Derelict terrace, King Street, Newtown, New South Wales
Essay: Fiona Wrighton sharehouses

Perhaps this one will be my last sharehouse

On a disgustingly hot day in February, one of those days that the air is so hot that you feel it dry your eyeballs, I helped Alex move house. He and his housemates had been issued with an eviction notice a few weeks earlier; and it came less than a day after they’d asked their landlord for some repairs – including fixing some exposed power points, and the back fence of the property, which leaned sideways at an angle easily large enough for a decent-sized person to climb through. Alex had received the notice while we’d been on holidays, and immediately rang the Tenant’s Union for advice, and what he was told was yes, this is clearly a retaliatory eviction, yes, it is definitely illegal, and yes, you have a very clear-cut case and all the evidence you need, but there’s no point taking it to tribunal, because all you’re likely to get is a bit more time to move, or lower rent until you do, but the eviction notice will not be overturned. What he was told, that is, is you are right, but you don’t actually have rights; and Alex is the second of my friends to be evicted after asking for repairs within a year.

By the time he moved, though, Alex was excited – he and his household had found a much nicer house, albeit a lot further out from the city, a place so newly renovated that all of the drawers in his built-in wardrobe still had protective plastic over the handles. Three days before he moved, I also opened my inbox to find an eviction notice. I’d been living in this house, my home, on Pine St in the north end of Sydney’s Newtown, for three years and nine months – the longest time I’d lived in a house since I left my family home – and though the building had its problems (cracked walls, a dropping cornice, a door so eroded by water damage that it felt like balsa, to say nothing of the owner’s DIY plumbing job that saw the whole back portion of the house thud and judder whenever we used the garden hose or the rising damp that had ruined many of my clothes) I loved the place. I loved looking out from my front window over the street and watching the waves of people – RPA nurses in the very early mornings, then harried-looking office workers with their freshly-washed hair and takeaway toast in brown paper bags, the chattering schoolchildren mid-afternoon – streaming to and from Macdonaldtown station at the end of the street; I loved reading in the back room with its painted white floor and windows that streamed with sunlight in the afternoon, the weird rectangular bathtub that felt like lying in a tiny swimming pool. I felt settled there, centred in my routines and movements, so much so that when I told each of my friends about the notice, the first thing any of them said was, I’m so sorry, you love that house. I count amongst my closest friends two of the women who I lived with there, strangers before we became housemates, family now. Our agent rang me to let me know that they were sorry to be losing us as tenants, that we hadn’t done anything wrong, that our landlord had decided to sell. I opened up the house twice in the next two weeks to let tradesmen walk through and put together quotes for the work they’d need to do to make the place presentable for sale.

This last week, the agency has made a website for the house, now that it’s a property. They’ve photographed each of the rooms with a wide-angle lens, except for the shoebox-sized third bedroom (conspicuously absent), and made a video, where the agents sit in that back room and talk about what living in the house might be like, how they can imagine cooking in the kitchen and entertaining in the backyard, and how great an investment it will be. When I watched it, I was rattled by how uncanny this felt, my all-to-recent home made unhomely with lashings of fresh paint, pale grey furniture and offensively bland artworks.

The day before Alex moved, in the late afternoon, I started sorting through my clothes, the ones in my lopsided IKEA wardrobe and the ones stored in plastic boxes under my bed, gathering up the items that I rarely wear to give to charity – I do this every time I move, but it was only this time that I finally let go of a pair of tailored pants, olive green and pin-striped, that I once loved, that I had bought only a few months before I first got sick, and that I’d always hoped would fit me again one day. I do the same thing with my bookcases every time I move, although I never find many books with which I’m willing to part. I went to Alex’s house that evening to help him dismantle his furniture and pack the final boxes – the removalists were due at seven the next morning – and brought along my toolbox, because he doesn’t own one, and it felt eerie and awfully prescient, suddenly, to be boxing up his bed linen, knowing that I’d soon have to do the same.

Every time I’ve moved house, or more precisely, the last four times I’ve moved house, I’ve thought: perhaps this one will be my last sharehouse. Every time I’ve moved house, I’ve realised that ‘the market’, as the agents say, has moved too in the intervening time, and I have had to adjust my expectations of how much rent I’m willing to pay. Every time I’ve moved house, since I first moved out of home (how much difference that single word makes) it has been because of forces outside of my control – a series of escalating rent hikes, one ridiculously high but somehow still legal rent hike, an owner moving back into his property, a defaulted mortgage, a sale. And I know it’s not just me who’s in this boat (as leaky as it seems) – recent research, undertaken by the National Association of Tenants Unions, the consumer advocacy body Choice and National Shelter, an NGO dedicated to housing access and affordability for people on low incomes, shows that more than a third of all Australians rent their home (twenty years ago, this was much closer to one quarter), and 83 per cent of them have no fixed-term lease, or are on a lease of 12 months’ duration or less. One in five young renters, under the age of 35, have been living like this – month-to-month at worst, year-to-year at best – for a decade or more of their lives, and one in ten have moved house 11 times or more. Thirty per cent of renters live in properties that require repairs – like Alex did — and a further 8 per cent in properties where these repairs are urgent; despite this being illegal, 6 per cent have been evicted after making a complaint about or asking for repairs. When this research was released, in Feburary this year, the newspapers reported on it as though the findings were some kind of surprise. My friends and I rolled our eyes – our only surprise was seeing our lives, for once, represented in the mainstream press.

Sharehousing, of course, is only one kind of renting – it only makes up 11 per cent of the rental market, and the reasons I’ve been doing it for so long are, I know, because my circumstances are unusual. I can’t afford to live alone (as a quarter of all renters do) either financially or emotionally: because I work almost entirely by myself, the isolation of living by myself would be all the more acute, and even dangerous given my precarious mental health. I’ve never been coupled-up enough (or for long enough) to live with a partner (as 44 per cent of renters do, more than half of whom have children). I love living in Newtown, not because it’s near the city but because it’s in the Inner West, a place that has a left-leaning and vaguely creative kind of culture and where I usually can walk between the places where I like to go, and I know that it is a privilege, and an immense one at that, to even have the choice of renting here in the first place. I know that people like me – middle-class, educated, and overwhelmingly white – have already pushed out so many of the older, working-class migrant families who once lived here, and who in turn ‘cleaned up’ the slums that these suburbs once were. But even still, for the entire time I’ve lived in rentals I’ve lived in what is officially termed ‘financial housing stress’, paying more (and often much more) than 30 per cent of my income on rent. Almost half of all renters – across the country as a whole, not just in inner-urban environments – live with this financial stress. And about the same proportion still aspire to own a home.

And this aspiration, I think, is the much larger misfortune here: Sydney has recently become the second-most unaffordable city for housing in the world (only behind the incredibly densely-populated and land-limited Hong Kong), and its median house price is now more than 12 times the median income of its inhabitants – the definition of ‘unaffordable’ is any multiplier larger than three.  This median price increased by 19 per cent over the course of 2016 alone, while average wage growth in this time was a meagre 2 per cent. Currently almost a half of all mortgages approved are for investors, rather than home buyers, when barely 20 years ago investors made up only 15 per cent of the market. There’s something broken here, and brutally so, and it means that renters, that entire third of our population, are facing higher rents and greater instability, all the while watching the prospect of ever owning a home of their own retreat.

(I like to remind my aunt, sometimes, of a conversation we had when I was fourteen or fifteen, after she’d helped arrange my work experience with one of her colleagues’ daughters, a costume designer who taught at NIDA. I loved sewing, loved theatre – I still do – and so was having a wonderful time helping her make costume collars for a priest and dye cheap stockings shocking pink for some kind of musical, and when I told my aunt about this, she said, yes, she has a very creative career, but you have to remember that she’s thirty years old and doesn’t own her house. This was long before the current housing madness, of course, and intended more as a warning about the unreliability and paltriness of any income from the arts, but I still enjoy bringing this up.)

It took my housemates – one new, one coming over from the house on Pine St – and me four weeks to find a new home; we went to inspections on almost every Tuesday and Thursday evening (for which they both had to leave work early), all morning on the Saturdays across that time; we filled in applications for every property before we viewed them and kept a Google spreadsheet of addresses, agents, opening times; as much as we tried not to get invested (no pun intended), we imagined our lives inside the spaces we saw professionally photographed online – we did this even though I kept saying that looking at Domain is like looking at Tinder: you don’t actually know anything until you meet in person. We looked at houses that were tiny, that were mouldy, one that had taped-up windows with handwritten signs saying do not open – window falls out; none of these houses were being offered for less than $850 per week. When we finally found a place, and were accepted as tenants, we were told that the lease must start at the beginning of the very next week (it was already Wednesday) or the owner would choose a different group of renters, so we had no choice but to rent two properties simultaneously, until the notice period on our old house had passed. (On average, tenants look at 5.4 properties, and put in 3.1 applications before being offered a lease. The application process is utterly opaque and requires more points of identity than the application for a passport.) We paid our bond and rent in advance; we paid removalists, we bought cleaning supplies and small pieces of hardware to fix small pieces of wear-and-tear damage, we paid to have five more keys cut, because the new landlord had not provided three full sets. We spent four evenings scrubbing the old house, even though we knew that it was tradies and not tenants who’d be moving through there afterwards, and even still, the agents refused to refund the entirety of our bond because we couldn’t remove all of the marks from the interior of the oven. (Over a quarter of all tenants have a dispute like this with agents, 20 per cent of all bonds are not returned in full).

All of this is simply to say: it was expensive, and it was exhausting, even as it was an incredibly emotional experience. The morning I handed the keys to the old house back to the agent, I walked one more time through its empty, clinically-clean rooms, pausing especially in that back sunroom, I felt my body resonate within it. Most of all, I thought of the afternoon that I’d first moved in, drinking a glass of sweet champagne whilst sitting on the kitchen counter with the two women I’d be living here with, the two women I would grow to love, how silly, but also supportive, we would all be here together. The agent put the keys in a yellow envelope and didn’t say a word and it took me several seconds to realise that there was nothing else to do but walk away. One of my current housemates, when I mentioned how strange this felt, shrugged her shoulders and said, I don’t get attached to houses any more.

I’m still not sure that I believe her.

The first house that I moved in to, when I left my family home, was one of those sharehouses that had been a sharehouse for longer than anyone actually living there really knew – there was a cupboard in the back room full of odd objects that didn’t seem to belong to anyone – a tray of melted down candles, a deflated basketball, two electric fans – but that no-one was willing to throw out in case they did. There were old bedsheets painted with slogans pushed behind the couch, a toy bat hanging from the ceiling light in the kitchen. My own room was small, with pink wallpaper and a scabby metal rail to hang my clothes along attached to the back wall; my furniture was the same furniture I’d had in my bedroom as a child – bed, desk, narrow bookcase. My window overlooked our small backyard, the alleyway lined with bins, dumped furniture and milk-sap weeds, the kind that make me itchy if I try to uproot them and seem endemic to the Inner West, although I’ve never seen them anywhere else. The house was in terrible condition – the balcony lattice was rotten, the kitchen blotchy with rust, my bedroom windows friable with termites. But I was thrilled to be living there, with other young people, close to the pubs where we’d play bingo or trivia on mid-week evenings, or drink as many bright-blue cocktails as we could in the space of a Friday Happy Hour-and-a-half; close too to a number of other sharehouses, that we’d wander in and out of, planning barbecues or Frisbee matches in the nearby park together, and going out for cooked breakfasts in the café near the station that always seemed able to squeeze in one more chair.

Still, it was an adjustment – I remember the first weekend that I lived there, lying on my single bed on a late afternoon, restless and anxious and vaguely bored, realising that there was no-one home in the house that I could chat to, that I knew no-one in the area, had no idea where any of my housemates actually were, that if something were to happen to me, if I were to disappear, I didn’t know how long that it might take for somebody to notice. I cooked big dinners in the first week, hoping to share them (without mentioning them to my housemates, who all had other plans), one evening turned around from walking to the gym because I ran into one of them coming home and thought we might hang out (he seemed bewildered by this action). It wasn’t until a few weeks later, when I was talking to my grandma about my move and she asked me if I cooked in my bedroom and if I had my own TV that I realised it made sense that I didn’t know the proprieties of sharehousing: I was, I am, the first person in my family to ever live this way, to make my home in a temporary space and with strangers. In the year that I was there, four new housemates cycled through the place: two of the women left after one of our male housemates slept with them both; one of the men left to travel, another after some kind of dispute I never really understood. But even still I learned here a kind of living, a kind of community, that is different from a family – more independent, more loosely bound, but no less connected or intimate or kind.

After the rent increases here became ridiculous I moved to a house newer and barer, where we sourced most of our furniture from the street, a washing machine from my cousin’s friend, glassware that we stole in our handbags, piece by piece, from nearby pubs.

I mention this because it wasn’t until I moved again, into my third house, that I began to think less temporarily about my home. In part, this was because I met my best friend at this time, a wonderfully practical and generous woman, who has also always taken great joy in making her home. Laura’s family is Dutch, and that language has a word, gezellig, not quite translatable, for a kind of hearty coziness, enclosed and comfortable, that seems to run right through her blood. Shortly after I moved, Laura did too (to escape a difficult housemate, 7 per cent of renters move for reasons just like this), and she took me with her to op shops, to Reverse Garbage, to the homes of strangers she’d encountered via eBay and Freecycle, the places she was using to fit out her house, to find what she called ‘solutions’ – storage solutions, kitchen solutions, wardrobe solutions – to amend its unhelpful quirks. It was a revelation to me, to see her settling so firmly into place, adapting her space to suit her needs, sourcing furniture that she might not need forever to make herself more comfortable, for now. In part, I know this kind of thing had not occurred to me before because I was only just coming back from the height of my illness, where frugality had always made more sense to me than comfort, where coziness I still saw as self-indulgent, a luxury not meant for me. The first time I lay on Laura’s new bed – she’d bought herself a new mattress, a downy underlay, picked up some soft flannel sheets from the huge Salvos at Tempe – I almost cried for how good it felt against my angular and aching body. But I know I also thought, then (eight years ago, I realise now), that I would save my home-making until I had a place that was permanent, that was my own – there didn’t seem a point in having proper furniture, good kitchenware, storage solutions, until I knew I wouldn’t have to dismantle them, or manoeuver them down tiny terrace stairwells, that they wouldn’t be damaged by housemates with habits and quirks of cleaning different from my own.

I do want to be clear, though – I don’t necessarily want to own my own home, and I don’t think universal home ownership is a sustainable way for cities like Sydney to grow and stay vibrant, diverse, or beautiful. I think our ingrained cultural desire for home ownership is very much a geographical and political aberration: so many other cities in the world are inhabited in the majority by long-term renters, unburdened by long-term mortgages– in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, up to 60 per cent of the population always rent their homes. What I do want is the kinds of securities and allowances that are in place in countries like these –where lease terms are indefinite, or measured in years, rather than months, where rental rates are legislated or controlled, where tenants cannot be made to leave without consenting and are allowed to paint or even renovate, or simply organise their own repairs (80 per cent of all repair requests in rental properties are not carried out, either in their entirety or at all), and where they don’t have to ask permission to put a single nail into a wall (because we all know Command Hooks don’t fucking work). I want to be able to get attached to a place, without knowing that my presence there is always subject to someone else’s needs or even whims.

I loved that third house immediately, because it was spacious and bright, because a bamboo beaded curtain served as the pantry door, because there was a half-sized bath that was the perfect size for me, because the landlord lent us his own overlong rug to run down the front hallway and dampen the sound of our footsteps past the bedrooms, which ran in a row down the front part of the house. One housemate was given her brother’s old dining table and painted its top in chalkboard paint; whenever I had friends over for dinner I’d draw placemats and centrepieces on its surface and leave the sticks of chalk beside the cutlery (I always secretly hoped my writer friends would scrawl down notes or ideas, but mostly, they just drew pictures of oversized boobs.) We’d also chalk each other notes here: good luck in your interview, or nb: need more t.p. I bought two tall Billy bookcases to accommodate my books, then two more – made of solid pine and from an actual furniture store – once their chipboard shelves collapsed under the weight of the very things they were supposedly designed to hold. There was a housing commission tower behind the back fence (which has been knocked down now) and we would hear our neighbours there singing out conversations across their balconies, an RSL with a thriving vegetable garden to the side, from which old men would sometimes pass me bunches of basil, heads of spinach, whole shopping bags full of chillies. The neighbour directly across the street tutored opera singers from his house on weekday afternoons, and I’d hear snatches of quivering Italian and German as I wrote in the front room. When we received notice to leave this house, in late January, I was in a hospital day program, and though I tried to explain to the therapists there that I had to walk so much on Saturdays to go through houses on inspection, they didn’t seem to understand the urgency.

The timing was terrible – and not only because of my hospitalisation – but because also it meant that we were looking for a new place at the worst possible time of year, when the open houses were crammed full of students about to start at the university just up the road, alongside people shaking up their lives for the new year (new year, new house!), as well as people like my housemates and me, whose current tenancies were coming to an end. My housemates and I looked at properties for ten weeks straight, handing in our applications as we left, stopping for coffee and newspaper quizzes if we had half-hour breaks between inspections. We were five times told by agents that we’d come second in our applications; once told that someone else had offered to pay $50 more rent each week and if we could match that, we could have the place (this is illegal); once told that another group of applicants had put down six months’ rent in advance – and if we could match that, we could have the place. (Three quarters of renters – across the country, not just in Sydney – think that the competition for properties is ‘fierce’; while we looked for houses this time I kept saying to my housemates, remember, this is war.) In the very last week before our lease ended and we’d have to move out with no place yet to move in to, we were finally accepted as tenants in a terrace painted brick-red on the outside and with gilded cornices on the inside, right next to a railway bridge that freight trucks thundered over at all hours. There were rats living under the floorboards that we heard scrapping and scraping at night, rats that, after the agent organised a pest controller to visit, would climb out into the backyard to die (it was my job, as the least squeamish housemate, to ferry their fat corpses to the wheelie bins in the front yard). There was an incredible claw-foot bathtub, a huge backyard where I built a veggie garden using old palings, a cheap hacksaw, and a borrowed drill. It was this house that we had to leave barely six months into our tenancy – even though we’d signed a 12-month lease – because the owner couldn’t meet her mortgage repayments, despite our generous contributions to them. (In Germany, when rented properties are sold, they are sold with the tenants in place). This is how I came to be in this last house, the house on Pine St, that I so loved and so recently left.

And so once again I find myself making a home, moving my furniture around in different spaces to see where it suits best – or least worst, as seems to be the case in my new bedroom (also my office), which has very little wall space between its built-in shelves and two doors, and strange, almost-square proportions, figuring out which fittings fit, walking new streets to find the new shape of my days. I’m at the opposite end of my suburb now, close to the highway, the old smokestacks of Sydney Park, the Fijian grocer with its narrow aisles of spices and packets of sweets, an antique store run by a smiling Nepalese man in a trilby who already waves at me each time I pass. When we were looking for a new home, we looked at houses further afield – in Petersham, Stanmore, Alexandria, Marrickville – and I didn’t realise until we did this how deeply I’ve become attached to Newtown, how there’s a part of my self that’s bound up in living here, that has history here, and is more comfortable than I’ve ever been here; how I sometimes feel that I belong here, and these feelings, comfort, belonging, are things I’ve fought for all my adult life. It’s a false argument to make, I think, that people who struggle to afford their housing or don’t want to deal with the insecurities and unsettlements of renting should just move to some place less desirable, less in demand, to solve the problem. (Many regional areas, especially in the coastal zones, have similar levels of unaffordability to capitals in any case; some areas in Victoria – such as Woodend and Wodonga – have worse affordability than Melbourne). I think here too of my brother, a policeman, who recently moved to a small town about three and a half hours’ drive from Sydney for work, how the house he has rented there has a swimming pool, five bedrooms, a double garage, a huge garden, a laundry that is bigger than my bedroom in my Newtown terrace, and costs almost $100 per week less; but it also costs him and his wife, and dearly too, to be so far away from family (and the support they offer their two small children, especially as both parents are shift workers), and from their friends, the kinds of things – like concerts, beach trips, and big, communal dinners – that they love to do.

In the first weeks in my new house I bought storage boxes for the in-built, open-faced wardrobe, new plugs to hold its shelves in place. I bought new curtains, because the dark pink drapes already hanging there felt fusty and overbearing. At first, I arranged the objects on the mantelpiece above the broken fireplace in the same way that I’d displayed them in the bedroom I’d just left: two decorative boxes that hold my chunky jewellery, the row of books I’m either reading or hoping to read next, a gloriously kitschy lamp shaped like a cockatoo that I picked up at a festival one year, a Chinese clock, a vase: the arrangement that I know by rote because it’s so familiar. But they looked awful in the space, too crowded and too colourful next to all my clothes; I tried three different arrangements of the pictures on my walls, and suspect I’ll try a different one again soon. I didn’t feel settled in the space until I’d settled my things into their place, I’m still orienting myself inside it; the shared spaces in the house, even now, are spaces in progress. When I come home from the social events that still sometimes leave me exhausted and anxious and overwhelmed, I don’t yet feel the same relief of being back in my own space, situated, centred, placed. Which is to say that the unsettlement, the disruption of moving, lasts far longer than the weeks spent looking, inspecting and applying, the weeks spent boxing up and packing, relocating, repairing and cleaning. I don’t know how long it will take for me to once again feel at home.

And yet I know I’m not unlucky: the expenses of moving and re-making, even of paying a new bond before an old bond was returned (six weeks in, we are still yet to see this money) were expenses that I was able to meet; the difficulties I’ve had in securing a property are nothing like those faced by people who don’t look like me – white-skinned, white-collar, and employed (enough at least). I don’t have children, or a baby (11 per cent of renters are single parents, 24 per cent couples with children), and can’t even imagine how much more difficult packing up a house must be for people who do. And the constraints I face whilst renting, the insecurities, lack of protection, strictures, these hardships are nothing short of soft when compared to the pressures faced by people living in social housing – like those neighbours in the tower block behind my old house, who have been moved, en masse, to a less valuable piece of real estate; I’ve no idea how long any of them may have lived there, how many similar displacements are planned for similar communities, like those we know about at Miller’s Point and Redfern. The social housing sector is one that’s slowly been eroded, stripped back piece by piece by successive governments – it now makes up less than 4 per cent of the rental market – even though it caters to the most vulnerable people in our society: the poor, the ill, the disabled, new migrants, refugees, Indigenous communities – the kinds of people who are likely to face discrimination in the wider, unregulated market (half of all renters have experienced discrimination whilst looking for a property; this figure jumps to two-thirds for tenants who earn less than $35,000 per year). And while it’s been found that many homeowners consider renters to be ‘transient, untrustworthy and aesthetically undesirable’ (it’s hard to be aesthetically pleasing when you’re not allowed in any way to change your house), it’s a different class of disdain altogether that’s reserved for housos and commish kids, wherever they may live.

In the days before we moved, we sat in that lovely house on Pine St, a row of stacked boxes lining the hallway and the lounge room walls, the curtains pulled from the windows to be laundered, my empty bookshelves looming. One of my housemates, who is a psychology postgrad (and is from Ireland, where tenants are automatically transferred onto a secure 6-year lease after six months in a property), joked that we were probably all feeling so unsettled, so vaguely and inchoately not right because our hierarchy of needs had been upset. It took me a few minutes to remember what she was referring to – a mid-century psychological theory about the kinds of conditions that human beings need in order to thrive. The hierarchy – Maslow’s hierarchy – is usually represented as a pyramid, because all of the higher functions and conditions are dependent on the more basic things that sit beneath them: self-esteem is essential for self-realisation, for example, and without safety it’s impossible to love. At the very bottom of the pyramid are what Maslow termed ‘physiological needs’ – the basic necessities of survival. These are water, and food (Chris Kraus writes in Aliens and Anorexia that ‘daily life turns into terror as soon as you start doubting food’ and ‘to question food is to question everything’; I can’t help but agree) but also, importantly, shelter; and on the rung above these basics are safety and security (physical and economic alike). Without these things, Maslow suggests, we can only live in ‘deficiency’, we cannot make meaning for our own lives, or contribute properly to each others’, to society. And it’s only this that I want: shelter, and security, a stable base from which to build my self and life without constant inconstancy, without the everyday threat that it could all, that day, be once again taken away.

Derelict terrace, King Street, Newtown, New South Wales
Derelict terrace, King Street, Newtown, New South Wales. Photo: Jeremy