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Single mum's housing hell


For Lease signShe is a beautiful, understated woman. She lives in a rented house where, four years ago, she nursed her husband while he died. Since then, she has been raising three children there by herself.

One day, the owner turned up at the door and told her he was selling the house. Later the same day a real estate agent arrived and asked to come in so he could value the house. Her two daughters came to the door and the agent asked them how they felt about being evicted. The girls had no idea at that stage that the house was even on the market.

The next day, while my friend was out, photographers entered the house. They moved family photos, books and ornaments off kitchen benches, coffee table and other surfaces, in order to take uncluttered pictures. They left all these items in piles on the floor. Someone rang later to tell my friend the photos they had taken were fabulous and she should be very pleased with them.

My friend was told the house was to be auctioned forthwith. The auction date was set for three weeks hence. She made inquiries about her rights as a tenant. She discovered she could, in certain circumstances, be required to vacate the premises with as little as 14 days' notice.

She was to have strangers trooping through the house, staring. She will probably have no choice but to find another house and move. No-one will help with the expense, or the work involved.

This is the state of affairs for all Australians who rent. No matter who they are, how much they pay, how well they treat the houses they live in, how long their leases are, they are second-class citizens.

My friend lives in a house that is owned by someone as an investment property. She does not know why he is selling it, nor does she need to. What would be good to know, however, is why we have allowed the business of housing ourselves to become such a lottery — such a lopsided mess.

It seems less the result of careful social policy and more the fallout zone between scrambling into the mortgage market and throwing ourselves on the mercy of others who are buying up houses as investment vehicles. Such houses are often not homes, but the psychological equivalent of share portfolios or gold bullion.

This is an uncomfortable story to tell. I wonder whether it would be as difficult to discuss in other countries as it is in Australia. I've tried a few times, during various coffees or dinners, to bring it up. What happens is an awkward silence, or the opposite, a barricade of stories about tenants from hell. Or, sometimes, the posing of what is obviously a rhetorical question: 'Well how else could we do it?'

I meet my friend for lunch. She who has faced death with courage and nurturing has lost her centre of gravity. For the first time in the years I've known her she looks tired. She keeps losing the thread of our conversation. Everything unravels to expose what lies beneath:

Her head is full of houses. She has been looking at other rental properties. They have not been inviting or homey. One of them had been renovated to within an inch of its life, but obviously for the rental market — it had no heating. Real estate agents had been patronising or downright unhelpful. Some made it clear that if she couldn't make it to a ten-minute Open for Inspection, that was her lookout, not theirs. They didn't have the time to be running around making appointments.

'That would be all very well,' she says, 'but when I was considering buying a house last year, they would spend half the day driving me around, showing me properties. And they called me repeatedly to see if they could 'help'.'

She fiddles with her soup spoon. She's not eating much. 'Never mind,' she says. She smiles, in a way that makes me think of cloudy sunrises. 'I'm sure I'll get through it. It's not the end of the world.'

I know this tone — it is the polyfiller she uses to plaster over any cracks that might threaten to appear in her children's lives.

I ask whether she wants another coffee, but she doesn't hear me. She's gazing out of the café window at the rooftops over the road. I can see she is occupied by the bricks and mortar that everyone else in her large circle of friends and acquaintances has been advising her to buy.

I join her in a silent contemplation of this imperative. 

Debi HamiltonDebi Hamilton is a Geelong psychologist, poet and writer. 

Topic tags: Debi Hamilton, housing market, rental market



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Existing comments

Unfortunately, this is a common story. Debi's friend will find that the rent for most houses she looks is now quite high - certainly too high for anyone on a pension, especially the measly Newstart. A friend of ours in a similar position was contemplating living in her (very old) car, until she found something affordable miles away from where she had been living.
This business of investing in rental properties gained momentum when people began to be unsure about shares during the GFC. And it all stems back to the government policy that requires every worker to have a superannuation package. We were better off in the days when most retirees lived on the old age pension, many in public housing.

Janet | 28 September 2011  

It is totally unethical that a society allows the wealthy to gamble with people's lives in this way. Housing is a right and I have never been able to understand why negative gearing was introduced and kept by successive governments.

Marg | 28 September 2011  

It is totally unethical that a society allows the wealthy to gamble with people's lives in this way. Housing is a right and I have never been able to understand why negative gearing was introduced and kept by successive governments.

Marg | 28 September 2011  

Even though democracy is over one hundred years old in this country we are still to remove privileges given to the propertied class. It remains to be seen whether comfortable Australia is up to a real reform of taxation. Affordable housing should be a priority but giving tax breaks to the wealthy whether it is negative gearing, money to supply housing on the cheap etc will not work. History of cililization and economics shows that a tax shift onto land will reduce the price of land. It cannot be passed on to the tenant We need to understand the tax system a little more so that we can be real advocates for the disadvantaged.

It makes me really angry when the situations that Debi has brought our attention to is dismissed by people talking about "tenants from hell" The situation is worthy of more reflection.

Anne Schmid | 28 September 2011  

Debi, I share your concern. A year ago, I had a unit which I was willing to let a needy family use without rent for three weeks. Neither the Salvos nor Centrecare was willing to put a family in because there was no way of ensuring that it they would move out after the three months. So it was vacant for that time. How I wish your friend could have used it! How laws mitigate against the dispossessed!

anonymous | 28 September 2011  

This is a disgrace for a country like Australia. Because so much Government Assistance is given to house owners, home grants lack of taxes etc . And investors' negative gearing (this one unique to Australia)tax deductions etc etc.it has been estimated that the cost to governments runs into many billions of dollars. Thereby reducing the ability of Governments to provide decent public housing for women like this.

Ron | 28 September 2011  

I rent in a country town, and have done since living at home at age 17 became an impossibility due to a very messed up family.

The house I live in is also on the market - the owner was retrenched - and the first we knew of it was the for sale sign.
I would love for agents and landlords to realise we renters are the customers, not the owners. We are the ones who pay the money. We are the ones who maintain the property. We are the ones who keep it clean for potential buyers.

A knee jerk reaction in tenancy law after some bad tenants has created this problem, and it's tarred all of us with the same brush.

Tanya | 28 September 2011  

Debi is a legend for telling this story. It is well written, and highlights a fundamental flaw in the way our society is constructed. Very impressive work!

Loraine | 28 September 2011  

This is the general situation in Australia where private renting seems to be regarded as a temporary arrangement for people who don't matter. In other countries, for example some European countries, where there is a respected practice of long term private renting by a substantial percentage of the population, the conditions for renters can be much better with more tenancy rights including long term leases.

Ray Polglaze | 28 September 2011  

We have been in situations where work became available interstate and we had to rent out our home and rent a home in a different area. We were “landlords” and renters at the same time. In several cases, tenants did not pay rent and had to be evicted. We did struggle finding money to pay for our own rental, mortgage payment and repair bills. We have very bad and very good tenants and landlords and anything in between. Whilst the perception is that home owners were “subsidised”, it would have applied only to a small number of first home buyers during the last few years. Considering numerous and ongoing taxes like the GST, stamp duties, rates, land taxes, emergency services levies and interest payments, insurance and maintenance costs, “owning “ a home is not a exactly cheap. I am sure that most of the “free” home owner grants will be paid back many times over by the mainly young home owners. One issue we all should be looking at is the fact that in Australia homes can be bought by foreigners and left empty. I believe that we should limit foreigners from buying homes valued at less than 1 Million Dollars. This could ease the price pressure on homes and rentals. I read that over 200 000 homes remain empty because of speculative buying.

Beat Odermatt | 29 September 2011  

In Washiington State USA:
If she had a lease then she can not evicted until the lease is up.
With a Month-to-Month she can be evicted with a 20 day notice, however the calendar determines the length of the notice time 20 days to 50 days.

Also no one can go into her home unless they give her a 24 hr. Written notice that gives the time in, time out and name and phone number of the person coming in RCW 59.18.150 (6).

Roger Silver | 03 October 2011  

The recent comments on the Newstart allowance need exploring! Can anyone find a livable residence for less than $300 per week. Add to that gas, electricity, health care (non existent) and a crust of bread to eat. Further, borderline intellectual disability and chaotic independent living skills; oh what a heartless mess we have created. And how much is the weekly Newstart allowance?

Mary D | 06 October 2011  

I feel for your friend but she would indeed have legal rights. Notice has to be given to come inside the house. Committing to a lease would also have avoided the issue, or at least provided her with compensation.
On another note, some of the wealthiest people I know do not own housing - they have hundreds of thousands of dollars in shares. The return is much better than on housing.

A final point - without an incentive for landlords (such as negative gearing) there would be a chronic housing shortage.
Housing is a much more complex issue than it appears on the surface.

MBG | 06 October 2011  

My situation was similar in 2005. Woke up one morning to find a "For Sale" sign had been erected in the front yard of a house I had been renting for over 2 years. Wasn't even given the basic courtesy of being informed before the fact.

I negotiated a reduction in rent for the 6-week inspection period in which strangers would be trampling through my home, twice a week. Rang the Tenant's Union and found out what my rights were in regards to the inspection times. When the agents hedged on the issue of my rights to quiet enjoyment, I reminded them that prospective buyers like to inspect a clean and tidy house and they would need my co-operation on that part.

When it came to taking photos, I didn't give them permission to take photos of anything that belonged to me - so no interior photos were used in their campaign. I was on good terms with the owner: it was the agents that tried to treat me like a third-rate citizen and I drew the line. I'm not a 'tenant from hell', however when you confront agents on their bullying tactics,you get that label.

The new owners bought the house for investment; I stayed for another 18 months, during which time I gave the new owners free access to renovate the house. The way I see it: the rent I pay subsidizes the landlord's lifestyle, and that economic dynamic deserves to be respected more than it is. Unethical landlords/agents will try and hoodwink you, hoping you aren't aware of your rights: when you demonstrate that you are, they don't like it: and that's the MO of the narcissistic-culture that exists in the residential rental market.

Anita | 09 October 2011  

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