My wife and I are failures. Not that we have achieved nothing, or have no redeeming features. But we’re long-term renters in Sydney, where real estate looms over all other measures of worth. Our merits and our triumphs are mere trinkets, dull in the shadow of the houses we will never own. The very term "home ownership" serves a cruel reminder of what we lack. It isn’t just that we may never afford four walls and a roof over Sydney’s hallowed turf. It’s that our home isn’t really ours. We make believe in other people’s houses. We are failures. I have failed her.
We are at least in good company, if the sheer size of the renting rabble counts. It’s hard to go a day without coming across an article on the ever-rising number of Sydneysiders destined to rent for life. These articles should provide some solace. We are not alone. But beneath the seemingly validating message that renting is an increasing norm, lies a deeper declaration, almost Malthusian in its gloom: only home owners can maintain a tolerable subsistence. The rest of us form a growing subclass, scrambling for resources and significance, provisionally occupying the houses of the true citizenry.
There is no use dwelling on our lot as second-class citizens, so my wife and I try to persuade each other of the benefits of renting. Yes, I point out, we have fewer rights than homeowners, but we are free from the burden of a mortgage. Yes, my wife adds, rent money is dead money, but so is interest on a home loan. Yes, we sing in chorus, we have no security or stability, but we are not tethered to a single spot. Our life can be one long peregrination through the city we love.
So convincing are these arguments that when last month we had to find a patch of the city’s soil in which to lay our shallow roots, it was with some excitement that we began our online search. We had few demands. It didn’t need to be grand or modern or particularly nice. Only closeish to the city and reasonably priced. But our definition of reasonable differed appreciably from the market’s, and when we filtered by our maximum budget, all we found were inner-city parking spaces. One actually looked rather spacious, but my wife dismissed my suggestion that we submit an application. Instead, we worked out what cuts we could make to other expenses like furniture and food, and increased our rental budget. Even then, the pickings were slim: cramped granny flats, bleak apartments, Dickensian houses.
Occasionally we’d find a place that seemed to stand out from the others, but after a handful of inspections, we were reminded of this inviolable law of Sydney’s market: if it seems too good to be true, it is, and often bizarrely so. Like the apartment above a restaurant, which could only be reached through an alley choked with crates of limp vegetables and dirty dishes, and whose front door faced the toilet for the restaurant’s diners. And like the house with ceilings that were only six feet four (the agent, offended by our hesitance, snidely observed that we weren’t so tall ourselves). Then there was the flat that occupied the bottom level of an impeccably-maintained Victorian terrace. The owner, a twitching middle-aged man who occupied the terrace’s upper two floors, insisted on giving us a tour, and stared at my wife’s breasts throughout. "I do hope the two of you move in," he said, to her chest. "This place could do with some feminine energy."
These inspections filled us with dreadful ambivalence, desperate that the next place provide the haven we sought, but suspicious that it instead harboured some dark secret. So it was that when we went to inspect an apartment in one of Sydney’s hippest, not-quite-yet-fully-gentrified suburbs, we arrived at nine thirty for a ten o’clock inspection, but were prepared to leave at a moment’s notice, should the door open to reveal some terrible catch. Though the apartment was just a simple single-bedder, in a humble three-story chunk of 1960s tan-brick, its photos suggested it was clean, and not exceptionally ugly. It was only a ten-minute drive from the city (three hours in traffic). Its rent was only two thirds of our combined weekly income. It was verging on too good to be true.
And it was certainly no hidden gem. Despite our early arrival, a line of prospective tenants – mostly couples of an age with us – already stretched the length of the driveway, and continued along the footpath. The real estate agent, a terse young woman named Nicole, had arranged the would-be occupants into an orderly queue, and my wife and I took our place at its end. It was a warm day, and I began to sweat into my business suit, a choice of attire that seemed now to reek of desperation. The other men in the queue weren’t trying so hard. They were styled in a manner more befitting the suburb: t-shirts of bands I didn’t know, tattoos my pain tolerance would never allow, beards I don’t have the capacity to grow. And they were bright with that upper-middle-class sheen of hipsters, leaving nobody in any doubt as to their viability as tenants.
I despaired of our chances of getting the place. The only question was which of my failings would seal our fate. My lack of charisma at inspection? My paltry income? Or perhaps my personal references - would they betray to Nicole a lack of enthusiasm for my character that they hid more carefully from me? There is never a trivial reason for a failed rental application. It is a comprehensive indictment of the life you have made for yourself.
But no! I had to snap out of it. Nicole would never accept the application of someone so plagued with insecurity. I needed to show that I belonged, that I was cool enough for this suburb. "I love Radiohead!" I blurted. Nicole frowned and took a note in her clipboard. Some of the hipsters snickered. My wife closed her eyes and sighed. And fair enough. My utterance had been apropos of nothing, and about a decade after Radiohead could have lent me any street-cred. "M-Mumford and Sons?" I ventured, to anybody willing to give me another chance. It had been a terrible start.
"OK, renters," Nicole sneered, at a quarter past ten. "It’s time." She marched us to the apartment, unlocked the door, and instructed us to enter at an orderly pace. When the first couple crossed the threshold, they let out a gasp – whether in horror or delight it was impossible to tell – which echoed as a shiver down the spine of the queue. As each couple entered, the agitation grew among those left behind, and by the time we made it to the door, my wife and I were ready to collapse in a shared paroxysm of anticipation. We steadied ourselves against the doorjamb, took each other’s hand, and stepped inside.
We almost had to shield our eyes from the magnificence that lay before us. It was the King Solomon’s Mines of the Sydney rental market. The treasure that it held: sheer normality. It was OK. It was fine. It was only a little bit shit. It was a miracle. The clean carpets! The freshly-painted walls! The lack of conspicuous odour! I wanted to sing of its majesty, to take my wife into my arms and waltz her through our new home, to spin and spin and forget the world outside these walls, until we fell to the unsoiled floor from the dizzying splendour of it all. Instead I obeyed that unwritten law never to let your rental rivals see how much you want an apartment, lest your enthusiasm for it be contagious.
I could see that the other couples were caught in the same struggle, trembling in the effort to conceal their excitement. But the strain soon became too great, and gave way to a grim dance of dominance. The women jostled around Nicole to ask her loud, unnecessary questions about the apartment. The men glowered and clenched and looked each other directly in the eye; two of them became so embroiled in a staring competition in the bathroom that they forgot the inspection altogether. None of us were free from the grip of this vain territoriality, defending ground that, even if we lived here, could never really be our own.
I knew I could never match the other men eye to eye, so had to find some other way to mark the turf. I decided that Nicole would disapprove if I urinated loudly into the toilet, so instead I began to verbally decorate the apartment with our furniture. "Our couch will look great along here!" I shouted at my wife, gesturing elaborately along the length of a lounge room wall. "And our TV cabinet should go over there," I said, pointing to a spot right where a rival couple stood, perturbed at their displacement by our lounge room setting.
I swept through the apartment, flamboyantly furnishing its rooms with our phantasmal belongings. It was working. I painted a picture so vivid that even Nicole and the other applicants could see the place transforming into the home I was making for my wife. Instead of strolling across the empty floors of each room, they began to sidestep our coffee table, to tiptoe round our bed.
Satisfied with my efforts, I took a seat on an armchair in the lounge room, but it too had been placed there only by my mind, and I collapsed to the floor. The rest of the mirage vanished in an instant. Nicole cleared her throat and took another note in her clipboard. My wife looked down at me for a moment, shook her head, and walked out of the apartment.
Nicole called me the next day. Although we knew our chances were slim, my wife and I had submitted an application, along with the required fifteen character references, bank statements for the last ten years, family trees going back four generations, IQ and personality tests, and a personal essay explaining why we would make good tenants.
"It’s Nicole. We would like to thank you for your application–"
"–we didn’t get it, did we?"
"We regret to inform you that your application has been unsuccessful."
"Thanks for letting me know."
"We would like to wish you all the best in your future endeavours."
"Yep. Sure. Thanks. Actually, before you go. I don’t know if this is even a thing, but can you give us some feedback? You know, how close we were, why we didn’t get it?"
"We received an unusually high number of competitive applications, but would like to thank you for your interest in the apartment and wish you all the best in your future endeavours."
"Yes, yes, I understand. But please, any actual feedback would be great."
I was about to hang up, when Nicole sighed through the line.
"OK. I’m going to level with you. I think I remember you from yesterday – the Radiohead Guy?"
"Look, I know that wasn’t my finest moment. Anything else?"
"There were a lot of things. It isn’t really worth listing them all individually. Please understand I’m just trying to save you a lot of disappointment, but I wonder whether it might be worth thinking of other options. Outside of Sydney, I mean. There are some lovely places popping up in Goulburn."
"Thanks, but my wife and I are happy here."
"Well, I didn’t know whether to say this, but that’s another thing. Your wife? Definite Sydney material. We were very impressed by her part of the application."
"Look, I’ve probably said too much. But if she wants to live in Sydney, and you want her to be happy–"
I hung up. All I told my wife was that we didn’t get the place.
It’s OK. We found somewhere else. You learn to adapt. We’re right in the city, so it’s not hard finding places to eat. And we’re members of a local gym, which takes care of the shower problem. Really it’s more of a garage than a parking space. It has its own fence and a separate storage area. I’m not saying it’s perfect. There’s the noise. The fumes. The investment banker we hide from when he parks his Bentley in the space next to ours. I can't say it feels quite like home. But the beauty of a three-month lease is that it won’t be too long before we get to begin our search again.