Selasa, 10 Juli 2012

Who are the people in your neighbourhood?

We care very deeply about our homes. They are our sanctuary - that one place in the world where we can be assured of safety, security, peace and well-being. Where we can be our own masters, answerable to no-one. Our home is our castle - impervious and impenetrable. It has been this way since time immemorial...

Predjama's castle, Slovenija

But it's more than that.

We live and die in our homes. We sleep and we dream. We grow up, we raise our kids, we see and hear many of the things that make us who we are. In our homes, we can choose which parts of the world may come to us... and when we go out into the world it is to our homes that we will return. Our home is our context. It helps to shape us and to prepare us for what lies ahead. It enables us to establish routines, and helps us to stay in control.

Of course, our homes exist in a context all of their own - the neighbourhood. And we can't always choose our neighbours.

There is an uneasy relationship between the idea of complete mastery of one's domain, and the need to be getting on with your neighbours - especially when we don't all see eye to eye on questions of lifestyle. Put simply, this is where control and no-control will often meet head-on. As we turn to more high density housing in our cities' most populated areas, we can see the challenges of this relationship coming to the fore.

Newcastle Herald columnist Jeff Corbett wrote yesterday about the impacts of noisy neighbours on a family's ability to enjoy their home. "Should we have more protection from councils and police of our right to enjoy our home?" he asks. "Have your homely rights been challenged?" In getting to this question, Corbett tells the story of a Merewether couple who are forced to endure their neighbour's distasteful music until all hours of the morning. Oh, and of course, these neighbours are young tenants.

Says Corbett: "NSW Fair Trading recommended seeking the managing property agent to remind the tenants of their obligations under the lease, which didn’t work, and the landlord is happy to keep the young people paying a high rent for a dilapidated house."

Lucky for some, unlucky for others. We'll come back to this in a moment.

But in the meantime, it demonstrates a point. You can perhaps be the master of your entire neighbourhood, not merely your own domain, if your neighbours happen to be tenants.

The Residential Tenancies Act imposes obligations on tenants as neighbours that mortgagors and owners can not be subjected to. As a matter of contract with the landlord, tenants must not interfere with the reasonable peace, comfort or privacy of their neighbours. This means that the right to occupy a home as a tenant could, in theory, be terminated by a landlord who has had sufficient pressure brought to bear on him by the tenants' neighbours. (We hasten to add here: he'd also need some pretty strong evidence).

Mortgagors and owners, on the other hand, are not subject to contractual obligations concerning how their behaviour might affect neighbours. Their observance of good neighbourly behaviour must be with regard to such things as the torts of nuisance and trespass, and in some cases - such as noise - statutory requirements. But failure to observe such behaviour will never directly result in the loss of their right to reside in their home.

The pecking order is not hard to see. While a person's home may well be their castle, owners trump tenants. Owners can behave with a certain level of impunity in their homes. Tenants, not so much...

But what of Corbett's story of the landlord who is happy to keep those noisy tenants on? The idea that a landlord would rather keep a dilapidated house full of young tenants paying high rent, than terminate the tenancy due to noise complaints, does strike a chord. But the simple truth is they could easily rent it out again, in just as poor condition, for the same weekly rent or more, to the next group of tenants who come along. Many landlords and real estate agents would have absolutely no qualms with this, and it happens often enough.

Now, while we've been discussing all of this on the Brown Couch, there's been another conversation going on over at the Flat Chat Forum. Of concern is the idea that social housing tenants are being housed in head-leased units in strata. There seems to be an assumption - at least on the part of some forum members - that social housing tenants will bring with them a certain type of behaviour that is not conducive to the more communal nature of life in strata.

As we increase the density of our housing, so too we increase the diversity of those living in close proximity to one another. But it serves nobody to make assumptions about how a particular cohort is likely treat its neighbours.

Anyone is capable of behaving badly. The thing is, though, those who own their home are more likely to get away with it...

Who are the people in your neighbourhood?