June 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Domestic spectacles

By Kirsten Tranter
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

At first, it looked like the spine of a small animal lying in the long grass out the front of our noon inspection appointment, 2br orig. cond. cottage cls all amenities $550 p/week. “Mouldering” is probably the word: grass had been growing around it for a while and it was a colour somewhere between pink, grey and yellow. Looking closer, I decided it was probably an oxtail.

“As in oxtail soup?” my husband asked. As in dog bone, I guessed. Hoped. It was in Leichhardt. Should we have expected such exotic pet-treat leftovers? In the front yard? It was right on 12 o’clock, no sign of the agent. In what is surely an indication of the desperation of all would-be renters in the inner-west Sydney market, I continued down the path past the spine–bone–tail and up the front stairs to see if there was any way to peer in the windows. There wasn’t, due to an obscuring film of dust; just as well. The porch offered another ambiguous spectacle: a poorly cleaned-up pool of vomit, or …? I walked back beside the long grass, the rusting BMX and the dead frangipani tree and, after chatting for a few minutes with the other prospective tenants, we drove away to our 12.35 pm, 2br renov. w/sunroom a must to inspect!

Those few minutes were sobering: one woman waiting to look at the place, about eight-months pregnant, explained that she was moving because her neighbours had just commenced surprise renovations, including extensive asbestos removal, on the house next door. “And with the baby, you know …” Another woman needed to leave her current place with her young son because of the mould in the kitchen cabinets. Or, more correctly, behind the cabinets: you can’t actually see it, she explained, since it’s in behind the woodwork, so the landlord refuses to acknowledge it exists. But you really can smell it.

The crisis in the Sydney rental market is acute. Currently, vacancies are well below 2%, a figure that comes as no surprise to anyone who has waited in a line of between 50 and 100 people to see any place at all in the inner-west that is priced below $550 per week. Demand this high also creates an environment in which agents and landlords couldn’t care less about the mould, the oxtail, the vomit-or-whatever and the sleeping, tracksuited current occupant on the couch at the inspection (our 11.30 am, bright and spacious apt recently carpeted).

Leichhardt 2br ... $550, AKA the house of the mouldering bone, was not re-advertised the following week, presumably because it had been leased to someone less prejudiced against, well, bones and stuff.

A similar situation in Victoria has led the Victorian Council of Social Service to launch a campaign for improved conditions in rental accommodation, fetchingly named “Decent Not Dodgy”. The photo gallery of shame they have created on Facebook would not be surprising for many, such as myself, who have lived in cheap inner-city rentals since being a student in the 1990s, and who are more than familiar with spectacular mildew constellations on shower ceilings.

The bright spots in this househunting cycle of hell mainly consist of moments of sheer amusement at the rhetorical extravagance peculiar to real-estate ad copy. We arrived at one house advertised as having a “large shower area” to learn that the bathroom, reached by a poorly covered (or “sunny exterior”) walkway around from the kitchen, consisted of a tiled room with a sink in one corner and a shower head in the other, with no other fittings apart from a drain hole in the floor. In the kitchen, a hand-lettered sign above the stove sternly commanded: “TURN OF THE GAS”. I was at a loss for exactly how to describe the little room under the stairs with an earthen floor in the same house, dimly apparent under the gleam of the living room’s fluorescent bar-light. Two young women there at the same time were also fascinated: “It’s the naughty girls’ cupboard,” one of them drawled, “you know all about that.” The other one shrieked.

I’m still sorry we didn’t get around to inspecting the 10.25 am, Federation delight with ornimated [sic] ceilings. Aside from the usual exercises in hyperbole, ultra-compression and creative neologism, there’s a bountiful use of quotation marks – a kind of paroxysm of citation, where anything and everything is strangely, randomly intensified and obscurely validated: “Secluded Oasis in a Prime Location! This sophisticated ‘warehouse style’ executive residence offers loads of light, privacy and space … it just ‘oozes appeal’… plus an additional study or rumpus area – which happens to be the garage ‘converted’.” We had to “skip” that one because of a clash with some other paradisiacal prospect.

Weeks of exposure to this depressing landscape have taken their toll, and every Saturday I’ve ended up slumped in the car by 2.30 pm “desperate” for a “drink”, having decided that it isn’t worth it and we should stay where we are. Then, a couple of days later, I step on a slug “again” on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, manage to forget about it by morning, only to sadly remember when confronted by its mangled corpse. It heats up to over 40 degrees in the “sunroom” when it reaches 30 outside (although the landlord assures us we’re the first tenants to mention it). There are skink lizards all over the kitchen, which I found surprising until I learnt they thrive in environments where there is a plentiful supply of cockroaches to eat.

We’ve recently moved back to Sydney from the US and it’s easy for the post-inspection blues to take a nostalgic turn, to start insisting that in Brooklyn we’d be renting a palace for that much – with a roof garden or a terrace, at least … It’s easy to forget the downsides of renting there: the exorbitant broker fees, 15% of a year’s rent, non-refundable, just to get a lease; the six-floor walk upstairs; heat that goes off for weeks when it’s way below freezing outside.

In any case, our Sydney landlord has decided that our “hysterical” complaints about the heat and our demands for a larger garbage bin and other such luxuries are out of order. She has declined to continue our lease, but has offered the helpful advice that we “buy a town house” where we can be “happy”. Why didn’t we think of that?

Kirsten Tranter

Kirsten Tranter is an author and literary critic. Her most recent book is Hold (4th Estate).

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