Nichole and Emmy

My daughter and I lived in 17 different homes last year

Rent Week 2018: Pushed to desperate measures by the high costs of renting with a small child, single parent Nichole Brown made a dramatic decision to reduce her housing costs.

The hidden cost of single parenting goes beyond simply clothing and feeding children.

Becoming a single parent had a huge impact on the cost of living for me. Before I became pregnant I was flatting with a friend, sharing costs on a nice three bedroom home in an ok-ish suburb. Even though I was a lowly student, cost sharing meant we could afford good food, power, petrol, and far too much alcohol.

Thanks to alcohol-impaired decision making, in mid 2012 I found myself staring into the abyss that was finding a suitable rental for my growing belly and me. Flatting had been a whole lot of fun, and was super cost effective, but a shared flat is no place for a newborn child and newborn mother.

TradeMe brought some hope, but after a number of viewings I soon realised that a dirty two bedroom flat with a kitchenette was going to cost me nearly twice my total flatting share of bills, and I would still have to scrape up enough money to pay for power and food.

Luckily my friend’s parents had a rental available right across the road from a supermarket – luckily, as I had no car – and at $270 a week, it was a bargain. Three bedrooms with built-in closets, a lovely sunny deck, fully fenced, within walking distance of everything I needed including a doctor, sheltered bus stop, and a fish & chip shop with a 5B special that would get me through many a lean night.

I said yes. $270. Bargain! Except my income at this stage was a sickness benefit (due to pregnancy complications) and after rent and paying a minimal power bill, I was left with $33 a week for food. Any home that leaves a pregnant woman with $33 a week for food is not a bargain. It just isn’t.

Somehow, I made it work, and I counted my slowly growing family and I lucky for having somewhere to call home. With rents around the country pushing many low-income families out of contention for warm, healthy homes, I was in no position to complain. A bit hungry, yes – but I had an address and a sunny room for the baby, so we carried on surviving.

Once my Little One was born I quickly realised that finding a job was near impossible. Rent took two-thirds of our budget, we had no family support available, and no one to look after her while I job-seeked or interviewed. Childcare was quickly ruled out – it was completely beyond my budget.

I started advertising for a boarder a few months after my daughter was born to try to make ends meet. Boarders came, and went, and smelt weird, and certainly made our budget a little more feasible, but the cost of simply living in our home was crippling us. On the weeks when we didn’t have a boarder I didn’t buy food.

Once Little One was a not so little one, I went back to working part time and we moved to a small coastal town that came with a punch-in-the-guts rent increase of $80. The lifestyle change was much needed, and the sea air smelled like freedom, but the $350 leaving my account each week was suffocating. Our disposable income had increased from $0 to slightly more than $0, but seeing that $350 go towards someone else’s dreams brought me no joy.

There’s no way out of the rental market for families like ours.

Nichole’s daughter

Even worse, there’s often no way into the rental market for families like mine. And once rising rents push us out, it feels impossible that we will ever have a place to call home.

The cost of renting pushed us out. Out of the market. Then out of the country.

With my five-year-old daughter, everything we own crammed seam-splittingly into two suitcases, and one backpack each, we now live everywhere and nowhere in Australia as house sitters.

We pay $49 annually to register to a house sitters website and every morning we are emailed with a list of possibilities.

Juggling dates, travel (still with no car) and the demands of homeowners while keeping on top of being a mum and trying to make a living as a freelance copywriter has its challenges. It’s stressful not knowing where we’ll be in a couple of weeks and it can be really hard to leave homes and pets behind.

We’re professionals at packing now and even though we’ve unpacked and repacked in 17 different temporary homes in the last year, we care so much for the few belongings we have that we haven’t lost a single item. Yet.

But the part about house sitting that we love the most is that our rent costs have gone from $350 to $0. It’s finally affordable for us to live. My income is less than a sixth of what it was a year ago, but without rent to greedily gobble up a hefty slice of the cash pie, we’re better off now than we were when we had our own letterbox.

Our temporary solution to the seemingly permanent and increasing issue of affordable housing isn’t a solution at all. It is inaccessible to those who need affordable housing the most, which makes it hardly revolutionary and laden with privilege.

But for now, we couldn’t afford to return home and re-enter the gladiator-pit style housing market even if we wanted to. Which makes staying here equally easy and hard at the same time.

I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to afford a patch of green grass to call home again.

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