Saturday 21 September 2019

I survived the rental warzone: my life as a consumer heretic

Soldiers of the housing crisis can be sure they are not the first to deal with the bedsit front line, writes Donal Lynch

Donal found himself sharing with a furry friend
Donal found himself sharing with a furry friend
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

The woman with the loud American accent leans against the railings of the park and sobs into the phone. "You could open the stove from the bed," she tells whoever is listening. "For €1,500 a month. Is this how I'm going to have to live?"

I hurried past her and felt a pang of pity, but also the urge to give her some hope, without being condescending as to her plight.

I wanted to tell her I too have been to the battleground of, and survived; significantly poorer, chastened and with a new concept of what constitutes a 'kitchen area', but still very much alive. "Embrace the convenience of being able to cook breakfast without getting up," I wanted to say to her. "These are the bohemian bedsit years."

Economists might insist things are worse now than they ever were but I spent most of my adult life renting and I've yet to hear a horror story that I didn't live through some version of.

David McWilliams has called the obsession with property ownership a 'cult' but, by disposition, I was made for the heresy of renting. Committing to anything - a person, a mortgage, a postcode, a job - was impossible for me and because of a lifelong paranoia about missing out on anything I have always lived at the very centre of major cities.

All of these things came at a high price. For much of my 20s and 30s I frittered away huge sums on dwellings that looked and smelled like O'Casey tenements.

In noughties Berlin, I lived for a while in a building where the water was heated by a coal boiler in the basement and you were liable to wake up finding the Hausmeister (janitor) having let himself in to do some maintenance.

A subsequent German landlady walked into my room topless, brandishing a poem she had written to me, and when I didn't listen attentively enough to the poem, she took my keys back and locked me out. "But", I told friends who listened in horror to this story, "David Bowie used to live in the building during his coke years." This nugget of music history seemed ample compensation for the stress.

The Berlin apartments had the virtue of being cheap. In boom time Dublin, I lived in an epically expensive bedsit in Rathmines that looked like something from The Pit and the Pendulum.

Not only could I open the stove from the bed but I could shower while doing the dishes. An army of mice lived in the wall and I nodded off most nights to a symphony of squeaking. This was the steerage quarters of the Celtic Tiger, and it cost me more than half my monthly income, which the landlord would collect in cash in person, a huge bunch of keys clanking on a belt around his waist.

Even in those years you had to get the place as sterile as a children's hospital to have any chance of getting your deposit back, but, though I scrubbed for hours, when I was handing the keys back they told me, "Oh you didn't clean it? We are knocking that kip down."

The mice of Rathmines were nothing compared to the cockroaches of New York, however. I moved there because it seemed like something a writer living on his wits should do and because it is billed as the crossroads of the world - no fear of missing out.

What they don't tell you is that your apartment woes won't be solved by Mr Big or your friends over brunch. In Manhattan they have a permanent housing crisis and every tortuous, sweaty apartment hunt threw up a casting call of grifters and hucksters who would try to persuade me to spend two grand a month to sleep in a glorified drawer.

One potential landlord explained that part of the rental agreement would be that he would let himself in now and again to check on his stuff in a (locked) spare room and possibly use the facilities.

"I would never do a number two unless you're out," he reassured me, as I inched toward the door. Rich people in New York have doormen but poor people like me had rats guarding the entrance instead.

People would hang bags of rubbish over the railings outside my place and these brazen rodents would just stick their faces in to the bags and gorge themselves while their arses hung out over the step (I remember my Dad nearly threw up when he saw them doing this).

For most of my time there I lived in the East Village, where the building are converted tenements, every second business is a fortune teller, and even bankers have showers in their kitchens.

My apartment had the same interior design aesthetic as the hole that Buffalo Bill's female guest lives in in The Silence of the Lambs, except she probably had more privacy. Because all my money was going on rent, I decided I wouldn't bother forking out for blinds for the window facing the breezeway - the narrow space that separates one building from the next. When I moved out a friend pointed out to me that someone had set up a seat in the window just adjacent to mine. There's probably a naked video of me on the internet somewhere. I just hope they made some money out of it.

There were times through all of this where I did wonder if ownership and a quieter life of cohabitation, suburbia and a dog (or at least a dishwasher) might be the way to go. But, for me, the one consoling factor of rental hell was that when you're young it's always better to be suffering at the centre of things than in comfort on the fringes.

Cities are overcrowded and expensive, but they are the engines of ideas. Even today I would take a bunkbed in Stoneybatter over a mansion in Mayo.

Things might be measurably worse now than when I began renting, and the soldiers of the current housing crisis deserve our sympathy, but they are not the first generation who served on the bedsit frontline. And one day they too might look back on the horror with something approaching nostalgia.

Sunday Independent

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