Rabu, 20 Juni 2012

Tenancy culture studies: gnomes

Today, 21 June, is International Gnome Day (as if you didn't know). So it's the perfect occasion for considering the tenurial significance of these horticultural homunculi.


It is customary in some social circles for a tenant to receive from their friends a gnome as a housing-warming gift. This is, on one level, a bit of kitschy fun – but there's a deeper significance. The gnome is a symbol of the ambiguous position tenants occupy in relation to their gardens.

The ambiguity comes from the law. There's no specific mention of gardens in the Residential Tenancies Act 2010; 'grounds/gardens', along with 'lawns/edges' do get a mention in the standard form condition report, which uncomfortably shoehorns them into the 'clean/undamaged/working' matrix. Instead of anything specific, the relevant obligations are the usual ones – the landlord must provide and maintain the premises in a reasonable state of repair; the tenant must keep the premises reasonably clean, not cause or permit any damage, and vacate the premises in as nearly as possible the same condition save fair wear and tear – but it can be difficult to apply them to the terrain of the garden.

For example, the Tribunal has determined that the 'pruning' of trees falls under the tenant's obligation to keep clean, while the 'lopping' of trees falls under the landlord's obligation to repair and maintain. But at what point does pruning become lopping?

And is a garden to be considered a single, organic entity, parts of which may grow and die over time, such that the whole may change, as opposed to being a collection of discrete elements, each of which must be maintained and replaced?

The issue is made even more thorny by landlords' expectations. Your correspondent once represented in the Tribunal a tenant who had been bombarded by furious accusations from his landlord of dereliction in his duty to clean the little silver trails left by snails on the bricks (and never mind that the poor bloke had MS). But then, at the other end of the range, are those landlords who assume that tenants are entirely insensitive to the gentle rhythms of the earth, and themselves obliterate every bit of greenery and concrete over every spot of soil.

The gnome – a nature spirit that is never actually found in nature, and a garden ornament that is actually a gaudy lump of concrete or plaster – symbolises these tensions and ambivalences perfectly.

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We should stress that the above applies to mainstream tenancies. In relation to tenancies on residential parks, gnomes have a very different significance. Here the gnome is a symbol of solidarity and resistance.

There's a story to this. Once upon a time, up the coast of New South Wales, lived a park operator, who was concerned that his residential park should have a certain tone. To that end he issued a decree – that is, a park rule – that no resident should keep on their residential site any garden gnome (a 'statue', on the other hand, was sufficiently classy and therefore permissible).

One day, an elderly resident of the park fell foul of the park operator and his sense of taste when she repaired her carport with materials that were not to his liking (she used hardiplank; 'no no NO!' shrieked the park operator, 'it must be vinyl!'). The resident sought advice from her local Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service, who noticed amongst numerous other oppressive park rules the ban on gnomes. The matter of the carport proceeded to the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal, which decided that it would conduct a view of the structure in question, and similar structures on the park. On the day of the view, other residents made a silent show of support for their neighbour, and a protest against the park operator's high-handed ways, by each exhibiting, in their windows and gardens, a gnome. With the park operator cowering beneath the baleful glare of dozens of gnomes, the Tribunal determined that the resident's carport works were entirely satisfactory, and that the park operator should back off.

And ever since, park residents and their advocates in the Park and Village Service and Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services have held aloft the gnome as a symbol of their struggle for a better deal for residents. In fact, look closely and you just might catch of glimpse of a gnome hidden deeply in any of PAVS's publications.

Whether you're an ambivalent gardener or defiant park resident, happy International Gnome Day.