Housing

Housing crisis: I lived in a hostel for 15 months because of London's extortionate rents

The stress of trying to find a place of her own caused costume designer Sara Mackenzie to lose some of her hair

Sara's room at the Religious of Mary Immaculate Hostel in Kensington, west London. Image: Sara Mackenzie

When I first moved into London’s Religious of Mary Immaculate Hostel in October 2021, it seemed like I’d found something that ticked all my boxes. It was only meant to be short-term but London’s rental market had other ideas.

I had lived in London for seven years before moving back in with my family during the pandemic, so I was no stranger to the city. My goal is to be a costume designer, a career that could take me all over the world, so I didn’t want to commit to a one-year lease in case I landed a good job abroad.

I was 23, I’d recently graduated and didn’t have a job, but I knew that moving back to London was the place to start. Some 15 months later I started worrying, thinking: “I’m going to have to live in this nunnery for the rest of my life!”

The RMI hostel is in one of the most upscale and historic parts of London: Kensington. It’s just a couple of roads over from the Natural History and Victoria & Albert museums, full of tree-lined streets and four-storey townhouses.

The hostel is for young women between the ages of 18 and 27, and the minimum stay is four weeks. You don’t have to be religious to stay there, and you can stay for any reason, whether you’re a student, on holiday, or working. 

When I first moved in I was working as a waitress part-time while doing an unpaid internship with a designer. The price was £500-£600 a month and my parents paid it. I count myself lucky. How many people get to live in one of the most beautiful parts of central London for that price? 

At first I moved into a three-bed room, sharing with one other girl, then moved up the waiting list to bag a private room. On each floor there were a couple of showers and bathrooms shared by everyone.

Cooking dinner was the most difficult thing to navigate. Across the two kitchens, there were three sinks, two toasters, a single oven and another smaller electric oven that wouldn’t work, and that was for 70 girls and women to feed themselves. So there was a lot of queuing, a lot of waiting, and a lot of small talk. Sometimes it was exhausting having to talk to someone about their trip on the London Eye when I just wanted a cup of tea after a difficult day at work. 



The hostel was great for me when I was just starting my career in London. I enjoyed my time there meeting friendly women around my age, and I’m grateful to the nuns who were so welcoming. They would even organise parties for us – watching all the nuns singing karaoke and joining in with musical chairs was the funniest thing! 

But after around a year, I just couldn’t take it anymore. The curfew meant I had to be back before 11pm, which was incompatible with working in theatres that often require late nights. We weren’t allowed male guests either!  

I started looking for somewhere new in September 2022, but it took months to find anywhere suitable. The lettings agents were showing me rooms in flats for £800 a month, with bills on top, and there wasn’t even a living room.  

Some of these places were truly horrendous. I went to view rooms that smelled like weed, smelled like piss, seeing what was available for the budget I had was so depressing. I even lost hair in the process, it was so stressful. 

By then I was 24, and I just wanted to be free to do whatever I wanted to do: to invite people round, to cook for them, to have the space to think, to keep my food in a fridge in the kitchen rather than in my bedroom.

After four months of searching, I eventually found somewhere I could afford and liked in January 2023. I had very nearly given up and had resigned myself to a few more months in the hostel at least, thinking I’d restart my search in April. Luckily, I met someone through work who’s aunt had a spare room I could rent for a reasonable price.

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For young people working in the creative industries like myself, we need to be able to live not too far away from the theatres and art studios. But this is becoming impossible. The cost of housing is forcing talented young creatives to work multiple side hustles to pay extortionate rents, instead of focussing on their actual career. What would London be without its actors, artists, directors and costume designers?

I consider myself lucky that the nuns at the RMI gave me somewhere to stay that was affordable, so that I could pursue my dream career. But sharing two toasters with 70 other women shouldn’t be a permanent way of living. 

As told to Evie Breese. 

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