Fourteen years, three cities, fifteen share houses — including three houses on the same street — and more than a hundred housemates. As I prepare to say goodbye to another group, I’ve begun to reflect on some of the uncouth characters and diverse living spaces I’ve inhabited over the years.
I moved into my first share house at the age of nineteen, after a year living in a university hostel in Wellington. Midway through the second semester I remember a hostel RA hosting a session on how to choose the perfect housemates. I didn’t go — a decision I came to regret. When my friends returned from the session they’d already divided up into groups and decided who was going to live with who.
I discovered very quickly that it’s a good idea not to set high expectations for your first set of housemates. Mine included my closest high school friend who, after our first year of university, had become a distant one, and a girl recommended by a classmate. We moved into a townhouse at the very end of Wright Street, across the road from the New Zealand National Dance and Drama Centre. It didn’t begin or end well.
My two housemates hadn’t met before moving in together — and one of them still probably doesn’t remember the first time they met. He’s lucky he didn’t end up in a police cell, because she came home late on the first night to find him drunk and asleep on the doorstep, too intoxicated to identify himself. I still don’t know how he convinced her to let him inside the house. Thankfully, it became just a minor footnote in a year filled with drama.
Halfway through the year a friend of my housemate’s broke up with her boyfriend and moved all of her belongings into our lounge. Over the next ten weeks she stayed at our house only three times. On one of those occasions she decided to buy a kitten, the tiniest little thing I have ever seen. Sadly and unashamedly, she left the kitten without food for weeks on end, leaving me and my high school friend to feed it, clean up its feces and change the kitty litter. Eventually it escaped from the house and ran away. A few days later we saw a sign on a lamp post advertising it having been found. At the time we thought it was best to say nothing, thinking we’d probably be saving its life.
Several years later I ended up back on that same street, at number 32. I eventually ended up on the street a third time, but I can’t recall the house number and Google maps hasn’t provided any clues.
My first stint away from Wright Street included a brief period living in a million-dollar home overlooking Wellington harbour. I was told by the property agent that it was owned by a New Zealand diplomat who lived in Rarotonga. The only real negative was that it was at the top of the hill west of Victoria University, an hour’s walk from the city. My housemates were rather pleasant, we’d moved there together from another house that also had an impressive view of the harbour. We were all in our final undergraduate year. At the end of it, they split and moved to London, Vancouver and Hamilton — I slept on one of my future housemates’ bedroom floors for two weeks then moved with her to a place on Wright Street.
The house at 32 Wright Street was owned by a brother and sister in their early thirties. They lived on the bottom floor and we lived upstairs. Again, my housemates were nice, we got along well, but being young and naive eventually got in the way. One of my housemates had a boyfriend and lived a pretty traditional lifestyle, but the other housemate and I drank, smoked and partied a lot, and developed an attraction to one another that inevitably derailed our friendship. The stress of the place — although it felt romantic at the time — led me to begin smoking cigarettes; my housemate and I used to climb out my bedroom window and sit on the downstairs roof listening to The Clash and Fiona Apple. My addiction lasted a month. I haven’t smoked a cigarette since. It was also here where I started reviewing music, for a weekly Auckland publication called Groove Guide. I started my first music blog here, too.
We were eventually driven out by noise from downstairs. The owners had employed contractors to re-pile the house, but not long after we moved in they ran out of money to pay them. It led to several months of after-hours DIY work that often lasted late into the night. In hindsight, the noise was probably bearable, but living together wasn’t.
While I was living at 32 Wright Street, the real estate bubble had grown considerably. The only affordable place I could find to move into was in a notoriously poorly maintained Wellington apartment block, rented mostly to students who wanted to continue the hard-drinking hostel lifestyle. I say affordable, but it was expensive from the beginning, and I eventually lost a lot of money there, partly due to negligence, but also out of desperation. I was living paycheck to paycheck, aware of every dollar and aware I had friends who thought I could do better now that I had completed my degree. The first mistake I made was to pay several hundred dollars to the vacating tenant without signing any paperwork. But I had no choice — they wouldn’t let me move in otherwise.
I lived in the apartment block for several months with a professional dancer and two hospitality workers, until the two hospo workers moved out unexpectedly and left me and the dancer to cover the rent. We refused, until the landlord came knocking and demanded money. I lost my bond and a further week’s rent, money I desperately needed to secure my next house.
So I had to move again, this time rather quickly. One night after work, my boss arrived in his pickup truck and helped me move my possessions to a house on Brooklyn Road — a gorgeous little villa next to Central Park. It was the beginning of a long, lonely summer. My new housemates had attended high school together and were already friends. One of them was dating a guy who worked on an oil rig. He was away for several weeks at a time, but he received an equal number of days off to compensate for the long hours. They excluded me from social gatherings and failed to tell me when they planned to have a party at home, which was often, especially when he was on leave from the rig. I became accustomed to wandering the city. I’d often leave home in the evening and return well after midnight. Some nights I would meet up with a friend and go to the Botanic Gardens, but mostly I wandered the city alone. Occasionally I would walk around Oriental Parade and sit by myself on a bench. I liked to walk beyond the main beach and look out across the ocean, back towards the city. The air was always cold and there was a darkness to the ocean that I rather liked. It allowed me to feel separated from the city. I became obsessed with poetry, specifically that of Wellington poet Lauris Edmond, who’d spent many years living in Oriental Bay.
Eventually my housemates asked me to leave. I found out that they had always considered me a temporary tenant — they only ever wanted someone short term, because they had a friend returning from overseas who they’d promised the room to. Following that, I spent six weeks living in a friend’s room while he was away on assignment with the New Zealand Defence Force. His two housemates, also friends of mine, grew increasingly agitated by my presence and showed little sympathy. My search for a new home finally ended when a friend of mine — who I had lived with at number 32 — vacated her room and moved in with her boyfriend, offering me her old room. They are married now, and have a child, so I guess it worked out well for them.
This took me back to Wright Street. It is the only house in which I have lived with all men, but they behaved more like boys. The house also had Sky TV, an expense I’d never had before, and one I neither wanted nor could afford. Two of my housemates worked as bartenders, the other was a builder. We lived almost parallel lives, two of us working all day, the other two working all night. They were attractive guys who attracted a lot of beautiful women. One of them worked across the road from the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s rehearsal space, and one ballerina in particular was seen frequently around our house. She was the only girl I saw enter his room more than once. Some weeks he’d fuck four different girls, and sadly, one or two clearly thought he loved them. The ballerina was the only one he seemed to genuinely care for, but she rather ironically didn’t seem to care for him. Perhaps she’d seen the mice running across our living room floor, or been disgusted by the half-eaten chicken carcasses he’d often leave out for them. Despite the mess, she still liked to fuck him.
My next housemates also had loud sex, but our rooms were at opposite ends of the house, so I never heard them. I was notified by the landlord, after the upstairs neighbours complained.
To escape Wright Street, I left Wellington and moved north, to Auckland, where I ended up unemployed and living in an overpriced Ponsonby cottage. All went well at first, I had a say in choosing a third housemate — a larger-than-life Yorkshire girl in her early twenties who worked for the local newspaper. Sadly, not long after she came to live with us, the New Zealand Immigration Department declined her visa application and she was forced to return to the UK.
I didn’t know it when I moved in, but my housemate’s parents had actually bought her the house. I was living with the owner. Thinking about it now, it probably explains why our relationship became so tense. Eventually she stopped talking to me, it felt like we were ghosts haunting the same house. They call it ghosting now, but in 2007 we didn’t have a name for it. On the day I intended to tell her I was going to move out, I woke up and found a note on the kitchen bench saying she’d gone to Thailand for five weeks. This was before we all carried around tiny computers in our pockets, so I had to track down her parent’s phone number and inform them, and then had to arrange to leave my house key with her sister.
The real reason I moved to Auckland was to be closer to my girlfriend. I left the first house to move in with her. She was living in a multi-story, twenty-one bedroom mansion in Parnell — a former girls’ boarding school turned-cooperative living space known as The Big House. Each room had its own occupant. Couples had to pay for separate rooms, even if they primarily lived in one, but it was still cheaper than the Ponsonby place.
The house accommodated a diverse group of people that changed frequently. In my two and half years there, I lived with a French sailor, several school teachers, a doctor, a viticulturalist, a painter from the Maldives, a 3D animator, three journalists, a chef, a biochemist, several IT professionals, an immigration consultant, a Russian tennis player, and dozens of students and unemployed people. And that’s just the people who paid to live there. The place was a magnet for travelers and occasionally attracted someone who’d fallen on hard times — although sometimes it was difficult to gauge their sincerity. Despite all of this, the first question people still ask is “how many bathrooms were there?” My answer is always that there were enough — three showers, four toilets and a bath. It’s a question that still amuses me. Personally, I think I’d be more interested to know about privacy, which wasn’t particularly a problem, either. Occasionally you could hear people having sex, or see housemates parading in their underwear, but it was often deliberate. Some housemates seemed to enjoy the exhibitionist nature of living with so many others, but it was easy to live privately and go about things in a discrete way. I only saw nudity once, when a housemate slipped exiting the shower and dropped her towel.
There was a basic constitution that governed the house, and there had to be a consensus among housemates to buy anything considered a luxury. One of my finest achievements was to secure a mandate to buy organic cheese. I ordered wheels of gouda and cumin seed cheddar for about six months, until the global financial crisis made it unaffordable.
Various housemates had duties that slightly reduced their rent. Someone bought vegetables and fruit twice a week, another bought milk and bread — although this was eventually ordered online to save time and money. The most difficult task was looking after the house finances. With twenty one people paying weekly rent into a house bank account, the finance person had to track payments and ensure everyone was paying their fair share. It was very complicated. Some housemates would get deep in debt to the house, owing hundreds, occasionally upwards of a thousand dollars, while others would pay the same amount in advance. It balanced out — until the financial crisis.
During the peak months of the global financial crisis, more than a third of the housemates found themselves unemployed. I was one of them. A simple trip to the kitchen would often waste hours at a time, as there was invariably someone toasting bread or making a cup of tea. This was also when the house finances started to buckle. Those paying in advance could no longer subsidise the growing number of people behind in rent, and the house had to decide which bills to prioritise, and those to skip and pay later. Crisis meetings were held to try and address the situation, but ultimately people were too kind and chose not to abandon their housemates by evicting them. It eventually led to skipping the bulk food shopping and leaving the cupboards bare, however we never found ourselves without the means to cook a simple meal.
Despite the financial crisis bringing hardship, it never seemed to influence the type of characters that were attracted to the house, the majority of whom simply wanted a social living arrangement and had little interest in collaboration. Sadly, most of the people I lived with in The Big House failed to take advantage of the unique living space, which was perfect for hosting art shows, live music or community meetups. The property owner, a successful doctor and former tenant, once told me of his disappointment that the house wasn’t attracting more local artists, and during a rare meeting with all twenty one tenants he urged us all to do more to contribute to the local community. It fell mostly on deaf ears.
In the end, frustration and fractured relations with various housemates became too much, and I moved out. I think the final straw was when someone in the house became infected with scabies and half the housemates refused to disinfect themselves. They had perfectly valid moral reasons for refusing to put chemicals on their skin, but at the time I found them smug and disrespectful.
Once you’ve lived in a place like The Big House, you become tolerant to a certain degree of mess and untidiness. But this still doesn’t prevent you from being annoyed by housemates who leave teabags in the sink, or have loud parties unannounced. When I first moved to Melbourne my girlfriend and I lived briefly with a musician and her dog, before moving into our own apartment. We lived there for three and half years and then moved back into a share house, partly out of necessity and partly due to a craving for social interaction. We both thought living with like-minded people would help us network and gain access to Melbourne’s creative community, which has always been visible, but slightly distant. I think we’d both forgotten that the majority of people living in share houses aren’t doing it to make friends or find work. Of the more than one hundred housemates I’ve shared a living space with since 2003, I remain in contact with less than half a dozen, most of whom I hear from only occasionally. Perhaps I was naive to think this situation would be any different.
My current housemates, in my only Australian share house, have actually been some of my best. We’ve lived alongside each other, rather than on top of each other, and it’s worked, most of the time. But I think my days of share housing are done, at least for now.
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