Sunday, March 16, 2014

Stress City: A Melbourne Tenant Moves On

The unforeseeable, the impossible has happened. After almost ten years I am to be moved out of my unhappy little nest and forced to search for another.

The owner is selling – or at least her kids are. They are not turfing me out exactly but they may as well be. The new owners could be either home buyers or investors – if they’re the latter, they will probably turf me out anyway because the place is in dire need of much more than a spit and a polish to make it look decent, and they’ll get much more rent that way.

I have no idea how this is all going to work out. They want to sell in early May and I will be looking for somewhere to live and presumably packing while the sales manager holds open for inspections (or ‘opens’ as the lingo is). Life is about to become very interesting. Where will I hide the boxes and the washing when potential owners traipse through the house?

I got the phone call on Friday afternoon when I was looking at DVDs in an op shop. The only thing I felt for the rest of the day was numb disorientation. I wasn’t very well organised so only had time to look at two properties on the Saturday. It was a shock to discover that, if I want a two-bedder, there’s no way I’m going to be able to afford to settle on this side of town.

Private rental in Australia is almost uniquely unregulated. There are few restrictions on when you can turf tenants out (unless they’ve signed a lease, which is usually a maximum of 12 months) and you can put the rent up every 6 months, to whatever the market rate is. Tax breaks for investors encourage the cashed-up to buy properties for investment purposes. In a tight market due to high rates of immigration (a business lobby policy, nothing to do with asylum seekers) the cost of housing to buy and rent far outstrips inflation and wage rises.

Virtually all landlords these days are basically profiteers (except my father, who still charges a mere $140 a week for his tiny one-bedroom investment property, in effect subsidising someone he doesn’t know from Adam, whose rent comes out of a trust fund (!), to the tune of about $100 a week. It is confusing having a father who will drop everything to help you and who says things like ‘you can come and stay with us if you need to’ but who has absolutely no sense of putting family first when it comes to charity (especially when the family member has a psyche disability!).

It means that the question of responsibility – of how much power I have over my own situation, and the extent to which my difficulties stem from the immaturity that is an offshoot of my illness rather than the illness itself – constantly exercises me. But in a way my father’s own immaturity – he acts with similar blindness towards my mum – frees me. It doesn’t really matter whether the neoliberal state and my father have both let me down. The fact is I must bear the responsibility, like it or not, and make the best of things. This is actually freeing for me. It’s taken me far too long to realise that not only can I not rely on my family, but that they are also difficult people to actually help. Better late than never to understand the truth.

 Allied with this knowledge is another strange irony. I’d convinced myself that I was stuck on this side of the Yarra, dutifully close to my ageing parents. On this side there’s East Malvern, where I currently live and which is very white bread, and a range of suburbs that are increasingly less boring, culminating in St Kilda and East St Kilda which in the seventies and eighties were hubs of Eastern European Jewish people combined with penniless artists and musicians. It was a magic combination and one you couldn’t find in any other part of Melbourne. Its particular feel was completely different from the much more studious, serious dissent of the inner north, which basically houses those of my generation who went to Melbourne Uni – they couldn’t afford to buy houses in inner city Carlton or Fitzroy so they just kept going further north, and now the likes of Reservoir have inner-city style contingents.

But yesterday was a reality check so profound it has put me off this side for life. The maximum rent I can afford is pretty low for a two-bedroom and the place I saw in Elsternwick, next door to East St Kilda, depressed me so badly that I broke down in tears on the standard investment-flat carpet that you find in these places. But it wasn’t just the cost – I realised, traipsing to and from the real estate agent’s office to pick up and drop back the keys, that I don’t like Carlisle Street any more. There are few rebels left in St Kilda, they’re mostly young male backpackers here for a good time and a root. All the interesting shops are gone, and it’s mostly cafes, bars and two dollar shops. In fact, there’s nothing of street life that interests me on this side of town any more.

And this means that, after resigning myself to staying on this side, it may just be marginally more affordable to go back to my beloved inner city, the place I feel I truly belong. Moving all that way seemed too hard and self-indulgent until I realised it would be slightly cheaper to live in West Brunswick than in Elsternwick or even the slightly daggier Caulfield.

As I walked towards my car after seeing the Elsternwick flat, remembering that I’d put on mascara that morning, I thought ‘You’d better check your face’. At the same time another thought occurred, not so well articulated – that I might very well forget to check my face. I knew that there would be something deliberate about that. I felt extremely sorry for myself, and at times like this – the sense of crisis of having nowhere to place your head – part of me reverts back to the needy child who expects the entire world to look after her.
And guess what? Overwhelmed as I was, I did forget to check my face in the car mirror. It was only as I jostled my way along Carlisle street back to Wilsons that I remembered. I hoped it would be okay.

When I handed the key over, and told the receptionist the property wasn’t quite what I was after, she said ‘All the best for your search.’ Oh dear. I rushed back to the car and things were even worse than I’d imagined. I didn’t have just black under my eyes, but a grey mascara 'tear' down the lower part of my left cheek. Oh yes, the world was going to be made aware of Catherine’s dilemma, like it or not!

I despise this narcissistic part of my personality, but I also understand it. It has taken me so long to grow up, but the trouble with life in Melbourne these days (and I suspect most Western cities) is that simply being realistic and aware of how to get by isn’t enough anymore. The rental situation really is very challenging, however much I adjust myself to its realities. What makes me sad and angry and one of the reasons that I will try to fiercely guard that childish part (rather than parading her) is that if I had not been so immature I could have done okay. In the seventies and early eighties, if you were white and lower (or upper) middle class, it was very hard to stuff up getting on in life in Melbourne, but I managed. I am still suffering for silly decisions that I made decades ago, when I really didn’t know any better. Now that I do know better, and the inner odds aren’t stacked against me to the same degree, the outer odds are more stacked against me than ever.

Still, I know I’ll be okay. As my father assures me, I can always stay with my parents for a small interim period although I would rather die than do this. I have Grow meetings in which to air my problems. I have my intuition, which I have honed to a fine art in the last ten years and which I can use to help me sort out which flats to bother seeing, and to help me make my ultimate choice. I have a very open mind. I will continually test out ‘the universe’ – the energies, if you like – by trying things out and looking, and will keep adjusting to whatever realities I find. I truly believe and hope that life in the inner north will be better than here – not perfect of course, but better.


  1. Hi Catherine,

    I just wrote a long and considered response to your post. Alas - it was lost somehow.

    The essence of it was that I don't like to give advice. But, my suggestion is to focus on your own needs. Please, try to minimise your worries about your boxes etc interfering with open house. That's just stuff and nonsense.

    I feel for you!


  2. Hi Kate,

    Thank you! That's what everybody has been telling me. It looks as if the owners aren't going to spend a cent on doing up the place before they sell, so there's no need for me to bend over backwards.

    But it's so much easier to clean a window than contemplate the actual process of packing and moving ... good thing is, I haven't actually been kicked out as such, so I have at the very least over three months to find somewhere.

    Now that the initial shock has worn off I'm starting to get excited about moving back to the inner city - trouble is everybody else wants to live there too :)