My experience with private rental accommodation in Australia was horrific. I chose to write a story about it with a hint of humour. Creative writing for my own blog.
Before You Get Into Private Rental…
As a graduated journalist, I know that journalism is mostly about conveying stories as an impartial third party. But sometimes you might just have a story too good to not write about yourself. And that is exactly the situation I am in right now. I have this good story. Which is not really a good story as in a good happy story, but a good story because it shows how cruel and deceitful a person can be for no apparent reason.
Private accommodation rental in the city of Townsville in North Queensland, Australia. Some of you might think “Yeah, what about it?” and others, I know that there are many of you, will say “Enough said”. Out loud. For the ones who have no experience on the topic, this will be a shocking ride for you. For the latter group of people – I feel so good that you exist and are able to relate to the nightmare I have been through. Of course, I do feel bad for you at the same time. Really, I do not wish those kinds of experiences on anyone. But I am pretty selfish, and I do not like to be alone in difficult situations either.
Let’s get to it then. When you rent a house or apartment, even a share house, as an adult in your mid-twenties, you expect your landlord to give you some kind of privacy and at least to treat you with decency. I believed you should be able to expect that without being too demanding or naive. Well, before I came to Australia that is.
I will shorten down my first private rental experience in a quick summary. I was living with a nursing student who sometimes practiced with her syringes and other medical instruments on the balcony. Our landlord had as a habit to come by our house when it suited him, and one day he found those syringes lying around on a table. Then hell broke lose, with countless accusations that we were heavy drug users. My landlord talked about us injecting ourselves with drugs to our neighbours, and said that our explanation about the syringes being for purely educational purposes for the nursing student was just a bad excuse for what really was going on.
Everyone suddenly believed that I was shooting myself up with heroin. Great. So I moved out as quickly as I could and found this other place. It was a two-storey share house with an amazing deck overlooking an oasis of a pool; I even had my own balcony. The landlord seemed really nice too, so I signed a six months contract.
I remember my first night after I was done with moving all my stuff into the house. I was sitting in my new oasis drinking a corona and dipping my feet in the pool, so relieved. I was no longer an alleged drug addict and I had a seemingly decent landlord, finally. Little did I know what was lurking in the shadows…
The story about my second experience is far more complex, and it lasted for a period of over five months. I can still feel the aftershocks from it while I am sitting here writing in a safe and relaxed environment in my new backyard with a cup of Bali coffee.
So, over to that crazy landlord No. 2. Keys. I never received any keys to the property. No keys, except for my own bedroom and one screen door in front of a heavy wooden front door. And we had three entrances to the house, two of them were never locked at all. Welcome to my humble abode! You can get in whenever you want to, straight from the street! I do not even have to be home to have guests. If you are my neighboor, my friend or just a thief or a little murderer, I will let you inside. Mostly because I do not have a way to keep you out.
I did try to talk to my landlord about it, but he got furious and yelled at me. I did not need any more keys, no other tenant had ever asked him about it before. When I insisted on having keys, he went to my housemates and told them that he did not think I understood English. “Make Cornelia understand that the front door is only for display purposes”.
Yep, so that happened.
This guy was also that kind of landlord who just came into the house unannounced, sometimes completely without purpose. Not that I run around naked or in my underwear that often, but I do like to have the freedom to do so if I wish when I am in my own home. But with an angry and misled middle-aged man always sneaking around the corner with full access to a house we did not have any keys for, even the towel-walk from the bathroom after a shower was uncomfortable.
My housemates and I bought a nice gas barbeque to have on the porch in the backyard. When my landlord saw that, he started yelling again. He demanded us to remove the grill from the porch and place it in a hidden spot behind a bush on the other side of the house as soon as possible. Or “ASAP!” as he so kindly screamed at us while his slightly shaking face turned red in fury. Did we not know how big of a fire hazard a barbeque was? Are we some complete idiots? Insurance would not cover it if something were to happen because of that death machine. Which is kind of funny, because I am pretty sure that his insurance would not have covered anything if the whole house burned down from a kitchen fire or a fallen candle either. Simply because we did not have either smoke detectors or fire alarms.
A quick reading on the fire safety page on the Queensland government website tells you that by law, a smoke alarm must be installed on each level in a multi-storey house and that anyone who sleeps with their door closed should have a smoke alarm installed in their bedroom. Further reading also informs you that you cannot install alarms near windows, doors, fans or air conditioners, as air movement may prevent smoke and gases from reaching the alarm or cause false alarms. We had one alarm in the entire house, and it was located right next to the always wide-open front door.
But as the nice and obedient, and honestly quite scared, tenants we were, we did as we were told and moved the poor barbeque to a place where no one could ever see it again. What we also did, which was quite a deadly sport, was to finally start sending our aggressive landlord notice to remedy breach-forms from the Residential Tenancies Authority (RTA). We had a contract, we had rights, and we wanted to live like most people. In privacy, in a locked home safe from house fires.
If you thought we had a crazy landlord before, you are terribly mistaken. The RTA-forms made him take off like a military missile through the roof of his own house, aim for us, and explode in our living room. There were many times he came into the house and started yelling out our names and demanding us to come and talk to him face to face. A couple of times he even started hammering angrily on my bedroom door. I was hiding under my duvet pretending I was at the university library, but my car outside divulged my presence. Traitor. Still, there was no way I was going to open up my door for this potential axe murderer. “Cornelia! Cornelia! I know you’re in there! Come out!”
He ended up sending aggressive emails instead, and let me qoute him in some of them:
"I don't know what lingering around the premises longer than required means. Sounds like venom rather than fact. So what, you've been standing there with a stopper checking on how long I linger around? This accusation is utterly twisted and catty.”
“I take no pleasure in this tit for tat exchange. I would suggest that you refrain from making any further unsubstantiated and vexatious claims, the only aim of which is to annoy and irritate.”
I was afraid of being home alone. I stayed out as long as possible, at the library or at friends’ places, just to be 100 per cent certain that some of my housemates would be there when I got home at night time. He started to send text messages to my mobile phone as well; I blocked his number, and went helplessly to the accommodation office at the university for support. There was not much they could do to help – we were locked in a contract, which my landlord had no interest in letting us out of. But they advised us to go to the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) and move out from that unsafe environment as quickly as we could. Physical and mental health came before economic issues.
So I did that. I lodged a residential tenancy dispute-form to the tribunal, got some financial help from my very understanding and worried family, and moved out with one of my housemates to pay double rent in order to feel safe.
I do not know what happened after that. If it was the sight of my vacated bedroom or a letter from the tribunal that made my landlord aware of the seriousness of the situation. But after a couple of weeks with double rent, he let me out of my contract, paid me back what I had overpaid in rent, and signed the form so I could get back my bond money. All I care about is that I no longer have to deal with him, and that I am living in a place where I can breathe, and barbeque, freely.
This text is getting far too long for anyone to get through without having a lunch break, and I have not mentioned half of the issues I had with these landlords. I still feel I have managed to describe a few alarming episodes of something I once believed only happened in bad, low-budget horror movies. I went from being a naive happy student to an alleged heroin addict to a scared little girl who always looked over her shoulder in less than six months.
I know I have been writing with a certain kind of humour throughout the whole story, but please note that this is not a joke. I can only hope that after reading this, you will think twice, or rather twenty seven times, about it and do sufficient background research before you sign any kinds of contracts on the private market.