Fionnuala Jones on losing and then finding your home in the middle of a pandemic…[restrict]
In September 2020, I learned why moving is considered to be as stressful a process as divorce. What a year to receive such an education.
My landlord rarely called, but the day she did, I knew it wasn’t going to be good news. We’d recently been in contact with her about a leak that was threatening the ceiling above our stairs, but she’d been characteristically slow to get back about it. (Nobody wants a busy-body landlord, but the opposite brings about its own challenges).
For some reason (blind optimism?) I was convinced it would simply be a case of raising the rent. We’d lived in the house for three and a half years, and hadn’t given any trouble. And while the eviction ban had just been lifted, surely no one would be as cold as to give a group of four their notice as another lockdown loomed?
Reader, of course they would.
In one way, it was a relief – from March, we’d dealt with a conveyor belt of housemates due in part to the pandemic. One summer month, when a new tenant fell through, our landlord declined to forego the shortcoming in rent and told us they would be taking it out of our deposits. The constant substitutions and concerns about money kept me awake at night for weeks.
Given the length of time we’d been in the house, technically, we had time – ‘til the end of January, to be exact. However, given the summer we’d all experienced and with another stint at Level 5 incoming, myself and my three other housemates weren’t interested in hanging around.
One of them found a house in Dublin 7 to view almost immediately. It was more expensive, but everywhere was going to be – we were currently paying in around the €500 mark per month. Only two of us could make the viewing, scheduled for 9pm. In hindsight, this should have been our first sign that things were not right.
The house seemed fine – a more spacious living room, easier to heat, more modern. Two of the bathrooms were ensuite. There were more questions we probably could have asked, but the representative of the landlord who showed us around was low on information. We were offered the house on the spot – again, an event that’s relatively unheard of when it comes to renting in Dublin. Realising we’d be out before having to pay our current landlord another month’s rent, we took it.
More than meets the eye
That’s when my parents came to help me move. Packing itself was stressful, and was compounded by the fact that there were more issues with the new house than originally met the eye. When my dad attempted to turn on the heating, we discovered the boiler hadn’t been serviced since 2017 and would not work.
None of the toilets functioned properly.
There was a weird smell emanating from the kitchen that I chose to ignore upon viewing out of fear and desperation. Who was to say we’d get anything for less than what this was, in an area we liked? The average rent in some places in Dublin now stands at €2,319 per month – for context, the average rent in Beverly Hills comes in at €2,413.
With three days to go before moving in, we had to go back to our old landlord and explain that we’d need an extra week – a week we could not pay for, having just forked out a deposit and a month’s rent for this new, currently inhabitable place. Luckily, they obliged.
Six weeks of work in the new house followed, which involved enduring an endless stream of workmen who seemed to decide on the day whether they believed in Covid or not. I don’t think I slept for the first two months we were there.
Truly, the midst of a pandemic is the worst possible time to upend your life and move from A to B. For some, it’s a judgement call. For others like myself, your hand is forced. The strain of a move, coupled with the already difficult circumstances of Covid, is an added mental toll either way.
One woman spoke to me about her work-related move to Germany, organised before any of us knew of the word ‘coronavirus’.
“I work for a multinational company and had applied for an international transfer,” she says. “The start date was originally for May but with Corona, this was pushed out three times until it was finalised for the end of June. Contracts and everything were signed.”
With the rules concerning the virus and quarantining continuously changing in both countries, Ireland and Germany, it was an interesting few months of waiting. By the time she moved, Germany had completed its first lockdown, and things were starting to ease up, in every respect.
“Germany was handling the crisis quite well at the time. But at home, we had essentially been in some sort of lockdown since March so it was a big shock going from seeing one person (my housemate) a day to being in an office with 14 people or being able to go to restaurants and bars. Being in the company of many others so suddenly took a lot of energy.”
In Ireland there were ads on the radio and television about checking in on one another, being in this together, maintaining physical exercise and finding ways to adapt to the ‘new normal’.
“This was not present in Germany – I asked colleagues and friends and the general response was yes this is unprecedented, end of conversation. There just wasn’t the same sense of solidarity or support and this was a huge loss. I felt like I wasn’t going through the same thing as my friends in Ireland because the restrictions in Germany weren’t as bad. I was still struggling but there wasn’t as much understanding here. There was more of a ‘get on with it’ type attitude.
“Currently the situation isn’t great in Germany. I think this is because they handled it so well earlier in the year, they had a real confidence in their response to it. So when cases started creeping up, it took people a while to realise how quickly things can change.”
In general, she describes the year as “shit”, exacerbated by the fact that she is in a different country with no sign of being able to head home.
“Initially I felt it helped with homesickness because I wasn’t missing out on anything and even if I was still in Ireland I would be working at home and not seeing anyone,” she said. “But it was very difficult not knowing when I could come home to Ireland again and see my family.
“When I moved, things were opening up, we were all very optimistic about the future, I told my family and friends I would be home in September and it’s only a few months, be grand. Needless to say, it was not grand.”
Others found themselves in the position I had during the summer – endlessly trying to fill rooms during a time where we were being actively discouraged from meeting new people.
“One of our housemates moved out and we needed a new one,” M told me. “It was a really stressful time.
“We offered in-person and virtual tours to people. It probably wasn’t a great idea to give in-person viewings until we had narrowed the prospects down.”
Difficulties were compounded by the fact that they had no idea what their potential housemates’ habits had been prior to moving in.
“My parents came to visit for my graduation and that’s the last time I’ve seen them. I’m just not willing to put them at risk no matter how much I miss them.”
Another woman, N*, moved out of her family home in March.
“I work in a pharmacy and my parents are elderly,” she explained. “I felt it would have been extremely unfair to go to work each day and come home and risk them being infected when they weren’t leaving the house.”
She moved from the south side to a house on the northside of Dublin, facing a two hour trip each way. Eventually, she became depressed.
“I stopped calling home and felt very isolated. I didn’t see friends as I felt I was too far away to even meet them outside for a coffee or a walk.
“My weekend were spent in a house that wasn’t my home. I didn’t have all my stuff with me, I didn’t want to commit to fully moving out, so I lived out of a bag of clothes. I cried most days.”
N ended up moving back with her parents before the second lockdown, and admits to feeling guilty about her decision.
The fear of having to move hung over another woman, W*, during the first lockdown. A move became inevitable in June.
W* ended up moving counties as there were no rooms available in Dublin.
“I had to go through the council for housing assistance, and that nearly broke me. I felt they treated me like I was dirt and a thief. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
“I would have ended up homeless only that the family I used to babysit for had a spare room to rent,” they explained.
Now, W* says she’s happier, having set up a small business from the family’s house. However, the anxiety continues to haunt her.
“It was very dark and hopeless. The anxiety as if it’s happening gets me quite a bit. I learned a lot though.”
For others, it wasn’t renting that posed an issue during the pandemic, but buying.
E* was in the middle of buying a house when restrictions started to ease during the summer. However, as we know now, we were headed towards Lockdown 2.0.
“Our offer was accepted in July and we still haven’t moved in,” she tells me in December. “The tenants can’t move out because of the eviction ban and there’s nothing the seller can do.”
E* doesn’t blame the tenants, who are in an equally precarious situation, but mourns the homeowner’s dream she’s technically yet to have.
“We thought it was going to be great owning our own house and not having to pay rent and here we are, still somehow in the renting game” she laughs. “Just goes to show how reliant this country is on private renting and how it affects everything, even buying a house. It’s a domino effect.”
Once bitten, twice shy
One woman, who wished to remain anonymous, had to move twice during the pandemic.
“I was in 4th year in college in Limerick back in March when I was abruptly told I most likely wouldn’t be able to continue with my nursing degree and do my internship due to my epilepsy,” she said. “I had never been told this beforehand.”
She made the difficult move home several counties away, continuing to pay rent in Limerick. When the time came to collect her things, she had begun to think about what her new future might look like. “I decided to do a level 5 course in Sligo, a beginner course that covers all areas for people with epilepsy.”
Despite making the move to Sligo in August, the course remained 9-4 for five days a week. When the second lockdown was announced, she once again returned home. “I’ve only met 3 people in my class. I’m paying rent in Sligo still. I literally lived there for three weeks, and it was so isolating.”
Once again, she moved back home, forfeiting her deposit in Sligo. “The worst college experience ever,” she said. “It’s so hard to even begin to explain.”
Old and new
I remember the trips between the two houses in the beginning – the old house, where I didn’t have anything I needed and the new house, full of boxes and a feeling that I was trespassing. I thought many times about pulling off the motorway and taking the exit for Cork, calmly explaining to any guard that stopped me that I simply wanted to go home before my brain exploded.
It is a great privilege to be able to call a place a home, especially in a year as tumultuous as this. Sometimes, it doesn’t just come down to the bricks and mortar. It’s the people you live with, or don’t. It’s the journey door-to-door – financially, physically, emotionally. In a year where we were all asked to stay put, our homes came under more scrutiny than ever – wherever we stayed for however long had to protect us, heat us, sleep us, entertain us. In a year when circumstances changed at the drop of a hat, the thought of having to pack up and move, for whatever reason, undermined the peace of mind of so many.