Story and illustration by Gillian Schwab.
I call Angela at 11am on Tuesday morning. She's sharing a house with a woman and her adult son in Robina, Queensland. The son is in his room, and Angela is outside painting Christmas ornaments for her sister. They have to be exactly the right colour as her sister is very particular about these things, Angela says. She's immediately friendly and very likeable, and right away admits she's made some bad decisions. She says the past few years have been awful.
In the past month Angela has lived in four different properties. Angela has been looking for a safe place to live since her husband died, a search that has taken her up and down the eastern seaboard of Australia for the last seven years.
Angela describes her lifestyle as "transient", a word that I once associated with my own relatively carefree living situation in my 20s, freelancing and hopping from place to place. For Angela, now age 64, it describes constant instability and slow exhaustion. Her story comes out in a long string of repetitive struggles with housing.
Homeless at 58
Angela’s story starts in the USA, where she was living abroad with her husband. Together they owned a successful business and lived comfortably. When her husband died unexpectedly, Angela was forced to return to Brisbane without her belongings, and without an income. She was 58 years old.
"I shouted at him to go away"
After staying with relatives in Brisbane and the Gold Coast – Angela is one of 15 siblings – she found her first rental since returning to Australia. It was a houseboat, which the owners promptly sold out from under her, giving her 2 days' notice to vacate. Her next property was a "beautiful big house" shared with one male tenant. It was very hot and full of bugs and oddly had no windows in the kitchen, but was otherwise comfortable. After a few weeks a new male housemate moved in who began tapping on Angela's door in the middle of the night, propositioning her. Angela tells me "I shouted at him to go away, and that I didn't know what he wanted" but she did know, and after the second night it happened she felt so unsafe that she left the property the next morning.
Angela traveled to Melbourne to stay with her sister. After finding some work she decided to rent a room from a German woman. It was a nice room with its own en suite and she felt secure there. Not long after she moved in the woman decided to rent out more space to two young women, who Angela had to share her bathroom with. Soon after Angela lost her job and could no longer afford the rent.
The landlord requested that she vacate
After losing her job, Angela moved to Brighton into the house of a man who was advertising cheap rent. This landlord refused to sign her Centrelink forms for rental assistance, but offered reduced rent in return for cash in hand. After a period of relative stability, the landlord requested that she vacate the property; he planned to move into the granny flat and rent the whole house out for more money. When Angela responded that he needed to give her advance notice he began to harass her with verbal abuse and exposed himself to her, hoping she would leave.
Angela then went to WA to live with her sister, who paid for Angela and her pet dog Lucas to fly over. They stayed in a small town, four hours north of Perth. But when Angela's daughter was diagnosed with cancer, she wanted to be nearer to hear, so she decided to move back to Melbourne.
Her next place was in a woman’s house where she paid less rent in exchange for keeping an eye on the woman’s children when she was away at work. Angela tells me they were "shocking children" with behavioural problems who banged on the walls and yelled at her. Again, it was not a good match. During this time her brother suggested that she move to Moe, a town outside of Melbourne where the rent was really cheap, and Angela agreed to give it a try.
Rent was indeed much cheaper in Moe, and Angela was able to afford her own place. Despite the luxury of living on her own, Angela describes living in Moe as one of the saddest times in her life. During her time there, Angela was accepted into government housing but her current landlord refused to let her out of her lease without a large fee that she couldn't afford to pay. She felt so sad and isolated from friends and family that she decided she didn't want to stay.
They were kind and social
Angela moved back in with her sister, but was displaced when her sister's boyfriend moved back into the house. Hearing about a housing assistance program for seniors over 55, she applied and was given a place in a community in Footscray. The flat in Footscray felt like the most stable place she'd lived in years. Angela enjoyed living with the other women there, who were mostly survivors of domestic violence. They were kind and social and did a lot of communal activities like baking. The men, on the other hand, seemed to be alcoholics and problem gamblers who were antisocial, pissing in the lift and all over the grounds. During this time Angela's daughter passed away after prolonged illness. Angela thinks it was the grief of losing her daughter that caused her to make what she describes as the "bad decision" to move out of the flat in Footscray and return home to Queensland.
A place to recover both physically and mentally
Angela found a room in Carrara through a family contact. Although the homeowner was wealthy the house was infested with cockroaches, and Angela felt judged by her landlord.
He would tell me I needed a man to save me from this situation, Angela says flatly. I couldn't do anything right.
Her next share house was with an owner who also refused to sign her Centrelink forms. As well as depriving Angela of her rental assistance, this landlord refused to share the house: he required Angela to borrow a fridge to keep in her room rather than clearing a shelf in the main fridge, and he gave her a single shelf to outside of the kitchen to store the rest of her food. Angela's next housemate had a similar issue with sharing, this time refusing to share crockery and cutlery, and bullying Angela about the correct use and maintenance of the house.
Then, finally, a bit of good luck. Angela got in touch with with a woman who helps to connect women to accommodation and who offered to allow Angela to house-sit her granny flat in Tweed Heads while she was away for a couple of weeks. A couple of weeks turned into 6 months and it was so good to have somewhere comfortable and safe. It was a place to recover both physically and mentally.
Since the woman returned Angela has had trouble finding a place. In Tenterfield she stayed in a dirty house with no hot water in the hand basins or kitchen, sharing with a woman whose eight-year-old son persistently used the bathtub as a toilet. In Pimpima she found a cheap place but lost it almost immediately when the landlord's son moved back into the house. Her last housemate seemed okay at the interview but turned out to be an alcoholic who left rotting food out and defecated on the floor, leaving Angela to routinely clean up human waste.
Angela is now in the house in Robina living with an aged care worker and her 20-year-old son. She's been there about a week on a trial agreement. The aged care worker has told her that her other son will be moving back home in a couple weeks and will be sharing a room with the 20-year-old. Angela is not sure it will work out, but she's hopeful. She's unpacked some of her things that she hasn't unpacked in a long time. She tells me she's okay right now.
All I want is a safe place
When I ask Angela what she thinks is the biggest thing that needs to change about renting she tells me very emphatically "affordability". She tells me that the homeowner or the head renter always calls the shots, and she wishes she could find a place where she would be treated like an equal. When she rented in the '90s before moving to the USA she had a good job, and could afford nice places with views of the water. Now she says, with health issues and living on Centrelink, the very most rent she can afford to pay is $180 per week. In 2018, most granny flats in Angela's area are rented for around $270 a week. She says that there isn't much community housing in Queensland and wonders: "where are people like me supposed to go?"
A final character in Angela's renting story is her dog Lucas, an 11 year old pup who she describes as her lifesaver. Even though renting would be considerably easier without a pet, Angela tells me she can't imagine life without him. He's really really important, she tells me. He's my family.
We are grateful to Angela for sharing her story. We plan to feature more stories from people who rent to help improve understanding and empathy with people who rent. If you'd like to share your story of renting, please get in touch.