Good Business: Milena Bottero, Room for Tea

Social enterprise Room for Tea connects young people undertaking internships and in need of short-term, affordable accommodation with hosts who have a spare room in their homes

The Good Business column catches up with people who are leading social change. It is created in collaboration with Impact Hub Islington, a co-working and business incubation space in London for socially-minded entrepreneurs.

Greta: Milena, tell us about Room for Tea in a nutshell.

Milena: Room for Tea is a home-sharing network that connects interns looking for short-term, affordable housing in London with hosts who have spare rooms in their homes.

We focus on working with young people who are undertaking unpaid or low-paid work experience and need affordable accommodation, and with single parents and older adults who might benefit from renting out their spare rooms.

What motivated you to set it up?

The motivation stemmed from my own experience as an unpaid intern in the third sector after graduating from university. During my internship, I realised it was very difficult to get a paid job at entry level in the third sector and the thought of having to do another unpaid internship seemed ridiculous.

But most importantly, I realised I was not the only one struggling to cover my living costs in London. Most of the people I talked to were sleeping on friends’ couches. There just are not enough affordable and flexible housing options for interns. So I decided to set up Room for Tea to provide young people undertaking internships and low-paid work experience with an alternative.

How is Room for Tea providing an alternative to the housing crisis faced in London?

There are not enough new affordable houses being built to meet the demands of the capital, so the great idea behind Room for Tea is to use a resource that’s already available: empty rooms. A 2010 report by the Intergenerational Foundation has found that there are about 25 million spare rooms available in England. Another 2010 survey by the Department for Communities and Local Government has reported that over 23 percent of all households in London are under-occupied.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced since setting up Room for Tea?

The biggest challenge is finding enough quality rooms as we have a high demand from young people undertaking internships in London. We spend lots of our time and energy meeting new hosts to ensure the rooms comply with our standards and the hosts share our mission and values. It is essential to find the right hosts so we make good use of the guests’ feedback to help us decide which hosts to keep working with.

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The second biggest challenge is meeting the expectations of both hosts and guests. When it comes to living together, there will always be small issues. So again, we value feedback and make sure communication between all parties is clear and straightforward.

What are some of the successes you’ve achieved since founding Room for Tea in 2012?

Any time we make a good match and both host and guest are happy with the relationship, it’s a success. For example, there have been a few instances where the guest has decided to extend their three-month stay up to twelve months because they got along really well with their host. We also love hearing about guests who find paid jobs and are able to move out.

Do you have any plans to expand to other cities in the UK and if so, which cities are on your radar?

We are planning on expanding even though it won’t be right away. Among the cities we are taking into consideration are Manchester, Liverpool and Edinburgh, where there is a great offer of internships, and places like Bath, where rents tend to be unaffordable for young people. Our main focus is of course London, but we have developed a model that could work anywhere.

What piece of advice can you offer to any aspiring young people looking to undertake an internship in London?

To those who are unpaid interns, I recommend checking the HMRC’s website to see whether they are entitled to get paid. The only two sectors that are entitled to offer unpaid internships are the first and third sector.

To all interns in general, they should make sure they get the most out of their internship as they are an incredible resource for the organisation and they deserve to make the most of their experience.