When editor and zeitgeist maker Lucy Watson asked me to be one of the voices of Melbourne for the launch issue of In Batmania, my head filled with nostalgic yearnings for Linda and Spike and the barely repressed sexual tension of the newsroom (any other 90s kids noticed that it’s increasingly hard to separate your actual lived memories from your afternoon television memories?).
Still, I wailed ‘but what would I write about?’ I intuited, quite rightly, that Lucy would know – or source – a bevy of great writers with a great deal to say.
“Write about…buying property! Or, like, your work stuff. Something you care about.” my editor suggested, rather pithily summing up my main concerns of 2013.
Well, if there’s one subject that the voices of Melbourne have been silent on, it’s buying property. Especially in our demographic – 30ish, childless, realising too late that we perhaps should have had a couple fewer holidays and cocktails and second degrees during our 20s, if we wanted to have saved any money by now. Do you know whether it’s easy or hard for us? I haven’t heard a peep.
My “work stuff”, which I do care about, is similarly invisible in the media and absent from the BBQ chat – what even is an asylum seeker?
Other people – people with statistics, or at least the cojones to make up statistics – have told you how difficult it is to buy property in Melbourne. Even with a slight reprieve in the last couple of years, our 20s saw historic low vacancy rates in the rental market, inflating rental prices, meaning saving money was, for many, a bonus rather than a monthly expectation. We didn’t want to live without access to public transport, because we are environmentally conscious and frequently drunk, so we paid the high rents and tried not to think about ever wanting to buy anything.
At the same time, as anyone who has been out of work lately can attest, the job market here is unbelievably competitive – every talented and ambitious person in Australia – and most of them in Ireland – seems to end up in Melbourne, applying for the same jobs you want. So, many people my age spent their 20s completing second and third degrees, hoping for an edge in that very tight market.
Nonetheless, I’m one of the lucky ones, and I had saved a deposit. When you’re single and you work in the non-profit sector, announcing that you’re looking for property is met with amazement and out-and-out laughter. Our sector is not known for its high wages. Sure, there are trade-offs – you can wear flat shoes every day, you don’t have to hide the fact that you majored in English literature during your Arts degree. Everyone you meet is very smart, very passionate, and ready for Friday beers by Wednesday. Plus, you believe in your work. And you just hope that the bank manager reading your mortgage application will also believe in it (ok, they have mortgage officers, but ‘mortgage officer’ doesn’t exactly conjure of up the rotund, cigar chomping bogeyman implied by ‘bank manager’ – to whom I imagined I entrusted my hopes and dreams).
I was pre-approved. I started shopping. After a decade of intense dislike for real estate agents, I found myself being smiled at, chatted with, asked WHAT I WAS LOOKING FOR instead of just being shown, gruffly, what was there.
Asylum seekers in Melbourne often apply for rental properties in groups of 4, 6, 10. Not only does this make each person’s share of the rent more manageable, it is warmer – without blankets, reluctant to turn on heaters for fear of running up bills they cannot pay, many will huddle together for warmth over the colder months. I’ve heard it argued that they should live somewhere cheaper – Melbourne, god love her, is increasingly known for a high cost of living, over and above the aforementioned high rents. But Melbourne is also a multicultural city, where Afghans, Iranians, Tamils and Iraqis have gathered, where people can hear their language spoken, and where the organisations giving them much-needed support are clustered. There are these communities, and support, in every city and many small towns across the country, but Melbourne remains the hub, attracting more people hoping to make a home, however temporary, than any other place in Australia.
I started shopping in April. It had been a late autumn, and though the leaves on the trees were red and gold, the days were still warm, and I wandered from inspection to inspection in sandals. Even so, I knew what I wanted, and a good quality heater was definitely on the top of the list. I don’t ‘do’ cold. It’s just not one of my moves. I had other specs – gas cooking, close to shops and transport, nobody really obviously murderous living next door. At the same time I was conscious that most places would cost more than was quoted, that something which ticked a few boxes, not all of them, was what I needed to aim for.
It didn’t take me long to find it. It’s small, the carpet’s a bit tired, but it has gas, and a reverse cycle air-conditioner to keep me toasty. And it’s mine – or rather, the bank manager’s, but one day it will be mine.
As I shopped, several boats a week continued to arrive in Australia from Indonesia. The seas were rough, and people were killed, but it didn’t deter others. I don’t wonder why that is – life is full of risk assessment, and there are people for whom the chance of sinking between Indonesia and Christmas Island is the least worst option.
Many people that survive the journey will end up in Melbourne. They will reunite with people they knew in Indonesia, or at home, or they will stick with those they met on the boat, their bond cemented by surviving together. In those small groups, they will apply for rental properties. They will do so in what little English they know, some recently acquired in detention. They will spend between 40 and 70% of their meager pension on rent – ineligible for Centrelink and not allowed to work, many will go without food to ensure that the rent gets paid.
I recently came out of a meeting at 4.30 on a Friday, my mind running ahead to the pub, a restaurant, my warm bed in my little flat. The looks on the faces of my colleagues stopped me short. The radio was on. The Prime Minister, recently re-annointed, was explaining that no one who arrives in Australia by boat will ever be permitted to settle here. Ever, even if found to be a refugee and owed Australia’s protection.
We were angry, as we listened, and upset, but we weren’t surprised. You get used to it in our line of work. As the announcement finished, a friend I hadn’t seen in a while elbowed me in the ribs. ‘Hey! I heard you bought a place. Cool!’.