This post discusses the importance of a house being a home, even if you don’t owe it, and why Australian tenants should have more rights.
I awoke at 5 am to the sound of the side gate clattering. I was tired and cold, so I turned over the options in my mind. Did I want to go and check? In honesty, it wasn’t just tired and cold; the clattering was the gate next door, and the house next door was vacant. The house was vacant because our lovely neighbours had moved out a few weeks before when their landlord told them she needed it for her cousin. It turns out she wasn’t telling the whole truth about the cousin. Instead, we saw the house advertised last week for $175 more than our lovely neighbours had paid. This house was only one of three houses the landlord owned on our street. I rolled over and thought, “fuck it”. Then the other neighbour’s dog started, so I got up.
I can’t stand that housing is a commodity in our country. In Australia, it’s common to be standing around a BBQ in the suburbs, hearing people talk about their investment properties. This culture of housing as an investment rather than home meant my lovely neighbours had to uproot their lives because of $175 extra a week.
We got to know our neighbours during the pandemic when my early impressions, upon seeing their toilet roll filled boot when I was out walking with my newborn baby, turned out to be wrong. The toilet rolls were for old ladies from their old neighbourhood, from the other house they had to vacate. The lovely neighbours were friendly and courteous and helped us pick up furniture from Marketplace with their trailer. Their son mowed our lawn. They invited my sons over to test it out when they had a bouncy castle in their yard for a birthday party.
When my parents bought their house during the 80s, the street was occupied by older people who peered out of their curtains to see who these young newcomers were. When my dad moved out, and my mum found a way to stay, our family joined the long-term occupants of our street. Our family house has been an anchor for us. My mum had moved regularly and had little agency about her living arrangements for much of her life, making this home base significant. For me and my siblings, the ups and downs of my parent’s separation were cushioned by the stability our house provided. We’ve since all moved out, then moved back in, then moved out again, sometimes many times over.
When my mum began considering her retirement and the meagre superannuation in her account, she looked out the backdoor and couldn’t deny the potential anymore. Mum became a property developer and investor when the bulldozer came to clear my childhood backyard to make space for the house I now pay the bank for. When I gave birth to my son in our dining room, it was on the spot where our almond tree used to stand. The tree had long stopped producing before it made way for our house, a hit of lighting and termite infestation meant its best days were behind it, but I still miss it.
The house next door has been a thorn in our side for the 40 years my family has called this place home. The lovely neighbours provided us respite from my least favourite thing about our house, the uncertainty about the tenancy of our neighbours. The house next door was owned by ‘Neddy’, that was not his name but he was a bother, so in the early days, my parents started referring to him as Neddy the neighbour, and it stuck. Neddy ran an off-the-books car detailing business from his garage. The industrial vacuum loudly droned every day, including when my mum was trying to get one or all three of her children to sleep. Neddy disposed of the rubbish from the cars by burning it in a drum in the backyard, and the smoke would billow over our baby clothes drying on the line. Neddy retired, and things quietened down next door until he died, and his son kept the house as an investment.
Neddy’s son chose some characters while he was the landlord. In most recent memory, a young person from regional South Australia got kicked out after she sublet rooms and the backyard. There has also been the family whose pre-schooler’s silence will forever be etched in my mind, as I never heard her cry even when her mum was screaming at the hands of her dad. During that time, not even their dog was safe. One Saturday, when I was having a sleep-in, I looked out the front window to see the dog had dug an escape root under the fence. I didn’t try to stop her as she ran. After he was jailed, the family left, and Neddy’s son sold the house. He’d had enough of being a landlord by that point.
A young couple bought the house, and we thought we were set. As they poured money into fixing the roof and unknowingly stripped the walls of recent memories, we relaxed and invested in the ease of having ‘good neighbours’. But it wasn’t to last; we took their relationship breakdown very personally. Then the latest landlord stepped in, paying cash for the house next door. My mum told me I should be grateful it wasn’t developed into four, as happens with most properties in our area.
Australia is increasingly a land of landlords, but we still treat renting as a stopgap to home ownership. Many Australians will never own a house, just as many Europeans won’t, but tenants’ rights are strong in those countries.
The stability of my family home is only something I truly appreciate as an adult. As a kid, I painted my room bright yellow and blu-tacked Scott Wolf posters to my walls with abandon. My brother set his carpet on fire and etched ‘I hat Sarah’ (sic) into the paintwork. My sister chose the most awful floral wallpaper when she finally got her own room. My mum indulged these fancies because she never got them and because it was her house to love and destroy. If we had been renting, Mum’s attitude would have had to be different.
I hear horror stories about landlords and reports of their bad and illegal behaviour by tenant advocates. Recently a friend told me about her landlord, who hasn’t fixed the broken window in her son’s bedroom despite multiple requests. It’s been a winter of cold draughts and high electricity bills trying to keep her son warm in his bed. I’ve heard about 12 weekly inspections that roll around at the worst possible time, when a family is amid a gastro episode and doesn’t have the energy to clean the dust from the extraction fan. Their inspection report specifically calls out the dusty fan, and the tenants want to throw the report in the face of the shiny agent who hands it over.
Political parties had tentatively tried to address the culture of investment properties to address housing affordability. Boomers responded by voting for ScoMo instead. It seems the more palatable option could be strengthening rental rights. Rights like long-term tenancies enable people to put down roots and paint the walls, and rent controls stop landlords from raising the rent unreasonably as property values increase. There needs to be more housing supply and opportunities for rent-to-buy schemes. To achieve increased supply, urban infill must happen, and although I’m not keen on what that looks like in my suburb, my concern is less about the quantity and more about the quality of what is being built. I’m unconvinced these products (as developers call them) are sustainable, and I know they aren’t affordable to buy or rent.
A Senate inquiry into the rental crisis in Australia is underway. Submissions are due by 1 September 2023. The inquiry is an opportunity to share your story.
If you want to add your testimony below, I will collate a submission from Middle Ground Motherhood. Please add your comment below by 18 August 2023 so I have time to complete the submission.