Someone Else's Garden

9 November 2015 Katherine Smyrk

Someone Else's Garden

Illustration by Michel Streich

I came home one day and there it was. Hammered into the soft ground in the front yard, it poked its white face over the fence as if to say, “So what?” I stopped on the footpath with a familiar heavy feeling in my stomach. It was a development application notice, alerting neighbours of the landlord’s intention to knock down the existing abode and build three, two-storey dwellings. The only problem was, that existing abode was my house. It would seem I was moving, again.

I moped into the backyard and thrust a shovel into the veggie patch, obstinately turning soil that might not be my soil for much longer. Spring was fast approaching, and it was time to plant tomatoes. Being on a month-by-month lease and with this news at hand, I didn’t know if I would be around to reap the rewards of their bounty. I suddenly had a fantasy that while digging I would strike oil, Beverly Hillbillies style, and it would solve all of my problems. I would take the money and buy my house. I could keep my tomato crop. I could still walk to my partner’s house, live close to my family and be bicycle-ride-distance from work. I wouldn’t have to be constantly searching for a house I could afford, being pushed further away from public transport, shops and my community as rental prices continue to catapult upwards. It would all be solved. But then I realised that I was a renter, and any oil I struck would not belong to me. I stopped digging.

Judgemental voices from over the years were ringing in my ears. “Rent money is dead money”, they spouted, “Don’t spend all your time paying off someone else’s mortgage”. Buying a house seemed so very out of reach, but was I just being a classic millennial with a commitment problem? The Australian told me the only reason I hadn’t bought a house was because I was not prepared to go without luxury items like Xboxes. Oh, and apparently I buy too many lattes. Sitting on the couch I had found on the side of the road, that didn’t feel quite right.

An interactive graphic on The Guardian showed that if I stringently saved a large portion of my income, it would take me 7.7 years to save enough for a deposit on a unit in my area, costing $434,436. Helpfully, it told me that in that time, a sloth could circumnavigate the globe 3.3 times.

And that’s just the deposit. Then I have to begin paying off my mortgage. I didn’t want to think about the fact that house prices are likely to increase during those 7.7 years. I felt a little thump in my chest at how casually it was mentioned that I would owe almost half a million dollars. But incomes have increased since my parents’ generation, so could these prices just be proportionate? An article from Domain News showed that in Melbourne, while we currently earn 10 times the amount we did in 1975, houses cost 31 times what they did then.

And what if I lost my job? The youth unemployment rate in Australia at the moment is 14.2%. The people that do have jobs are often underemployed, on short-term contracts or casuals. Even if we weren’t concerned about taking on an enormous debt at a time of great economic uncertainty, people of my generation simply might not be able to get a deposit together.

I backed away from the squall of numbers and opinions on my screen and went outside to check on my seedlings. The voices shaming me for being “just a renter” had now been joined by voices shouting about interest rates and median house prices. The number $434,436 kept flashing in my head.

But one tiny counter-thought wiggled through. The Domain News article said most Australians think of renting as: “It was great fun and we had a lot of parties, but now we have grown up and moved on.” But twice as many Australians rent now as they did in 1981. For most of those people, myself included, renting isn’t just a way to live a life based around a Peter Pan-esque repudiation of growing up. This is just reality.

It is a cultural expectation that once you grow up, you buy a house. When the media talks about housing affordability, they are almost exclusively talking about buying a house, as if renters don’t exist.

If renting were seen as a valid way to live, perhaps our society would approach the whole damn mess differently. Perhaps the wallets of investors would not be the priority of our government. Maybe it would instead look at crucial things like caps on rent increases, long-term leases and rules requiring landlords to show cause before they can end a lease. And with more housing surety, maybe fewer people would be pushed into vulnerable, more dependent and sometimes dangerous situations.

I sat in the garden, my hands in the dirt, and fantasised about a 10-year lease. I would paint the lounge-room walls. I would put up shelves in the kitchen. I wouldn’t come home to discover that stomach-dropping white sign staked in the front yard. And I would plant tomatoes every spring, knowing I would still be there when they bloomed.

» Katherine Smyrk is The Big Issue's staff writer/editor. 

This article first appeared in Ed#497 of The Big Issue.