend to be a better flatmate,” they say. Meanwhile, Kohenoor has found that being part of online communities like Fuse Manchester and Fuse Leeds has been helpful throughout the past few years for networking and seeking support. And when it comes to her creative practice, the best piece of advice she can pass on is the need to prioritise self-care, to take a step back from your work when necessary and do things that you enjoy in your downtime – like cooking a tasty dish. “This is usually the one that sets me right,” she says.


Tove Barnes (Copyright © Tove Barnes, 2023)


Tove Barnes (Copyright © Tove Barnes, 2023)

To help with the increasing costs, Tove has taken on a job in an IT firm – but it’s two sides of the same coin. “I’m left feeling drained at the end of the day and it doesn’t really fulfil me creatively,” she says, “although I do think there can be a benefit to keeping your art and your work separate.” Tais, on the other hand, has considered moving from London to somewhere more affordable, but the risks are too high in terms of travel expenses and accommodation – “I have seen cases of friends who have moved to another country or further away and haven’t been able to continue their practice the same way as before,” she says. For now, finding like-minded people to share a studio with will be a more suitable alternative and a means of keeping that creative spark lit. “I find my practice doesn’t come naturally to me anymore, but I’m determined to keep going with it however I can.”

If there’s one thing to take away from this article, it’s knowing that you’re not alone. “We are all in this together,” says boihugo. “You are good enough and deserve somewhere nice to live. It is not our fault and the problem really is structural.” Fortunately, our interviewees currently have somewhere safe to stay, yet a large portion of the UK are living in homes that are simply not fit for purpose. It’s within our basic rights to be granted heated and healthy accommodation, but the supply of rental properties is dwindling, the cost of living is rising and many tenants are living in fear of eviction. The rental market is broken. We need rent caps, a modern tenancy system that’s fair and just, and reforms that will support and protect tenants. Without urgent action, artists will soon be pushed out of the UK’s cities and towns in an exodus of unaffordability. We all want to live somewhere that’s culturally rich and diverse, brimming with ideas and creative people – however, the way things are going, we could be losing all of that.

For those experiencing similar issues to the creatives featured here, there are a handful of tenants unions, which offer advice and help renters deal with problems related to bad landlords, repairs and more – like London Renters Union, Greater Manchester Tenants Union and Tenants Union UK. For those living in England, Shelter also provides housing advice and support with evictions and private renting.

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is currently covering Jenny as It’s Nice That’s online editor. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.


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