The tenant who knew too much

Published on 01/09/2015

Gemma McKinnon – tenant in the Blue Mountains and HDR fellow at the UNSW Faculty of Law. Gemma is also a former Aboriginal Legal Officer at the Tenants’ Union of NSW

Gemma McKinnon, Blue Mountains tenant

I wear many hats: mother, friend, student, teacher, researcher, tenant, wife, country music enthusiast… Each of these, compartmentalised, functions as a well-oiled machine. However, as hundreds of self-help books and blogs seem to indicate, these hats tend to influence each other from time to time. Turns out it was inevitable that children who draw on walls and require bedrooms, would influence my previously smooth-running operation as a tenant.

No longer can I enjoy the trials and tribulations of the share house, or rock-and-roll lifestyle of a studio in Kings Cross furnished with nothing but a mattress on the floor. (These set-ups were the only ones that sat within my budgetary constraints.) Last year I moved out of Sydney so that my kids could have a backyard to play in and I could park my car in my own driveway, rather than 6 blocks away, down the only alley in the area where the parking spots aren’t time restricted.

Of course, some families can do this in Sydney – just not families on a single income with four children. Priced out of the Sydney rental market, I now spend four hours every workday sitting on a train. I don’t actually mind the commute, except for that fact that it’s time that I’d rather be spending with my family. It gives me time to organise my life, to tackle the important issues. For example, I have time to go over my periodic house inspection checklist. Some of you might recognise this as the list of spring-cleaning tasks that homeowners never have to do. Vacuum window rails and exhaust fan – check! Scrub driveway – check! Spray and wipe letterbox – check!

Perhaps I wouldn’t have to be so obsessive if I hadn’t heard every nightmare landlord story ever told, and if I didn’t know how easy it is for them to have us all evicted. One of my other hats involves spending my days working on research into how NSW tenancy laws conflict with human rights. I also spent the last three years of my life assisting tenants whose landlords had no sympathy for the fact that, for all intents and purposes, eviction equalled homelessness. As a result, I’m always prepared for the worst. I’m the tenant who knew too much!

Housing is the human right I have to work the hardest to maintain in my everyday life. This is despite the fact that I’m an Indigenous woman who managed to maintain employment through four pregnancies. I’m a discriminator’s dream! It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. The fact of the matter is that I’m not the only one in this position. Millions of tenants live with the possibility of eviction constantly hanging over their heads. Most, if not all, tenants will know what that threat feels like. The apprehension of going to the letter box, the pre-inspection stress, and feeling like you’re looking after someone else’s house.

The law gives us the right to peace, comfort, privacy and quiet enjoyment, but for the tenant who knows too much, those moments are few and far between. Despite ignorance being bliss for a while, it doesn’t lend itself to long-term rental success. I’m willing to do what I need to, to maintain housing for my family.

There’s an upside to being priced out of the city though. Life among nature, away from the noise and congestion of Sydney has proved beneficial for me. My renditions of My Tennessee Mountain Home are common – although not necessarily appreciated by the rest of the family! I work from home a lot and maintain a much better work/life balance. Perhaps fittingly, the life I’ve been forced into through the workings of the NSW housing system, might just be the perfect environment for me to write the thesis that gives that system the shake-up it needs.





Renting over the rainbow – survey