Sun, 15 Jun 2003

`Decent' and `affordable' don't go together in housing

When I was asked to write about finding a decent yet affordable place to live in the city, I knew the editors were expecting an angst-ridden, complaint-filled piece.

Of course, the issue of housing is not a problem for some 28- year-old bachelors, meaning those in high-paying jobs or those who have the stomach to swallow their pride and stay in their parents' house.

But I am part of a much bigger group that must confront a major social problem which is as slippery as jailbreaker and corruptor extraordinaire Eddy Tansil.

When it comes to housing for young people, the words "decent" and "affordable" don't go together. "Decent" chooses other words as partners, like "mighty expensive" and "overpriced". "Affordable", meanwhile, goes with "dirty", "cramped", "leaky" and "downright hideous".

I moved six times after I graduated from one of the best universities in the country in 1999. Five of the moves, including the place I'm in now, have been to what I like to call "compact rooms" in boardinghouses.

That means that the rooms are so small you can't make any big movements in them, which kind of explains why I continue to gain weight even though I don't eat much.

The rooms are so tiny that everything is placed no more than one meter (OK, two meters) from the bed. Everything really is within arm's reach.

Feel like working on your PC after waking up? Just shimmy down to the end of the bed and reach for the keyboard. Everything else, from water dispenser, books, mosquito repellent spray as well as the antimosquito plug-in device are right there within grabbing distance.

Let's just say that in my room, there is no need for a remote control.

These rooms cost about Rp 500,000 (US$59) a month, which may not seem like a lot to many readers but it's about all that many Jakarta residents in their 20s and early 30s (hopefully this won't be me) can afford.

On average, they earn about Rp 3 million a month and it takes some very wise money management to make it to the week before the next payday with any money left.

The owners of these boardinghouses charge extra if you have electrical devices like a TV, computer, electric oven or stereo.

People try smuggling in small appliances, such as a blender, to avoid the extra charge, but this means having to cover the device with a blanket and hoping the landlady is a little hard of hearing every time you use it.

Of course, everybody who has ever lived in a boardinghouse has a horror story to tell about shared bathrooms. When you first move into a boardinghouse, your little idealistic heart says that we all have a common belief system when it comes to bathroom etiquette.

Shortly after that bubble has been rather disgustingly burst, you also wake up to the realization that your toiletries are suddenly running out much quicker than ever before.

Answer to that problem? Just follow suit and use the shampoo and toothpaste of the other residents.

Privacy is also a big problem.

Many small boardinghouse rooms have been made by dividing one large room with thin triplex boards. That means that you can hear every little movement of the person next door.

In such circumstances, I don't need to get into a long, involved conversation with the man who lives next door to know what he gets up to in bed. It's a bit too much information.

A friend of mine once had the outrageous idea of organizing a rally to get the government not only to think about the rich and the poor, but also the people like us who are caught in the middle.

He said he deserved housing that was specifically built for young, talented people.

However, he quickly forgot all about it when he found himself looking for a new room after his landlady kicked him out for complaining too much.

Today, to avoid the housing headaches, he is back in his old room in his parents' house.

I remember watching a French movie about a married couple who love their 27-year-old son, but want him to move out of their house.

The movie did not really translate culturally here, where it is acceptable still to be living at home into your late 20s. There is not really an empty-nest syndrome in this society, because once the adult children leave home, grandchildren are not far away.

Maybe I should call my mom to talk about this. Just let me reach over and get her number.

-- Ahmad Dekan