I am a renter

I am a renter. I have been a renter for all of my adult life, since I first moved out of home at 18. For the most part, this has suited me fine. I’m not in love with the idea of having such a huge amount of debt that it takes me thirty years to pay it off, nor am I in love with the idea of paying back over $890,000 for a loan of just $380,000. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter what my preference would be, because my husband and I simply cannot afford to pay a mortgage on a house. Even if we bought the cheapest house currently available in our suburb, we literally could not afford the $2,400 in repayments each month – at least, not if we still wanted to eat. We also don’t have $40,000 in the bank for a deposit, another $15,000 for stamp duty, and another couple of thousand for bank and legal fees. In fact, most banks won’t even give us a home loan, because one of us stays at home to look after our two young children, and therefore we are a one income family. So, buying is out of the question, and that means that we may well be facing a lifetime of renting. Of itself that isn’t a huge problem, but it certainly does cause a few problems.

Several weeks ago, while I was accompanying my oldest daughter’s preschool class on an excursion, I received a phone call from the property manager of the house we currently rent. The owner of the house is moving back to Canberra, and in to this house, so we have eight weeks to move out. This is the third time in four years that we’ve had to move simply because the owner’s plans have changed. I don’t blame the owner – even the best plans and the best intentions change over time, I get that – but it doesn’t make it any easier for us to deal with. It’s disruptive, and it’s time consuming, and it’s costly. Our last three moves have all come just as we were finally starting to save some money, but the cost of hiring a truck, paying disconnection and reconnection fees, paying to have the carpets cleaned, and all those other little things, adds up. With every move we have chipped away at our savings until there is nothing left, and we’ve had to start over. Just when we’re finally getting back on our feet, we get that phone call and it begins again.

Fortunately, we have found somewhere else to live. It doesn’t look too impressive when compared to our current house. It’s smaller, it’s 50km away from the city we love, and it costs $20 a week more. It’s also across a state border, so we have the added expenses of re-registering our car, of connecting our utilities with different suppliers, and so on. But it’s a great house on its own merits and, regardless of how much we do or don’t like it, it’s a roof over our heads.

We did look for a house in the same area, but we discovered that in the two years since we moved in to our current house, rent had gone up so much that we would struggle to afford to rent even the cheapest houses there. This was an added level of stress about our finances, of course, but also about our social life. Our oldest daughter will be starting primary school next year, and not being able to afford to stay in the same suburb means that we can’t send her to the school we had decided on. (I consider this quite lucky – had the owner wanted to move in six months from now, she would already have started kindergarten and we would have had to pull her out of her first school after just a few weeks.) She is devastated to move away from the little girl who lives next door, too, and from the park at the end of our street where she collects acorns with her Dad. My husband and I are moving away from our jobs and our friends, too, and although we can understand it better than a four year old, it’s still not easy.

When you’re renting, this cloud of uncertainty hangs over you all the time. That feeling that you are always on the edge, waiting for someone to come along and tip you over so you can start to struggle all the way up again.

Should I bother unpacking that box, if in six months time I have to repack it? Should I enroll my daughter at that school, if in six months time I have to pull her out and send her somewhere else? Should I join that mothers group, if in six months time it’s going to be a one hour drive to get to the meetups? Should I buy my kids that trampoline for Christmas, because it’s going to be a real pain to fit in a truck next time we move and hey, we might not even have a yard to put it in? Should we go on that holiday, if in six months time we need that money to move house again?

We’re actually quite lucky. With vacancy rates in most capital cities at around 1%, there is plenty of competition for comparatively few properties. At the inspections I have been to, there are anywhere from 5 to 30 other interested people, and there is often more than one inspection held. The property manager hands you an application form, barely glancing in your direction. You take it home, and fill in every possible detail about your life, and attach every possible document you can. The last application my husband and I submitted was thirty two pages long. We have been required to attach copies of our drivers licences, passports, birth certificates, bank statements, paid utility bills, rent receipts, pay slips and give out details of our last two addresses, our employers, and personal details of friends who will vouch for us. I’m waiting for the day when that list includes a DNA sample or my first born child. Property managers sometimes process applications in the order they are received and offer the property to the first suitable candidate, so there is a race to get yours in first, to make sure that someone with a higher bank balance or references who are more articulate doesn’t beat you to it. Some people – including me – now turn up to inspections with their application already put together and hand them to the agent on the spot.

Then, you wait. If you’re lucky, you’re offered a property. If not, you start again.

We’re good tenants and we now have a long rental history with past property managers to back us up. We’re usually offered one of the first three or four houses we apply for. But that’s not really due to any particular efforts on our part – our situation is just the luck of the draw. I can only imagine how much harder it would be if you didn’t have that behind you. How about a person in the middle of a divorce, who has no rental history because she and her ex-husband had owned the same house for twenty years. How would that factor in? What about someone who has a disability that restricts the types of property or the areas they can live in? What about someone who has spent a lot of time out of the workforce while caring for her children or parents, and so doesn’t have the income to compete against men of the same age? Or what about someone who happened to come up against a property manager who simply doesn’t like foreign-sounding names or young single mums? They’re certainly out there. I’ve called about houses before – four bedroom, two living area houses on large blocks – and been told outright that they don’t accept children. “Well,” she said, “I suppose you could come and see it, but… you know…”

Yes, I do know.

At least they were upfront with me, rather than letting me waste my time applying only to be immediately rejected. Property managers will not give you a reason for turning down your application (most claim a legal right to do this, although I’ve never been sure that’s true) so if they think you are too foreign or too fat or too single or too smelly or have too many kids or that they’ll be forced to modify their house to accommodate your wheelchair, then you just have to wear it. You grit your teeth and act like they’ve done you a favour just by talking to you – you need that agency on side in case you have to deal with them again in future, of course.

A friend of a friend once remarked to me that government regulations and rights of tenants made it too hard for Everyday Australians (whoever they are) who are buying houses as an investment. Apparently, it’s too complicated and too expensive and most tenants are too risky. My response was simple. If an investment property is too much hassle, then don’t buy one. That’s the choice a person has when they decide if and how to invest their money. Tenants, on the other hand, don’t have a choice. Housing is one of the most fundamental human rights, and it is the foundation for building the rest of a person’s life. Missing out on that can affect everything else, from health to education to safety to privacy and even just plain old human dignity. These things are not optional, the way that “Should I buy shares, or should I buy an apartment off-the-plan?” is optional. I’m not saying that people who own investment properties are bad people, but I am saying that the system we have disadvantages tenants from the very start, by making them entirely reliant on another person’s optional lifestyle decisions. It creates two separate classes of people, starting with one class of people who have to beg and clamor amongst themselves, hoping for acceptance from someone in the other class. It gives one class security, stability, and autonomy, and leaves the other in a state of permanent temporariness while waiting for the next move, constantly having someone watch over your shoulder to make sure you know how to pay your bills and clean your bathroom and – tsk, tsk – haven’t put up any posters on the walls.

Yes, I know it could be worse. I’m grateful that I wasn’t born into a Brazilian favela or rural Bangladesh – or even a remote Indigenous community here in Australia. Having running water and reliable electricity and a roof that actually keeps out the rain are very underrated, I assure you. There are people all around the world who wish their problems were limited to “Will that truck fit all my kids’ toys in it?”. But it’s not good enough to say that we shouldn’t complain because someone else is worse off than us. “Has running water” should not be a selling point in Australia in 2012. It’s a distraction and it ignores the very real fact that plenty of people in Australian live in substandard accommodation, or even none at all. We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Australia is one of the most well-off countries in the world, economically and socially. We need to start sharing the benefits of that rather than letting some people fall by the wayside and then acting like it’s not our problem.

I don’t know what the answers are. I don’t pretend that if we all just wish really hard somehow all these problems will be solved instantly and by magic – “I believe in safe, secure, affordable, appropriate housing for everybody!” probably isn’t as catchy as “I believe in fairies!” anyway. But we do need to start looking at this as a serious issue, and realising that endlessly rising house prices and a range of tax concessions for investors are not sustainable or desirable goals. In the meantime, I’ll unpack those boxes and enrol my daughters in that school, and hope like hell that it’s longer than six months before I have to do it again.

One thought on “I am a renter

  1. Janet Birmingham describes so well the experience of many tenants. These issues, particularly the ease with which tenants can be evicted for no fault of their own, are issues constantly raised by tenant advocates with law makers in an attempt to gain better security of tenure. The call has fallen on deaf ears to date. And now in Queensland, even though tenancy laws are in review, there is no longer any funded specialist tenant advocate at the review table. This situation must be rectified. A tenancy law review with the real estate and property owners’ industries involved but no funded specialist tenant advocate is highly unlikely to make fair and reasonable recommendations. And even more unlikely to gain any ground for tenants’ rights.