Friday, 27 June 2008

A naïve white woman is shocked to learn that discrimination is alive and well

My family and I are in the process of moving from Dunedin to Wellington. We're provincial folks: Dunedin is the furthest north that either my partner or I have ever lived. To put it plainly, we're yokels.

In the past, when I've rented homes in Dunedin, I've simply burled up to the landlord, signed the lease and moved in. I guess I thought that every rental market worked this way. As I look for a home in Lower or Upper Hutt – the closest my family can afford to Wellington, even though I will be earning a good salary – things couldn't be more different.

I've now made six or eight applications for rental properties in the Hutt Valley, and all have failed. I'm competing with other prospective tenants for the cheapest properties available, people probably as desperate as I am to house their families in a rush. These properties are so expensive that my family will struggle to cope financially; I can't imagine how low wage earners and beneficiaries are getting on. Still, I have only days to find a roof to put over my family's head, and I am utterly panicking.

I've just now emailed an application for a property in Naenae, a low socioeconomic suburb, and the instrusiveness of the application form stunned me. In addition to supplying information about my current employment and referees' contact details, I was asked to state my income, and to say whether it came from earnings, a benefit or a family member. I was asked to describe my last two jobs and name my employers. I was asked to state the ages of my children, and cautioned that I would be given a credit check.

Most bizarrely, I was asked to send a photo of myself. Why? At this point in the application, the landlord knew everything there was to know about me, and certainly everything relevant to my ability to pay the rent. I can only assume that the he wants my photo so he can take a guess at my ethnicity, and draw conclusions on this basis. Perhaps he will also look for tattoos, or some other visible sign that I am a poor person. Perhaps he will observe the ages of my children, and feel relieved that I am not yet the mother of rowdy P-smoking teenagers. I have a strong and uneasy feeling that I am being vetted for racial and socioeconomic undesirability.

You'll think I'm incredibly naïve, about racism in both my home town and in the world at large. You'd be right. Racism has been a rather abstract, academic thing for me. And now, confronted with what I strongly suspect is a racist practise, I'm doing nothing more militant than writing a blog post. I sent my tenancy application in, complete with a picture of me smiling with my kids, looking as white and middle class and reputable and harmless as I can. And perhaps my application will beat out one from another woman – probably poorer than me, perhaps a solo mum and probably Pasifika, if the demographics of Naenae are anything to go by. A woman just as desperate to house her kids, and just as entitled to, as I am.


Anonymous said...

Good call. I think some pretty er... funky things can go on with landlords selecting tenants. I was once asked to fill out a form that required that I identify the country I was born in. How is that relevant?

Violet said...

I had no idea. I guess you aren't the most naive woman around then (and I ain't even white)...

The ex-expat said...

The suit moved places back in May and made a similar comment, that as a white male suit-type he'd never had any problems finding a place to rent.