The halcyon days of the Melbourne share house may be over

For almost two decades, I lived between at least 30 different Melbourne share houses criss-crossing the north and south sides of the city.

From a freegan hovel in Collingwood, to an overcrowded queer townhouse in Carlton, to getting forcibly turfed out on the street in St Kilda – my share house years in Melbourne’s volatile housing market were nothing if not colourful and eventful.

According to the Victorian government’s Residential Tenancies Act Review published in June 2015, between 1996 and 2011 the proportion of share households decreased from 14 per cent to 12 per cent of the total number of households privately renting.

That isn’t to say people aren’t still living in share housing situations, but census figures show the majority of renters are now families, followed by couples and single people.

Yaelle Caspi, policy officer for the Tenants Union of Victoria, says the rental market has changed over the past decade and is “no longer a transitional phase that young people move through on their way to home ownership”.

Large, sprawling share houses in inner city suburbs have become rarer, unscrupulous local landlords now stoop to measures such as advertising tents on city balconies on the internet.

But these were the days before the internet when housing notices used to be blu-tacked to the windows of Friends of the Earth in Collingwood or the Readings window in Carlton.

One would try to decipher these notices like some kind of urban hieroglyphics – looking for symbols of synchronicity or key words that denoted like-mindedness with prospective house mates.

I once answered an advertisement to move in to a ‘freegan’ share house in Vere Street, Collingwood, with a dreadlocked girl and her goth boyfriend. That part of Collingwood is one of the oldest in Melbourne – and this weatherboard dwelling looked like it probably hadn’t been properly cleaned since the last century.

But the place had many advantages – its proximity to the university where I was studying, it was in a cool part of town and mostly – it was dirt cheap. However, what I discovered after just a few weeks of living there was that living with freegans has its drawbacks.

A freegan is a person who rejects consumerism and seeks to help the environment by reducing waste, especially by retrieving and using discarded food and other goods. Good in theory, but in a share house that translated to being unwilling to contribute to any kind of household food kitty because being freegan means you will only eat ‘found’ food.

Accordingly, my two flatmates went out every night dumper-diving and brought back a random assortment of goods that were rarely in any way practical – such as shopping bags stuffed with Easter eggs, wheels of Camembert cheese, and over-ripe tomatoes.

How to make a meal out of that was beyond me. And worst of all, I noticed after a few days that the entire house stank like the supermarket rubbish bins. It wasn’t long before most of my friends refused to visit me. And my boyfriend at the time told me flatly: “I hate your house and don’t want to stay there with you.”

But it wasn’t always much better when shacking up with old friends. In one place I lived for a short time in Windsor, a former friend ended up enlisting his thuggish older brother to come around and throw all my possessions out onto the street because he didn’t like me smoking in my room – a fact he had only sheepishly mentioned the day before.

Luckily I wasn’t there at the time when the aggro brother showed up. I only found out about it when a neighbour rang up to advise me to come around and collect my gear off the street before random strangers come by and pick through it.

Yet on other occasions friends proved willing to do anything in their power to help out with housing. In one place in Carlton, we divided the lounge room in half with some concrete sheets we found at a nearby building site and literally built a new room for me to move into.

I’ll never forget the sight of these large concrete sheets precariously balanced on the roof of my friend’s car driving down St George’s Road in Fitzroy occupying an entire lane of traffic like one of those over-sized trucks you sometimes see on the highway. But somehow, miraculously, when we got the concrete sheets back to the house they fitted perfectly across the lounge room and created an excellent room with large windows looking out into the backyard.

I stayed in that room for more than a year and started writing my first book there. Yet the encroachment of gentrification sometimes demanded one take whatever means necessary to survive.

In the last share house I lived in, our friends moved in next door and we knocked down part of the back fence so we could move between each other’s places with ease. The place next door had a coffee machine so I could frequently be seen at 7am carrying a latte between the gap in the back fences.

At one stage I literally had to hide my boyfriend in my room as he had become homeless and was secretly staying with me. My flatmate at the time approached me later asking what was going on in there as he’d heard sounds emanating from the room during the day and wondered if I was keeping a stray pet.

Just a few days later we received a notice from the company that owned all the houses in the street that they planned to redevelop them into commercial properties and we would need to vacate.

It was an abrupt and fitting end to my share house living. I certainly have no regrets about any of the share houses I lived in – they have shaped the person I am today and some of those former housemates remain my lifelong friends (others not so much).

But as the commercial pressure grows on Melbourne’s over stretched housing market, I suspect the halcyon days of hopping between affordable share houses with ease are now mostly behind us – and that seems a pity.

(First published in the Sunday Age)

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