Ali­son Adams-smith re­flects on her rent­ing life – from stu­dent flats to house leases – and finds not much to rec­om­mend the tenant’s lot.

North & South - - Contents - BY ALI­SON ADAMS- SMITH

A se­rial renter looks back on a roller­coaster 35 years of life as a flat­mate and tenant – and finds lit­tle to rec­om­mend it.

Iwas a tenant for most of my adult life. I’ve rented by the room, in hos­tels and houses; I’ve rented half-houses and, as my as­pi­ra­tions grew with my fam­ily, even whole houses. I cal­cu­late that in my 35 years of flat­ting or rent­ing, I con­trib­uted more than $500,000 to other peo­ple’s nest eggs – with not much in re­turn in the way of se­cu­rity or com­fort.

In 1982, I was 19 and back in New Zealand from Kuwait, where I’d spent six years with my ex­pat par­ents. I dropped an­chor in Auck­land and moved into Rock­lands Hall, a stu­dent hos­tel in Ep­som. Ep­som was, as now, a dress-cir­cle sub­urb bristling with newly gen­tri­fied villa fa­cades and gar­dens. This did not make one iota of dif­fer­ence to the res­i­dents of the hos­tel, some of whom had cho­sen teach­ers’ col­lege be­cause back then it was an easy op­tion for work train­ing and you didn’t need a uni­ver­sity de­gree. So I lived in my tiny room cheek by jowl with some of the stu­pid­est and most cos­seted teens it has been my mis­for­tune to meet. (This is by no means a re­flec­tion on the hard-work­ing and gifted stu­dents who were there, too, in equal mea­sure.)

Here I added a new def­i­ni­tion to one word in my vo­cab­u­lary, when I

wit­nessed a “he­li­copter” for the first time. For the unini­ti­ated, this is when you get your­self so drunk you’re on the verge of vom­it­ing. You then climb onto some­thing, such as a tree stump or ta­ble, and throw your­self off while twist­ing in a crude “dou­ble Axel”. When you ac­tu­ally start to spew, you vomit in a cir­cle, which is pro­jected much more widely than any or­di­nary re­gur­gi­ta­tion, and this adds drama and a strange kind of le­git­i­macy (with hind­sight) to one of the most em­bar­rass­ing mo­ments of your life. This is best done out­side.

Fol­low­ing a car ac­ci­dent and a stint liv­ing with my grand­mother while I re­cov­ered, I moved into a villa in Pon­sonby, where the lounge had been con­verted into a fifth bed­room. Three of the bed­rooms had proper fire­places and were quite spa­cious.

As the new­est mem­ber of the flat (and only fe­male), I got the grot­ti­est room. It was next to the bath­room and kitchen, so was also the nois­i­est bed­room. When flat­mate Rob and his mates gath­ered in the din­ing- cum-tiny TV room to watch rugby and drink beer, I got no peace, so it was bet­ter to join in. More dif­fi­cult was the time Pete brought a friend home from the pub and wres­tled with this in­di­vid­ual, of un­known gen­der judg­ing by the grunts and shrieks, on the other side of my door at two in the morn­ing.

The villa was as cold as ice in win­ter. The bath­room and toi­let were squalid, as clean­ing was not some­thing any of the boys did, and when I sug­gested a ros­ter for chores, they all looked side­ways at each other and drifted away to do more im­por­tant things. The wash­ing ma­chine was one you had to pour wa­ter into, then empty and re­fill with each rinse; it also had a tem­per­a­men­tal man­gle to get the clothes as dry as pos­si­ble be­fore hang­ing them, still drip­ping, on the line.

We had a flat kitty, which was sup­posed to cover food and bills, but al­ways came up short at month’s end. This was due, in large part, to Colin’s con­tri­bu­tion. Colin had one of the cov­eted front bed­rooms and in­ter­acted very lit­tle. He had a PHD in Chi­nese his­tory and de­liv­ered booze from the lo­cal off-li­cence for a job. On pay­day, he would spend his en­tire kitty con­tri­bu­tion on sausages and mince – and then come home and eat at least a quar­ter of it on the first day.

When my re­la­tion­ship with Pete had de­gen­er­ated to such a de­gree I could no longer tol­er­ate his ac­tiv­i­ties, I moved out. The fi­nal straw was when he de­cided uni­lat­er­ally it was my turn to do all the dishes (when it re­ally wasn’t) and put them all in my bed while I was at work. I re­turned the favour when he went out to the pub.

I then moved to a house in Grey Lynn and flat­ted with the own­ers un­til their new Al­sa­tian puppy peed on all my LPS. A stint fol­lowed at a place in Grafton where a man called Paul grew mar­i­juana plants on his win­dowsill at the back of the villa. I also shared this flat with Ge­orgina, whose room took up more than a third of the en­tire house. She was tak­ing two papers in fine art. Her fam­ily home had burnt down as a child, and her favourite phrase, when faced with any­thing even a lit­tle in­con­ve­nient, was, “I can’t cope.” No milk, some­one in the loo, rain­ing out­side: “I can’t cope.”

Tom was the fourth flat­mate. He had fiery red hair and a girl­friend with skin like whipped cream. He would get up at lunchtime, then walk to the dairy to buy a pa­per and cig­a­rettes. His af­ter­noon was spent read­ing the pa­per from cover to cover, af­ter which he would re­tire to his room to write mys­te­ri­ous es­says for some un­known uni­ver­sity course. No mat­ter what ques­tion you asked him, from “Is there any mail?” to “Was Mao Tse Tung good for China?”, his in­evitable re­ply was “It’s hard to say, re­ally.”

Af­ter I’d been liv­ing there for nine months, I was star­tled out of my sleep at about 6am by a po­lice raid. Six cops burst through the un­locked front door, shout­ing for us to come out of our rooms and as­sem­ble in the cor­ri­dor.

In my des­per­ate rush to the toi­let (it was ur­gent), I saw Paul at his back win­dow, pitch­ing all his dope plants over the ve­randa, so they landed just shy of the Grafton Gully mo­tor­way.

The po­lice searched Paul and Ge­orgina’s rooms, and gave Paul a warn­ing, but we had two more raids over the next six months, so I moved into a house on the other side of the road, where I’d made a new friend. The owner of this house had in­her­ited it and was a dilet­tante artist, who didn’t pro­duce any work but had a girl­friend who stayed over a lot. My friend and I nick­named her “the deci­bel queen” in light of her ex­pres­sive screams ev­ery time they had sex.

In 1985, Mum and Dad came to New Zealand for the hol­i­days and bought an in­vest­ment prop­erty in St He­liers, Auck­land. It was a three-bed­room house with three ad­join­ing flats. My brother and I were given very cheap ac­com­mo­da­tion in two of the one-bed­room flats, which were well main­tained and warm. Ev­ery­thing worked as it should. For the

first time since I’d ar­rived in the coun­try, I felt se­cure and com­fort­able. It was a tran­quil time for me, which con­tin­ued un­til I left uni­ver­sity in 1991 with a mas­ter in en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ence.

By that time, I’d been liv­ing with my boyfriend, a Swedish plumber (who I’ll call J), for about three years. Mum and Dad had re­turned from the Mid­dle East and set­tled in Taranaki. They de­cided it was time to sell the St He­liers prop­erty. I had my first proper job at a firm of con­sult­ing en­gi­neers, and J and I moved to Herne Bay, where we lived in one half of a turn-of-the-cen­tury villa; the other half was rented by an older cou­ple who had been the ten­ants for eight years. It was the first time I’d ever signed a lease.

J and I were happy there, mak­ing the most of the charm­ing, shared back gar­den and the pocket hand­ker­chief patch in the front. When my sis­ter gave us a boxer puppy from their bitch’s first lit­ter, our neigh­bours agreed we could keep him; it never oc­curred to us to get per­mis­sion from the land­lord, al­though I’m sure he knew.

My first proper job was also the first one I was made re­dun­dant from about a year later. There were a few firsts at this junc­ture: my first visit to So­cial Wel­fare to get the un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fit, my first feel­ing of un­cer­tainty about what the fu­ture held, and my first ma­jor wrench from my fu­ture hus­band.

I was find­ing it dif­fi­cult to get work in Auck­land with my qual­i­fi­ca­tions. Af­ter four months, I was hired as a ju­nior policy an­a­lyst at MAF (the then-min­istry of Agri­cul­ture & Fish­eries), which re­quired a move to Welling­ton. J did not want to go – he had a good job al­ready and was con­tent where he was. So we said a tear­ful good­bye and I moved ev­ery­thing I owned, in­clud­ing the puppy and two cats, to a small and dis­mal house in Han­son St, Welling­ton. I quickly found a flat­mate, through the govern­ment net­work, who was hardly ever there – per­fect. Once again, I shared a back­yard, this time with two young women who lived in a pre­fab out back. They were there most of the time and took de­light in look­ing af­ter lit­tle Luther, the puppy, while I worked in the city.

Fi­nan­cially, times were good for me and J, but liv­ing apart was hard. By late 1992 we were en­gaged, and he moved down to be with me. We rented a tatty lit­tle cot­tage on South Karori Rd, with no shower and a rain­wa­ter tank for our wa­ter. We were sur­rounded by pad­docks and life­style prop­er­ties and, for the first time, we had real dif­fi­culty with our land­lord. He and his wife lived next door; this was not the prob­lem, but get­ting him to do any re­pairs was. Ev­ery time we needed him to fix some­thing, he in­sisted on com­ing over with­out no­tice to make an in­spec­tion first, just to make sure we had not caused the dam­age in ques­tion. He had chronic em­phy­sema, from a life­time of smok­ing. He was un­able to take more than three steps with­out stop­ping to suck in a chok­ing breath and rest­ing for five to 10 sec­onds. This meant an in­spec­tion for any re­pair that should have taken five min­utes would take half an hour. He usu­ally didn’t speak, as he had no breath left, so we had no idea what he was think­ing and what the out­come would be. He would lurch

If you rent, pets are the first of three “Ps” that are al­most al­ways for­bid­den. The other two are pic­tures and par­ties.

back to his house and noth­ing would hap­pen. No re­pair. No ex­pla­na­tion. We nick­named him “Mr Wheeze”.

Door­knobs fell off, the wash­ing ma­chine stopped work­ing, the roof leaked, fuses blew, the clothes­line rusted away and win­dows leaked in the rain. No re­pairs were ever done, ex­cept those we did our­selves. There were so many gaps around the doors and win­dows, the wind whis­tled through the place like a rail­way tun­nel. It didn’t warm up un­til we put duct tape over all the gaps, which meant we couldn’t open one of the doors or any of the win­dows all win­ter.

But the pièce de ré­sis­tance was an at­ti­tude so miserly it ri­valled any­thing I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore or since from an owner. In an un­usu­ally dry late sum­mer, our wa­ter turned brown and un­drink­able, so we asked the land­lord’s wife about it. Her guess was the tank was near-empty. She said she’d speak to her hus­band and, grudg­ingly, gave us two nine-litre buck­ets of wa­ter to tide us over un­til the tank was re­filled. That was on Thurs­day. On Fri­day, we came home from work to find noth­ing had been done. We went over to re­fill our buck­ets and ask when the taps would be run­ning again. A third bucket of wa­ter to flush the toi­let was de­nied.

Ap­par­ently, Mr Wheeze had been sorely ex­er­cised by our dilemma, and was still un­de­cided about what to do. Since it was now Fri­day even­ing, he’d need to pay ex­tra for the wa­ter tanker, and that wasn’t go­ing to hap­pen. By Satur­day morn­ing, he had a plan, which in­volved bor­row­ing a pump from his neigh­bour and at­tach­ing a se­ries of gar­den hoses to it. The pump would be placed in the Karori stream, which ran through a gully about 120m from our house.

The pump was duly col­lected. We then sloshed around in the stream while Mr Wheeze di­rected us. J, the plumber, knew ex­actly what had to be done, but was not al­lowed to do it. When­ever he ar­gued with our land­lord, the re­ply was, “Do you want wa­ter?” When J fi­nally got the pump work­ing, it didn’t have suf­fi­cient horse­power to pump the wa­ter up the bank.

It was Satur­day even­ing and we had not show­ered since Thurs­day morn­ing. Still with no wa­ter, we got into the car and made it to the lo­cal swim­ming pool just be­fore it closed where we had hot show­ers. On our re­turn, we went over to fill up our buck­ets and got a tellingoff for dis­turb­ing Mr Wheeze, who was about to go to bed.

By Mon­day af­ter­noon, with our wa­ter tank still empty, J was apoplec­tic and stormed next door. I should have stayed home, but I couldn’t re­sist wit­ness­ing the fury about to be un­leashed on our worth­less land­lord. Us­ing nu­mer­ous Scan­di­na­vian ep­i­thets and threat­en­ing to call the coun­cil, J left Mr Wheeze blink­ing in the on­slaught. His wife wisely stayed in­side. We went home and drank too much. I de­layed go­ing to work for a few hours next morn­ing, long enough to wit­ness the tanker round­ing the cor­ner at 10am. Mr Wheeze hid from us for weeks af­ter that.

The irony of the “wa­ter wars” is, even 25 years later, it would be im­pos­si­ble for a tenant to force such an in­tran­si­gent land­lord to im­me­di­ately pro­vide wa­ter. Un­der the Res­i­den­tial Te­nan­cies Act 1986, in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion such as hav­ing no wa­ter at all, a land­lord is nor­mally ex­pected to rec­tify the sit­u­a­tion within 24 hours. If he doesn’t, the tenant’s next al­ter­na­tive is a “14- day no­tice” to ask for the sit­u­a­tion to be re­solved within 14 days. If a tenant de­cides to pay for the wa­ter him­self in­stead of wait­ing for the land­lord, and takes that out of the rent, the land­lord can still take him to the Te­nancy Tri­bunal for short­ing the rent, de­spite the cir­cum­stances.

While the tenant is more than likely to win the case, his name is still on the reg­is­ter of hav­ing been to the tri­bunal and this can taint fur­ther ef­forts to find rental prop­er­ties.

Some time af­ter that soggy saga, J and I got mar­ried and re­turned to Auck­land for bet­ter jobs. I went to an­other con­sult­ing en­gi­neer­ing firm and J got his old job back. We found a tidy ex-state house on the wrong side of West Ta­maki Rd in Glen Innes, but with a good land­lady who was happy for us to have Luther and Cedric the cat. We could af­ford to pay a higher rent, and all went well for some years un­til our son Daniel was born.

Down to one in­come, with a baby who woke up ev­ery two hours for more than a year, it was a pretty test­ing time. There was no paid ma­ter­nity leave and we couldn’t get a rent re­duc­tion, so I went back to work part- time when Daniel was four months.

I re­turned to a changed work land­scape. As a part-timer, my sunny desk near the win­dow was now an in­ner cu­bi­cle that was dark and noisy. The in­ter­est­ing jobs that had brought me so much sat­is­fac­tion had been as­signed to oth­ers, so my work be­came much more rou­tine; there are only so many re­source con­sents a per­son can write for cell­phone tow­ers be­fore go­ing slightly mad. But then a job came up at an oil com­pany in New Ply­mouth. Sud­denly I was earn­ing enough for all of us.

Taranaki was boom­ing – full of ex­pats and oil ex­perts from the North Sea. Our pleas­ant four-bed­room villa was close to town and rea­son­ably priced. The kitchen was circa-70s, but the house was airy and spa­cious, and I could walk to work. J looked af­ter Daniel while I went off to save the world, one en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment plan at a time. But we had to leave that house af­ter 18 months be­cause our land­lord wanted to move in, and the same thing hap­pened at our next rental. We moved three times in five years.

My con­tract fin­ished and I de­cided to go out on my own, so J went back to plumb­ing and we swapped par­ent­ing roles. By now, Daniel was at pre-school, so my oc­ca­sional trips to In­done­sia for work were lu­cra­tive but lo­gis­ti­cally dif­fi­cult for J. The Taranaki econ­omy be­gan to fal­ter, and J lost his job.

The wa­ter [had] turned brown... It was Satur­day even­ing and we had not show­ered since Thurs­day morn­ing.

Be­liev­ing he’d be em­ployed again soon, we sol­diered on. Only he didn’t find a job, and when one of my clients re­fused to pay an $18,000 in­voice just be­fore Christ­mas, we were in cri­sis again. With our sav­ings slip­ping away, we had to look fur­ther afield. We didn’t want to leave Taranaki, but Welling­ton was where the jobs were.

We found a very good house in a nice part of Karori for $450; it was 2004 and this was the most we’d ever paid in rent. This was also our first ex­pe­ri­ence deal­ing with a rental agent, rather than an owner-land­lord. It was not a change for the bet­ter. We paid a huge bond, and the agent re­fused to make any re­pairs af­ter we moved in. We were only al­lowed a year-long lease, to be re­newed an­nu­ally, with a new fee, of course. As it hap­pened, we moved out af­ter a year be­cause J and I split up af­ter 17 years to­gether.

As a solo mother with a six-year- old son and a dog, it was get­ting harder to find suitable, af­ford­able places. Oneyear leases were the norm, and agents were re­luc­tant to coun­te­nance any pet big­ger than a gold­fish. Even though I wasn’t on a ben­e­fit, the stigma was still there. Af­ter ap­ply­ing for sev­eral dwellings, I rented a place where the TV aerial didn’t work; the agent lied and said it wasn’t his job to have it fixed. The prop­erty came with a de­hu­mid­i­fier, which should have rung alarm bells, but I was too naive to re­alise I was rent­ing a money pit.

The next place, in Wil­ton, had a young land­lady who promptly in­stalled a devil-wor­ship­ping Goth in the flat be­neath us. He and his friends played loud death-metal music till all hours. When he was bur­gled, and the thieves stole his stereo, I couldn’t hide my joy from the po­lice.

Af­ter the Goth ex­pe­ri­ence, Daniel and I moved to a two-bed­room house in Kel­burn, which was more af­ford­able, but the land­lord was un­equiv­o­cal about not hav­ing dogs ( by then Luther, our beloved first boxer, had died). He also put a clause in the lease say­ing we were not al­lowed to quit the place dur­ing

A solo mum on a ben­e­fit and with a dog – three things that are death to find­ing a rental.

Jan­uary, which I knew wasn’t le­gal, but I signed it any­way, as I hadn’t found any­thing bet­ter.

The Kel­burn house had a stor­age room un­der­neath it, which we de­cided to con­vert into a third bed­room for a flat­mate whose rent would help with ex­penses. The land­lord gave his per­mis­sion for this work, so we re­moved all his stuff, cleaned and painted the room, put a han­dle and lock on the door, fixed the bro­ken win­dows, re-cov­ered the floor and put up cur­tains. Af­ter about $300 and many hours’ work, with help from friends, we had a small but per­fectly formed third bed­room. Three months later, the land­lord gave us no­tice and ac­quired new ten­ants who paid for a three-bed­room prop­erty.

A few years later, I moved back to New Ply­mouth with Daniel. At the first place we rented, the agent re­fused to clean up the rub­bish left by the pre­vi­ous ten­ants; the tiles in the kitchen and bath­room came off, and we had to scrub the ceil­ings to re­move gen­er­a­tions of filth. He’d also ne­glected to tell us our ad­dress had most re­cently been used as a tin­nie house, so for the first few months we had strange call­ers at all hours, un­til word got around that the place was “un­der new man­age­ment”.

Our last house in New Ply­mouth was a dump, but we had to take it be­cause once again we had dogs and I was on a ben­e­fit. (You may ask why dogs were nec­es­sary in our strait­ened cir­cum­stances, but be­ing on the ben­e­fit was tem­po­rary and I find it dif­fi­cult to live with­out dogs.) This dwelling was owned by an el­derly lady who had more than 20 prop­er­ties. She was con­sci­en­tious about fix­ing emer­gency prob­lems, but any­thing else she con­sid­ered low pri­or­ity. This in­cluded the rot­ting back porch, dan­ger­ous front steps, com­plete lack of in­su­la­tion and peel­ing wall­pa­per.

We ac­tu­ally got on well; she used to bring choco­late cake when she came over. This all changed when she be­came too in­firm to con­tinue man­ag­ing the prop­er­ties and her daugh­ter took over, ig­nor­ing all re­quests for main­te­nance if pos­si­ble and ly­ing about her re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. To be fair, she’d been brought up to be­lieve she was bet­ter than any ten­ants. She sim­ply bul­lied them un­til they stopped com­plain­ing.

Af­ter al­most two years, she gave me 90 days’ no­tice to move out of her crum­bling prop­erty, with no rea­son. (This still hap­pens all the time.) As a renter, it was a very dif­fi­cult pe­riod for me. A solo mum, on a ben­e­fit and with a dog – three things that are death to find­ing a rental, even though I al­ways paid the rent on time.

I joined a queue of would-be ten­ants, some of whom were able to pay above the pub­lished price. If you didn’t have a good ref­er­ence from your last place, or had ever been to the Te­nancy Tri­bunal, or if you had dogs or chil­dren, or were a ben­e­fi­ciary, or were too young or too old, there was al­ways some­one closer to the top of the pile who was a bet­ter prospect. And there were some places I just wouldn’t con­sider, like the house that was about half a me­tre from a crum­bling cliff, or the one with gaps be­tween the walls and the floor that were so wide it was pos­si­ble to see the trees in the yard.

Af­ter a fre­netic and har­row­ing three months, my fa­ther came to the res­cue. He stumped up a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of his life sav­ings for a de­posit and I looked around small-town Taranaki, where $200,000 still bought a mod­est, de­cent house. I set­tled on Eltham, now my adopted home town.

My three-bed­room cot­tage sits on a fenced 1300sqm sec­tion; it’s dry, in­su­lated and has a wood burner that pushes out heat. The bath­room is over­due for ren­o­va­tions, but the house has three toi­lets (one in the gar­den shed) and is home to three dogs and two cats who love it.

If you rent, pets are the first of three “Ps” that are al­most al­ways for­bid­den. The other two are pic­tures and par­ties. Now I can de­cide whether to cut the grass or have sheep eat it for me as I lounge in the sun dur­ing sum­mer week­ends. I will be paint­ing the in­te­rior later in the year, any colour I want, and I’ve just in­stalled a dog-door that re­quired a fair chunk of the back door to be cut out.

I can hang as many pic­tures as I damn well please and have a merry old kneesup when­ever I want, as long as I in­vite the neigh­bours. No one can throw me out of my house while I con­tinue to pay the mort­gage and rates. The very best thing is my to­tal ex­penses are still $100 less per week than I last paid in rent. Over the next five years or so, I’ll have enough equity in the house to pay Dad back in full.

Ren­ters in New Zealand are still sec­ond- class cit­i­zens. My ex­pe­ri­ence is that most land­lords couldn’t give a toss about their ten­ants so long as the rent and their mort­gage is paid. Be­ing able to buy a house has com­pletely changed my life – and my fu­ture. For the first time, my house is mine. +

The writer in her one-bed­room flat in St He­liers, in 1985.

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