On the bicycle trip we explored ten categories of life – shelter, community, food, work, clothing, technology, money, health, spirituality and environment – but once we arrived back in our home state of Victoria we became obsessed with just one. Shelter. Where are we going to live?
And so began a four-month search for a home. When we were in Victoria’s goldfields region we visited a tiny house called the EconoSpace designed by architect Peter Cowman. Sophie fell in love with this quaint little cottage, and we had vague plans to build one on a bush block.
But being young people with very low incomes, Sophie and I are basically locked out of the Australian property market. Nevertheless, we decided to see what was available in our price range. Sophie spent many hours ogling property porn, and we quickly realised we could only afford land in rural or semi-rural Tasmania. “There are blocks near Cygnet going for $50,000,” she said, scrolling through listings on a real estate website. “Blocks of land for $8000 in Mathinna.”
Sophie and I don’t drive, and we wanted to remain committed to cycling/walking as our main form of transport. If we lived in these places, how would we get around? And since total self-sufficiency is all but impossible, we’d need to pay for things we couldn’t produce ourselves, so where would we find work?
Besides, our family and friends are in the greater Melbourne region, and we didn’t want to isolate ourselves. So although we still yearned for a little cottage in the countryside, we realised that it wasn’t practical for us at this point in our lives.
We decided to explore housing options in the Melbourne area. I’d been reading statistics about housing, and I learned that in 2010 nearly 45 per cent of Australian households had two spare bedrooms. The reason is mostly cultural: in Australia couples get married and build a three or four bedroom house, so their two kids can have a bedroom each. Then the kids move out, marry, and build a three or four bedroom house of their own. And so do their kids, and their kids, until there’s a string of empty bedrooms stretching across the suburbs.
From an environmental perspective, it makes sense to use those spare bedrooms rather than cutting down more trees to build an entirely new house. We decided to move in with my parents for the short term to see if we liked it.
My parents live on the Bellarine Peninsula, about 100 kilometres south-east of Melbourne. My dad is a keen gardener, and he helped us set up a vegie patch with winter crops (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, leek and silverbeet). Here it is about two and a half months after planting:
We wanted to grow these vegies without pesticides, so every few days we had to spend half an hour in the garden committing cabbage moth genocide. Those little green caterpillars are deceptively damaging – I’d neglect the plants for a few days only to discover that entire leaves had been eaten!
Although we really enjoyed living with my parents, transport was a major hassle. Sophie is a cello teacher, and every now and then she had to travel to and from Melbourne for a lesson or a gig. A return trip could take more than four hours by public transport. (By bicycle it would have taken at least a day.) Although there was a supermarket about five kilometres away, the nearest fruit shop was about 15 kilometres away. In short, the Bellarine Peninsula isn’t a very convenient place to live without a car. We decided to move back to Melbourne.
On the trip we investigated housing co-operatives, such as Murundaka in Heidelberg, which can provide long-term rental tenure for reasonably low rates (no more than 25 per cent of income, and always below the market rate). We attended an info session for Common Equity Housing Limited, where we learned that there’s a catch – you have to attend an average of two meetings a month and act as a “director” for the co-op every few years.
However, instead of dissuading us, this actually made us even more interested in co-operative housing. I like the idea of making democratic decisions as part of a community, and being a director for the co-op would help improve my business skills. So we signed up, and so far we’ve attended another info session for a co-op in Ringwood. Two members of Murundaka co-op have also offered to let us house-sit their apartment while they are away so we can get a taste of community life.
Co-op housing is a great long-term option for young people with little savings, but it could take years for a suitable vacancy to come up. In the meantime, we’ve moved into a very small apartment in Footscray. We picked up a second-hand futon on gumtree.com.au so that the main room can be both a lounge room and bedroom. Each morning we pack up the bed to turn it into a couch.
Many Australians would consider such an apartment to be unacceptably small but, after living in a tent for six months, we’re used to cramped conditions. It’s also really efficient to heat and cool a small apartment, and we’re located close to everything we need so we don’t have to travel 20 kilometres just to buy vegetables. I’m starting to think that living in an inner-city apartment could give us a lower environmental impact than setting up a homestead in the countryside. We don’t need to drive, so our day-to-day petrol use is zero.
So that’s a quick update on what’s been happening since we returned. Over the next few months I’ll be posting more interviews from the trip, an update on the progress of the book, and some thoughts on incorporating simple living into daily life.