A few years ago I lived in a four bedroom flat on Summer Street in Ponsonby, Auckland. If you’re unfamiliar with the suburb, Summer Street is about three quarters of the way down Ponsonby Road, right next to KFC. If you are unfamiliar with Auckland, Ponsonby is one of its most expensive, gentrified neighbourhoods, though it has still managed to stay interesting enough to have a KFC.
The flat was a pretty good one. Four bedrooms, wooden floors, a spa pool out the back. It cost $850 a week to live there, which we made more manageable by filling the biggest room with a couple. It had an en suite.
About a year before I moved into the flat with four mates. But, as happens with flats, people move out. By this point everyone bar me had filtered in through TradeMe.
After a couple months of flatmate jostling we filled the place with an accountant, barista and a couple who banked and built. We all got on well enough, but it was more of a flat of convenience as opposed to a flat of best buds everyone mostly went about their business.
Craig (all names have been changed), the builder, and I did share a passion for ‘banging tunes’ which got on the nerve of Sarah the barista, who had to get up early to go to work at a café. I understood Sarah’s frustration. I’m not sure if Craig did.
Craig was starting to push the boat out, party wise. I came home to the lounge one day and found DJ equipment attached to a speaker half the size of a fridge. It came with its own stand to support itself. Fridge speaker had no problem filling the house, and probably street, with banging tunes.
A couple of months after the fridge speaker moved in, we received a letter from our property manager terminating the tenancy agreement. I guess it wasn’t a huge surprise, but still, it was a milestone: my first eviction. We had 90 days to move out.
Only, I was sure we were on a 12 month lease. I fished out the tenancy agreement from behind an unused wok in our miscellaneous cupboard certain I would find a breach of contract. In the back of my brain there lived a memory, vague to be sure, probably something I had heard at a party from a friend of a friend, about how you can’t be evicted during the middle of your lease for “too much partying”, because “partying” is too ambiguous a term. One person’s Burning Man is another person’s book club.
Unfortunately upon closer examination, we were not on a 12 month lease. We were on a month-to-month lease which could be terminated at any time.
It was on to plan B. I didn’t want to move out. I liked my house. Also, probably more pointedly, I lacked the logistical abilities to deal with something that adult.
Around the time of our eviction notice I started binge watching a show called Suits. It’s a show about lawyers. Fancy commercial lawyers who work at one of New York’s top fictional law firms.
The fanciest of the lawyers is Harvey Specter. He is the big dog. Handsome, hyper masculine, early forties probably. When we are first introduced to Harvey Specter he is winning a game of poker. Harvey does cool guy things like drink whisky you haven’t heard of, drive fast cars, sleep with lots of women and win big fancy lawyer cases.
Suits juxtaposes Harvey Specter, big dog, with Mike Ross, the puppy. Mike is Harvey’s associate, new to being a lawyer – in fact he is only a lawyer because Harvey has taken a risk in hiring him.
You see Mike has a secret: he didn’t go to law school, which is something you need to do to become a lawyer. Mike got kicked out of University for selling answers to tests, but we know that Mike means well, he was using that ill-gotten money to help his Grandma.
So why hire a fraud? Well, Mike is also a genius. Human calculator, photographic memory, all that shit.
Mike’s fraudulosity? Fraudulessness? Fraudality? It effortlessly fulfills dramatic television requirements by adding tension to both his character and the show’s story-arc. The threat of Mike being caught is used throughout the show to drive the narrative, build pressure, and keep us hooked.
It also does one other important thing. It forces Harvey to constantly explain the fundamental aspects of being a lawyer to Mike, which in turn explains the fundamental aspects of being a lawyer to us at home. First year doctors on medical shows like Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy will often explain the technical and complicated to us laymen.
Suits’ version is more compelling though because Mike, like us, isn’t supposed to be there. He is the anti-lawyer lawyer, the people’s lawyer, a young Atticus Finch or Adam Sandler’s character from Big Daddy.
Friends of mine who work in commercial law in real life have said that Suits isn’t very realistic, but I don’t care. I didn’t watch 300 for the history lesson, I watched for the entertainment. But to 300’s credit I now know how Gerard Butler, Michael Fassbender and 298 other Spartans held off the Persian Army at the battle of Thermopylae.
A few thousand years after Thermopylae, and a couple of months before our own eviction battle began, we woke up one day after an Auckland downpour and found a hole about the size of a frying pan in the floor beside the toilet.
The wooden floor had disintegrated like weetbix in hot water. You could see right through to the ground a couple metres below. Because the house was raised off the ground it was kinda dangerous. A groggy, stumbling early-morning toilet visit could have ended with a leg in hole.
We rang the property manager Rebecca, a blonde woman in her late thirties, direct and professional. She said she would get it sorted. A couple weeks went by. Nothing happened. The hole got bigger and we had to stop using that bathroom and instead use Craig and Nikki’s en-suite bathroom – which you could only get to by going through their bedroom.
I appreciate that a broken bathroom in a Ponsonby flat is not high on the list of great housing struggles. We had certainly faced bigger challenges in our lives, but it was a little annoying, so Craig asked Rebecca about paying less rent. Rebecca said that we should keep paying rent as normal, and we could sort out a rebate once the bathroom was fixed. That sounded like a good deal. So we waited.
One month after the hole first appeared the bathroom was fixed. The construction dudes took longer to fix it than Rebecca had anticipated, because they had to build a brand new bathroom floor.
Before our eviction notice came we held off bringing up the rebate with Rebecca. We knew we weren’t the best tenants (fridge speaker) so the thought of poking the bear and asking for some money seemed like a one way ticket to eviction city. Besides, Rebecca said she was handling it.
Turns out we were already on the train to eviction city – so when the letter came, we poked away.
I showed Rebecca’s reply to the rest of the flat and we all agreed it looked a lot like she was suggesting we weren’t going to get a rebate. We poked again:
Rebecca could smell a rat and she sensed we didn’t belong at the grown ups’ table. She let us know by questioning our ‘advisors’ who, as you probably guessed, definitely did not exist.
It certainly sounded like we weren’t going to get that rebate. Had the owner wanted to give us some money out of the kindness of his owner heart, he would have already done that. Her asking him, at least without a show of strength from us, wasn’t going to yield anything.
When the eviction letter came along we were a flat of convenience. By the time the shitty bathroom, eviction notice, and that second email rolled around, we were a flat united. It wasn’t so much about money either. Getting evicted stings. It’s kind of like getting dumped, you’re the loser.
We wanted to emerge with a pyrrhic victory, if nothing else, and getting a rebate felt like it would be a win.
While we didn’t have advisors, we did have professor Google, who was telling us we had a case. After some copying and pasting from Housing New Zealand’s website I channelled some of the lessons I had learnt from my class in contract negotiation on Suits.
First, lay down some facts.
Then, hit em’ with some opinion dressed up as fact.
One of Suits’ key lessons about the law is that you don’t want to go to trial. Trials are risky, expensive, and you could just as easily win as lose. What you want to do is settle, but to get the best settlement you need the upper hand, and to get the upper hand you need to make it look like not only will you go to trial, but you will smash trial, giving the opposition no option but to settle on your terms.
Hence my email continuing:
Her reply:She was trying to guilt trip us, which could have worked had she been on our side in the earlier emails, rather than attempting to shut down the conversation.
We put our foot on the gas and replied:That was our last big play. All our cards were on the table.
We got our rebate.
A late battle won in a lost war. For Sparta! Kidding. But still, it felt really good to get something back.
The flat moved out pretty quick after that. We took our money and went our separate ways. I don’t see them much these days, but I do wonder about them, especially Craig and Fridge Speaker.
I also don’t think we would have pushed as hard as we did had I not been binge watching Suits at the time and channeling Harvey Specter and Mike Ross. Which sounds lame, and it is, but it provided a playbook on how to deal with people who are trying to fuck you over, namely, don’t let them fuck you over.
It also opened my eyes to how easy it is for people with even the tiniest, smidgiest smidgen of knowledge to lord it over you. What if we hadn’t been taking tips from big dog Harvey? This lady would have happily, and maybe illegally, ripped us off.
It’s made me question a lot of the ‘official’ things that we take as gospel, simply because their letters have a logo at the top or an LLC at the end.
Turns out with just a touch of pushback, so long as you’re using the right words and googling the right google, you aren’t as helpless as you might think.
This post is part of Rent Week, our week-long series about why the experience of renting a home in NZ is so terrible, and whether anything can be done to fix it. Read the entire series here.
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