Mat with the word home written on it at a front door

How words are used to disempower renters

Two weeks ago my partner and I received some unexpected news. Our landlord has decided to sell the property we’re renting, and he wants us out. We’ve lived here three months. We moved two teenagers, a dog and a cat into the place. We landscaped, sold whitegoods and consolidated furniture.

The real estate agent sold us on the property by telling us the landlord was looking for a family to live here long-term.

He lied.

The Australian property market bounces back

I already knew the Australian property market was going bananas. My Mum called from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast to tell me Melburnians and Sydneysiders were pushing up prices there by over $100,000.

I had read about the hidden homeless crisis in Queensland, where locals are being forced out by wealthy new owner-occupiers and can’t find anywhere else to live.

I’d heard that the Mornington Peninsula has run out of rental properties too, because city dwellers are making a permanent sea-change following COVID.

But I didn’t think it would finally catch up to me.

The game of eviction and inspection roulette

There’s solace in knowing we’re not alone. Yesterday my partner dropped his son’s friend back home after a gaming session. There was a for-sale sign out the front. That family’s landlord has decided to sell up too.

Last week at property viewings, I met not one but three other people in the same situation as us. One poor bloke has been kicked out twice in the past year.

Luckily, as a life-long renter I know how to push back against the system. Not everyone is so experienced and empowered (my partner is renting with me for the first time in over 20 years!).

The power of words in the property market

As a storyteller, I’m fascinated by the underlying power of words to create invisible boundaries, evoke powerful feelings and summon historic privilege. Words work beyond their basic definitions. They have a lineage that spans generations; a shape on the page; a texture in their sound.

As I face the upheaval of uprooting my life and disrupting my work, the words of real estate and government swirl around me and create obstacles that sometimes threaten to overwhelm me. Instead, I stay calm and focussed (like most creatives do) by putting pen to paper.

Here are three thoughts on words and renting:

What happens when tenants and landlords are renamed to renters and rental providers?

On 29 March 2021, new rental laws came into effect in Victoria. A change many will have underestimated is the renaming of the two key parties involved in a rental transaction.

We’re no longer tenants and landlords: we’re renters and rental providers. The new terms now hide the very real disparity in power that continues to exist between the two parties, despite a few new laws tinkering at the edges to advance renters’ rights.

Although the word ‘landlord’ is outdated, masculine and laden with overtones of slavery and dispossession – I still prefer it to ‘rental provider’. The feel of it on your tongue is hard with the alliterative ‘ls’ and ‘ds’. The latter word lord very clearly shows who holds the upper hand.

By contrast, ‘rent provider’ is at best benign and at worst misleading. A provider is generous to others. Landlords are not, because their priorities are their own finances and the future of their family. I don’t necessarily blame them for the role they must play. They’re caught in a system they perhaps unconsciously bought into when they got their first mortgage.

The changes to the latest tenancy laws don’t go far enough to provide tenants with more meaningful rights (let’s be honest – 3M hooks were invented so we tenants could hang things on the walls without telling you landlords!). Changing the language to ‘whitewash’ the powerful position of landlords only attempts to hide who is still the most vulnerable in this transaction.

The powerful distinction between a house and a home.

Landlords own houses. Tenants live in homes.

A house is a physical structure with various defining characteristics. Walls, windows, even heating if you’re lucky here in Victoria. A home is a place held in the heart. It’s where families fight and love and grow. It’s where life happens.

A house is a holding object where you put your money and wait patiently until you retire. A home is a living, breathing, evolving organism.

It’s incredibly frustrating when residential property owners complain about tenants taking liberties with ‘their house’. They’ve got a pet! They’ve hung pictures! They want to paint! They chopped down a tree! They’ve painted my fence! It shows that the landlord has not recognised the distinction between house and home.

Rental homes have human beings inside them who want to express their personalities and have just as much right to do so as a person living in a property they own. I worked in the school building design industry for almost a decade, and I’ve seen first-hand how profoundly a person’s environment can affect the quality of their mental and physical health.

Our normalisation of property ownership as a form of wealth creation has widened the divide between the haves and have-nots, and redefined what it means to ‘have-not’. It doesn’t just mean not owning a home. Increasingly, it means not even living in one.

As a society, we have taken a person’s basic human right – the right to housing (UN Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25) – and turned the object of that right into a commodity to be traded at will. Is it really possible for a property to hold within it two mutually exclusive identities at once – ‘asset’ and ‘home’? In a capitalist system, one will always trump the other.

The language of officialdom, which obfuscates rather than illuminates.

As we try to plan for our inevitable move-out date, my partner and I are juggling a range of future scenarios.

Our home may be sold to an investor, in which case we might be able to stay. But we’re told it’s a buy-to-live market right now. The real estate has intimated that the property would look more attractive to future homeowners were it to come unencumbered by us.

Finding out where we stand as tenants has been tricky. When we visit the Consumer Affairs Vic website, we’re confronted by walls of text that seem contradictory the further we scroll. Kudos to the writer who simplified these laws and requirements to plain English. But the web designer needs to do some UX research and test the design of the H1s, H2s and H3s because they’re bamboozling!

I’ll let you experience what I mean for yourself – because my own words fail me when I try to describe it. After you’ve read the following (copied out from the website with my own bold emphasis), could you please send me a message and let me know which category my partner and I fall into?

We’d love someone to confirm when we’re legally required to move out! 😉

Reason for notice to vacate at the end of a rental agreementMinimum notice required
The rental provider is planning to move in at the end of the fixed-term rental agreement. If this is the case, it must have been listed in the ‘additional terms’ section of the rental agreement. If you are giving a notice to vacate for this reason, you must include evidence with the notice to vacate.14 days
The rental provider, a member of their immediate family (including parents and parents-in-law) or a dependent (who normally lives with the rental provider) will be moving in. If you are giving a notice to vacate for this reason you must include evidence with the notice to vacate.60 days
The property is to be sold or put up for sale, and vacated immediately after the rental agreement ends. If you are giving a notice to vacate for this reason you must include evidence with the notice to vacate. 60 days
The property is being sold. If the property is sold and settled while rented, the rental provider cannot shorten the length of the rental agreement.60 days

Photo by Kelly Lacy from Pexels

Zoom enjoying his back garden – for now!