Tenant’s ‘sudden’ eviction shock
WHEN you're working class, you're not really allowed to whinge. So I'm gonna do it on my mother's behalf.
A few weeks ago she was evicted again from her tiny two-bedroom unit in east Sydney, which she shares with a university student. She must now find somewhere else to live, which is not that exceptional, except for one thing. There is nowhere left.
Median rent in Sydney has climbed to a staggering $582 a week (or $2328 a month) making us the second most expensive city in the world, depending on which set of possibly skewed statistics you're looking at.
My mother cannot afford that. She has no savings because she spent it all raising me and a foster boy as a working single mother. She is now faced with the prospect of starting from scratch in a cheaper city disregarding the 30 years of hard graft it took to set up work, family and friendship networks in her area. Once there, she will either resuscitate her livelihood or slide quickly into homelessness.
I might have said slide quickly into public housing but the waiting list is 60,000 people long, which means five to seven years, and even two years for those in need of emergency housing. Little wonder then that we've witnessed a 14 per cent spike in homelessness in the last five years. All in a country that earned $205 billion dollars from the sale of its resources last year.
"It's a dire situation to be in if you're a single parent, struggling to look after children, scraping by on a low-income and trying to find a place to live," Council to Homeless Persons CEO Jenny Smith said.
"With so few affordable options, no wonder so many slip into homelessness.
"It's particularly worrying if you're a woman who's left family violence and looking for a safe, affordable place to live. Women and children are forced to either live in extreme poverty to pay high rent, or move far away from jobs, schools and support services and with high transport costs to find somewhere more affordable."
The eviction notice was sudden and hurtful. Over the course of seven years my mother had developed strong friendships in her four-unit block and the street. As the longest surviving resident, she had become a matriarch of sorts - respected, cared for, and in turn she looked after the people around her. This is what you call "community".
The termination notice was bookended by a series of unannounced visits by the owner and the real estate agents, all of which is illegal. They also posted a threatening letter in the hallway and under doors demanding everything be cleared out of the common area within three days or it would be kicked to the kerb.
No one bothered to knock on her door and ask how she was doing or learn a bit about the person whose life they were tipping on its head. Had they done so they might have learned she is a tough as nails working class feminist from the bush who started her working career ripping sheep's brains out of their skulls in the local abattoir with a fork. That she's descended from a long lineage of Irish Catholic community women and men. That despite her precarious footing on the breadline she has still spent her life immersed in welfare work with our growing disadvantaged population. That she has survived multiple domestic violence incidents yet still managed to successfully raise a son.
They would have learnt that she drives a beaten-up old Peugeot and makes a living caring for people as a holistic health worker, teaching among other things, yoga to injured women. That it's taken more than 30 years of hard graft to set up a network of colleagues, clients, friends and family in this city. That she's always paid tax, always dropped gold coins in the offering bowl when it comes around at mass, and forked out enough rent to buy a home in Sydney (around $600,000) had she had any kind of financial or government support. She's been a part of numerous sporting, social and welfare clubs over the years and considers Sydney her home. She loves her community and her community loves her.
We're not surprised or angry about the eviction. We must have lived in 10 or more different houses when I was a kid, spanning the entire city - from the northern beaches to the inner west and the southeast, where she is today. Housing instability, and the stress that comes with it, is all we've ever known. We just thought that eventually we'd come across a landlord or real estate agent who'd show a bit of heart and take it easy on her. We're still waiting along with hundreds of thousands of other low-income people in the cities.
"Low-income folks have been pushed out. They don't move, they get pushed or they get replaced. The inner city has become gentrified and that is a big issue for Sydney and Melbourne," director of the City Futures at UNSW Professor Bill Randolph said.
Sydney University Urban Planning Professor Peter Phibbs agreed.
"The problem is we're essentially sleepwalking our way to very unequal cities and unless we do something about it soon it might be too late," he said. "We've taken our eye off looking out for people on low to moderate incomes and we're basically just pandering to an elite, and I think that's a risk.
"Do we want a fair city, do we want an equal city, or do we just want a city where people talk about how much money they made off their million-dollar apartment?"
Recently I appeared on the ABC television program Q&A where I outlined my mother's situation and asked the panel: "Who or what decides how much we should pay for the privilege of having a roof over our head?" The answer given to me was three words long. "Raw market forces."
F***ing raw, all right. Since when have basic human needs become a commodity? Why is it okay for the rich and powerful to treat people and communities with such disdain, as if they are disposable items? My mother, and many like her, have spent their lives paying taxes that support the growth and development of our major cities. So what does a lifetime of service to your community get you in Australia? A one-way ticket to the boondocks and a shortcut to homelessness.
We're out of step with the rest of the world in this regard. Even New York City, the home of Wall Street and the birthplace of America's cannibalistic capitalism, has had rent control in place since 1943, a system which "ensures rent increases on apartments are capped for longstanding tenants and 'stabilised' when tenancies change hands to keep them at or below the rate of inflation".
The city also recently passed a "right to council law" meaning every person facing eviction in New York has the right to a lawyer and the power to fight it. The idea behind it is that it will prevent homelessness down the track, which would cost the state even more. Professor of sociology at Princeton University and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: Poverty And Profit In The American City Matthew Desmond, called it "an incredibly effective move".
"It is in investing resources upstream to prevent evictions so we don't have to face fallout from evictions downstream in the face of rising homeless shelter costs or rising healthcare costs, which we constantly currently incur because of the (housing) crisis," he said. "Eviction can actually cause you to lose your job. It's such a hard and consuming event, you can make mistakes at work, lose your footing and there are health effects like depression.
"We have a study that shows that mums who get evicted experience higher rates of depression two years later, so you add that all up and we have to conclude eviction isn't a condition of poverty, it is a cause of poverty and mental illness too."
Australia is not America, thankfully, and hopefully we never will be. I prefer Australian values and the Australian way.
But maybe it's time we took a good look at ourselves and asked whether we are still the country we think we are? Are we the nation that prides itself on hard work and a fair go for all? Are we really doing the best we can for the community around us? Or are we being devoured from the inside out by a greedy few who've forgotten, or never knew, the meaning of the phrase, "Fair go, mate."