This year was going to be just like any other year. I was planning on spending way too much time and way too much money commuting into the city from my overly expensive home in the suburbs. I was going to continue to throw most of my income at a rental that was not properly insulated, using a camping stove every night because the stovetop never worked properly and I was going to continue emailing the property manager new photos of the leaks on the walls every few weeks, pleading for something to be done about it, only to have those requests ignored.
Some of the lights didn't work, some of the plugs were not to be touched. Every time it rained, you'd have to watch not to slip on the huge puddle of water that'd form inside the house, by the front door. We weren't allowed to hang any photos of the wall unless there was a nail on it before we moved in. It made it hard to make that crappy leaky rental a family home. Somehow, we managed. Despite the many hundreds of dollars in weekly rent, the rain inside the house and the long commute, things were okay.
Then one day, in January, it all changed. The owner of the house agreed to send someone in to fix the roof leak, after two years of requests. I thought it was some kind of delayed Christmas miracle, but then got the rest of the news.
We got given notice to vacate. The short one too, since the "owner wanted to move in".
Just like that, we were back to that again. You see, we'd been in this situation before. Two years earlier, I was seven months pregnant, nesting instinct in full swing with a complete nursery in our previous home. A nursery that would never see a baby because that owner too wanted to move back in so we got the expedited short notice the law allows them to give us.
In a panic over having a baby and no roof over our heads, we queued for rental after rental within a reasonable distance of work and my step-daughter's school. Eventually, this expensive one chose us and we almost felt lucky we had the huge opportunity to give them way too much money a month for that house.
A few months later, we ordered something online and, in the kind of tired haze only new parents can comprehend, typed our old address in. No problem, we thought, we'll just drive over there once we know it's been delivered and we'll ask the owners, who had since "moved in", for our package. Except we knocked on the door and the owners weren't living there, some other family of renters was. Which is why when this other owner, who refused to fix the leaky roof right until he wanted to "move in", said he'd be moving back in, I was doubtful.
And so here we were again. On a tight deadline to vacate our home and nowhere to go. We combed real estate sites for somewhere we could afford, again within a reasonable distance from work, step-daughter's school and our baby's daycare. Day after day, we saw our deadline looming and we panicked a bit more. The houses we could afford were, to use a technical real estate term, absolute s**tholes. Listing after listing, I felt deflated and miserable. Why was this happening to us again? Was this a cycle we would have to face forever, packing up our life and uprooting our family every couple of years whenever someone decided to make up they were moving in?
I come from Portugal, a country where renters have far more protections than in New Zealand, and where people can choose to be renters. People can't just throw you out on a whim. It's not a flawless system but it protects the weakest link, which is what I was always told the law should be all about. Over there, you can even - shock, horror - hang photos on the walls. There are no property inspections there (which is why they always struck me as a complete invasion of privacy here). For as long as you pay rent, it's your home and no one goes to check on them like you're a kid who can't be trusted in a room with crayons. You live there, you shouldn't be made it to feel like you're just visiting. A home should not feel transient. You shouldn't need to own a home to feel "at home".
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In New Zealand, tenancy laws blatantly favour the landlord and do not serve the needs of the renter. If you rent a home in New Zealand, you might as well keep your bags packed as you can be asked to leave at any point.
Which is why I understand people's obsession with home ownership. Life without owning a home in New Zealand feels pretty unsafe and unsettled.
It shouldn't have to be that way. Imagine the weight that would get taken off the system if we didn't all feel this immense pressure to own a home? Prices would probably go down, for a start, and those who truly want to own a home, would still be able to do so.
"Well, go back to your country then," I'm sure some keyboard warriors are getting ready to type as they read this. I said it's "the country I come from". New Zealand is "my country" too (I'm lucky like that). Auckland has been my home my entire adult life and I love it - but that doesn't mean I don't see its flaws.
The never-ending traffic. The lack of a proper public transport network. If you start doing math in your head about what percentage of your life is spent idling on motorway on and offramps, you despair. The bus to get home from work that would show up about half the time - that was the only lottery I'd ever bet on and I'd often lose. The never-ending rush hour meant any kind of social life required the level of flexibility of an expert yogi. The city felt too big for its own good, without the infrastructure to handle its size. So what was Auckland really offering for the prices it is charging people to live there?
At the same time I began wondering about this, a work project came up for my partner out of Auckland - one of those opportunities you'd normally dismiss with a "wouldn't it be nice if we could?" if it had come at any other time. But it came when Auckland didn't seem to want us. Suddenly, some other place did.
What if we did it? What if we got out?
The offer of work was accompanied by an offer of affordable rent, in an idyllic small town I'd often dreamt about living in. The universe wasn't sending us a subtle message. It was a flashing a massive neon sign right in front of our faces.
As soon as I started telling people the situation we were in, I'd hear of a handful of other cases when the same thing had happened. Friends of friends who regularly had to move out, always because the owner "needed to move in". It was no longer an unfortunate incident, more like a fact of life as a renter in Auckland, where you pay a ton of money but still get treated like they're doing you the favour of letting you live in their house.
So we decided we'd take the hint. Auckland wanted us out. We couldn't afford to be in it anymore. Sure, we could have worked harder, longer hours, found other jobs, spent less money on things that are fundamentally important to our wellbeing.
After a few days of many deep breaths, I explained to my boss why I had to move out of the city and, despite loving the team and the office and the job, I was prepared to hand in my resignation. I cried multiple times over several days at the thought of it because it felt unfair that I had to quit a job I loved just because I couldn't find a place to live within a reasonable distance from it. Then, in some kind of weird M. Night Shyamalan-type twist, they allowed me to work remotely.
Today, I'm writing this piece from my desk in the spare room of my cute rental in a cute town, overlooking the mountains. The huge backyard has an old oak tree and a hammock, where I feel I will spend a lot of time in the foreseeable future.
Things here just work. My internet connection is way better than it ever was in Auckland suburbia. There's parking everywhere I need it (for free, even), kids ride bikes to school safely, I can make plans with someone and meet them within five or ten minutes, depending on traffic (and by "traffic", I mean the four or five cars trying to get into the roundabout).
People here smile a lot. They're not here because of their jobs or for any other reason other than just because they want to be here. There's a special light in the air that comes from that. A light that all the street lamps of a big city couldn't replicate.
I know what some folk will think, reading this from the comfort of the homes they managed to buy back when you could find enough loose change in your pocket for a deposit: whiny millennial, probably spent all her money on takeaway coffee, smashed-avocados on toast and Sky TV, instead of buying a home for her baby. Except I detest avocados, very rarely buy coffee and don't even own a TV. And that's not even the point. The system is truly broken if a few takeaway coffees really do shut you out of the housing market. And if I'm completely honest, I don't particular fancy owning a home in Auckland anyway, which is nothing if not good news for everyone else who does (I'm not in competing against you in that rat race).
As it stands, Auckland asks for too much and gives little in return. It could work, one day, but it doesn't now. It'd need high rises to stop the sprawling, more roads, better public transport networks and infrastructure, and most of all it would need a change in tenancy laws that protect renters in a market like that.
Sure, you can argue that this isn't an Auckland-only issue, that tenancy law applies to the whole country and I'm not safe from its perils anywhere. Except, that's not quite true. The critical housing shortages in Auckland give landlords not only a green light but an incentive to abuse their rights. Regardless of the law, people anywhere should be able to choose not to buy homes without getting treated like second-class citizens.