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Celebrating International Tenants Day with a story about the ups and downs of finding a home
The launch of the ACT Tenants' Union International Tenants' Day Exhibition was held on Monday 24th September at the Theo Notaras Multicultural Centre . We were overwhelmed by the enthusiastic attendance from both public and private tenants, representatives of ACT Housing and our colleagues at local community and advocacy organisations. The exhibition was formally opened by Minister Joy Burch MLA, and local private housing tenant, and Canberran writer Rosanna Stevens told a tale of how she found home in the ACT. We loved her heartfelt and well observed story so much we have decided to share it with you below.
by Rosanna Stevens
I’ve crafted a bit of an identity around my love of, and affiliation with the Blue Mountains; my hair goes wild as soon as I’ve hit the thin, soft air up there, and many of my stories have been inspired by the lives and experiences of people I know who I’ve grown up with. Once, I wrote a story about two girls who decide to shake their learners plates from their old bomb, and dress up as elderly people in short grey wigs and tea saucer-frame glasses in an effort to make a police-proof and very-illegal trip to collect an old hitch-hiker who has captured their imaginations. Replace the gnarled old hitch-hiker with a trip to McDonalds and you’ve got a ridiculous event that two schoolmates managed to execute. On another occasion, I wrote a story about a woman who, after years of living in Canberra, returns to her mother’s cottage to clean the place out after she inherits it. The story was based loosely on local Mountains-knowledge, and the relationship I’ve had with my mother, and my mother with her mother, and for a year after the piece was published I made every effort to evade telling Mum the story even existed – that was, until it received a lovely review in a major Australian weekend newspaper, after which my mother promptly and very-unawares took herself down to the local bookshop and purchased a copy. I found this out by proxy: a text message from my sister reading, ‘Mum’s read the story. Not happy, Jan.’ My mother’s only direct response to the story was a phone call, where she said, ‘If you’re going to write about Royal Dalton, you can at least spell it properly – how did an editor not pick that up?’ I know on that occasion I shaved too close to the ‘home’ bone, and I’ve learnt my lesson. What I meant to say is, where we come from grows the stories that shape each of our histories and lives, and this is something my work is constantly trying to point out.
I’ve just started a new job at the ACT Writers Centre, and between the three members of staff, we’re all still settling into having a new person in the office. Last week, the Centre’s Director, Kelli-Anne Moore, was standing near my desk. She knows that this year, I’ve moved from my home in the Blue Mountains to study and work here in Canberra, and she also knows I’ve got quite an attachment to my mother’s house in Wentworth Falls. In some quiet moment while trying to reconnect our then-flailing Internet, Kelli turned to me and asked, ‘Hey Rosie, where do you call home? What’s ‘home’ to you?’ It was an excellent question, it gave a kind of relief -- like the third or fourth time a guest comes over, this time to discover your house isn’t always unnervingly neat, and it’s in that moment of domestic relief when they discover your subscription to something unfortunate, and two mismatched socks you’re pretty sure you never owned strewn under the coffee table, that they become your friend.
I considered Kelli’s question for a moment. I’d always thought of the Mountains as ‘home’, no matter where else I’d rented, but in recent months ‘home’ has become more complicated than I ever thought it could be. I have a home in the Blue Mountains; I know the roads and the locals there, I have a bedroom waiting for me that I feel safe and comfortable in, and there’s a well-stocked pantry. I have a home in a person; my partner offers me unconditional love, comfort and support, a shower with excellent water pressure, and she too provides a well-stocked pantry. I’m quite glad we don’t have an association to regulate the tenancies of coupledom, because I’m certain I’d have been held accountable for far too many inequalities, and possibly some rent-owed already. My most recent home, however, is quite an unusual development for me. These days, I also have a home in Campbell, where I pay rent and I live with three housemates and a cat called Morris.
Now, I can’t claim too-much of a history with Our Nation’s Fair Capital; I moved away when I was seven years old. But before that, the ACT was a place I loved fiercely. I grew up in Griffith, and attended Red Hill Primary School. As a family, my two sisters and my parents visited Timmy’s Kitchen in Manuka every Friday – we went there when it was still set up in the tiny Thai place now-next door to the larger mechanism Timmy’s has become, though the Shan Tung Chicken is still exactly the way it was in 1996. I remember that the Griffith Shops felt like nothing more than an IGA and a butcher. I remember playing in the Red Hill Primary School playground before there was a basketball court, and while there was still an illustrious pre-sandpit dirt area called ‘The Marble Pit’, where students would spend all of their lunchtimes sifting through dirt to find shards of hundreds of different kinds of glass marble, though we never wondered where the chips came from. I kept my pieces of marble in a pencil sharpener. What I remember most vividly about my childhood in Canberra is where I was when my mother came in to tell my sister and I that we had sold our house. We were sitting in the bath. It was probably about five in the afternoon in early summer, and sun was shafting through some ominously high window in the bathroom. Mum was wearing a full-length blue linen dress with a while paisley pattern. The tiles in the bathroom were green. I returned to Canberra this year to study at the ANU, and develop a collaborative literary community for young and emerging writers and artists. I was incredibly excited about moving back, but I was convinced that my time here would seem somehow impermanent; that reconnecting to the place was a waste of time. I was a mountain girl, and, given some of my prior renting experiences, this period in Canberra was only a flash in the pan.
I first moved into student accommodation, and I won’t tell you where exactly, but after six months I was quick to move out. How universities expect a full-time student receiving no government support to pay nearly $300 per week for a room baffles me, but what I find most concerning in student Halls are two things: firstly, the nepotism is rampant; you get into a hall based on who your parents were, and whether your family lived in the same hall, which, from my experience, is not remotely how applying for a rental property works. How these factors determine your eligibility as a caring member of a student community is beyond me, and the clear lack of egalitarianism gives me hives. Secondly, student halls are designed to give young adults everything they need to survive without requiring them to participate in the external Canberra community, and to me this is concerning because it’s not encouraging great minds to stay in Canberra, and it’s also preventing them from developing a sense of home, or a sense of pride in where they live. There are students in university accommodation who have only left their halls to go to class, or to travel to the airport to go home for holidays. I have met them. They don’t know where O’Connor is.
I was worrying about making rent long before I left this tertiary cult, and my concerns spurred me to look for somewhere else to live. I sent the word out among the Canberra community – a group I was lucky to have, and one I had decided to prioritise rather than developing close affiliations with anyone in my student hall. I think the students there really saw me as an artistic rogue; ah yes, the only blink-of-a-moment in my life where I might have been considered an outlaw of sorts. Only a few hours later I received an email from a lovely married couple in Campbell. The email detailed that the household was looking for someone to fill their recently-spare room, they had a cat, they didn’t have a television, and most importantly, they had a study space with astroturf on the floor. And while this may sound like more of a cult to you than any student accommodation ever might, it was my idea of the perfect abode. I now live in a house where we eat breakfast in the morning while listening to ABC Classic FM, where we share medicating the cat, who has a chronic heart condition, and where we lend bikes and cars and shoes to one another. We also have a well stocked pantry, so I can safely say this place really is my home, and it’s the first place I’ve rented where I’ve felt quite this way.
Now, I’ve had some interesting run-ins with living in places I certainly wouldn’t call my home. In the past I’ve found myself in some peculiar positions as a renter, or, more often than not, a subletter, which is something I’m not certain is entirely legal in Australia. I’m quite sure it’s not remotely legal. But when you’re a full-time university student in Melbourne, you’re working in an incoming calls centre for an airline I won’t name that I recommend you never fly with, and a permanently meaty aftertaste has aided in your realisation that any noodle dish with a green vegetable slotted between the brown does not constitute daily nutrition, paying minimal rent for an apartment with no front door, at the top of a vintage shop in the heart of two-AM-street-throbbing-drunk-backpacker St Kilda seems almost reasonable. Almost, because when customers continually seem to emerge from your bathroom while the cistern’s hissing, and when you don’t have a functioning oven because you’re paying rent to a vintage store owner who is paying rent to the oily café next door, and the whole process seems impossibly convoluted and you’ve already tried grilling a roast dinner, it’s difficult to say just having a roof over your head is ‘enough’. On another occasion, I co-rented with a school friend of mine and her sister in Ashfield, Sydney. The rent was steep, and my co-renters, as sisters, set the place up like their home, which sounds lovely, but when you wake on a weekday to the sound of your housemates’ mother vaccuming outside your room, you begin to question your position as an equal in the house. I felt so uncomfortable in the place, I used to take my washing to a friend’s, and every weekend I’d return to the Blue Mountains to return to a place that felt like my own. When I told my housemates I was unhappy, I was met with, ‘Oh, that’s okay. We were going to talk to you about leaving anyway. You don’t pay for washing detergent. Or toothpaste.’ I should outline that their toothpaste featured a red ring around its always-opened lid, from where they would suck the paste out in the morning. So they were right, while I did not participate in their toothpaste, I also did not pay for said toothpaste.
All of the things that were missing from each of these situations were basic needs or limitations of mine that weren’t considered by those I was living with, or those who were asking for me to pay for the place I lived in. And on each of these occasions, I found myself hovering in a place, not settling into a home, and I think this is the fundamental difference between being a happy tenant whose voice is heard, and being a tenant who is silenced by technicality or necessity. This sense of home we crave, that’s what the Tenants Union is inspired to protect. We remove the self-applicability of a Tenants Union because the term is concerned with representing the rights and interests of people known anonymously, as an occupant, or resident, or a renter, or leaseholder, or lodger; they’re such clinical terms. We see them as people who are nomadic, or impermanent, and somehow less valuable, so we don’t explore these ideas until we are one of them, and even then sometimes we exclude ourselves, and in doing this, we deny ourselves a body of people who are there to represent and take care of our identities as tenants.
While writing this, I began to think about why Kelli had asked what ‘home’ was for me. I was hoping her response would communicate some kind of gentle insight I could use to neatly and profoundly end this story with, you know, in the manner Hollywood dramas leave their viewers feeling the same way everyone did at the close of American Beauty: self-reflexive and a little unnerved about buying red roses. Unfortunately for me, I’m yet to construct a blockbuster: Kelli surprised me. She said, ‘Oh, well, because I always thought the Blue Mountains were your home, but you started calling them the Blue Mountains, and somewhere else home… and then sometimes you did call the Blue Mountains home, but I wasn’t sure if you were talking about the Blue Mountains, or if your family home was somewhere else.’ I was shocked: I was calling somewhere else home? I was calling the Blue Mountains the Blue Mountains? Where else was home? What was my mouth saying without my permission? And this confused observation ironically provided me with clarity: maybe of the Hollywood RomCom breed: a cheesy fade-out to upbeat soul music. Home is manifested in all of the people and the places we feel most comfortable and most ourselves. When we are denied these things, we are without a place to belong. It’s absolutely okay to feel this way about many places, but when these needs aren’t met, when we feel displaced or homeless, we have an organisation – a Tenants Union – that was invented to institutionalise these rights and given the will protect our sense of home.
Rosanna is a writer, and co-founder of Canberra literary collective Scissors Paper Pen. You can follow her on Twitter: @rosannabeatrice or take a peek at her sometimes-updated blog: www.rosiesipsspiders.wordpress.com