When Sydney resident Evelyn Bratchford’s housemate tested positive for Covid this week, she was away at her boyfriend’s house.
Unwilling to return home and risk being exposed, she says: “Now I feel like a little lost egg.
“I turned up at my friend’s house last night with a small bag of things from the suitcase in the back of my car and my pillow.”
Screening potential flatmates is always a risky business, even without the added pressure of a pandemic. Since restrictions eased in Sydney late last year, Bratchford has had to hunt for both a new house and a new flatmate, making her well-accustomed to the challenges.
Bratchford lives with two other people, and in the last few months has felt quite relaxed about her home’s Covid protocols. But in the lead-up to Christmas, the whole household resolved to shield together.
“I wanted to be able to go away, and I was really conscious of what I was doing, as were my housemates,” she says. “We were all really aware that in the weeks before Christmas, we just wanted to settle down, because cases were going off the rails.”
While Bratchford is lucky to have like-minded housemates, Jemima Mowbray, policy and advocacy manager at the Tenants’ Union of New South Wales, says questions about what kinds of risk people are comfortable with have become essential in recent months.
“In lockdown, there were clear restrictions in place. But now you have to make your own decisions and there is a whole lot more to negotiate,” says Mowbray. “People want to have a friendly conversation, and it might be easy to get along with someone, but you need to establish the ground rules, how you live and what you are comfortable with … Covid makes that really clear.”
Navigating these conversations can be uncomfortable, and asymmetrical attitudes about what safe socialising looks like can easily fuel household tensions. Bratchford acknowledges it can be hard to tell where new flatmates stand, especially when you don’t know them that well.
When looking for a new housemate, Bratchford’s household advertised themselves as fully vaccinated after noticing a lot of sharehouse ads included this information.
Claudia Conley, community manager at Flatmates.com.au, says: “We have seen a lot of members actively offering their vaccination status on a listing. A large number of property listings are advertising that they want a fully vaccinated and Covid-safe home.”
Conley also says the website’s support services have seen an uptick in members asking if they can screen potential candidates based on vaccination status.
But with rent due and bills to pay, the pressure to fill a room can lessen the importance of Covid safety. That is the case for Brisbane-based university student Hugo, who is currently looking for a housemate. He reflects that he probably should be asking potential flatmates about their attitudes to Covid-19, but says: “I don’t want to put people off.
“At the end of the day, we need someone to take the room, and if they’re a nice person, that’s good enough for us.”
Sydney-based student Emilia Roux is in a similar situation as she seeks to move out of home for the first time. “Having someone on the same page as you about Covid is a good thing, but it’s not a dealbreaker,” she says.
“It is hard to be picky at the moment given there are less international students and people moving out of home, so it is already difficult to find people without the added pressure of Covid precautions.”
She’s taken a subtle approach. “Mostly I think it is about observing someone and picking up on their cues to see if they’re on the same wavelength. For example, do they wear a mask?”
Mowbray thinks broader housing pressures have resulted in sacrifices being made. “I suspect there have been big clashes, where people have moved out and found different accommodation,” she says. “But on the other hand, you can find yourself in a situation where you need housing and staying put is the only option for you.”
Bratchford and her household did have conversations about how to manage Covid should they need to isolate from each other within their home. “We talked about it a lot and we were never able to decide what we would do in that situation.
“We would joke about getting that dreaded video call from somebody’s room after they did a test and got the result, and we didn’t have a plan.”
The dreaded call came, and Bratchford resolved to stay at a friend’s place while her flatmate recuperates. Their other flatmate, who has both had Covid and isolated as a household contact previously, also chose to leave.
But the question still remains, Bratchford says: “What are we going to do if next month I get Covid?”