The general public is rightly and properly shocked at the news that an elderly woman could have been dead in her Surry Hills home for up to eight years. It's creepy, sad and as a near neighbour, extremely distressing.
For the past four-and-a-half years I have lived close to the house in the inner east Sydney suburb belonging to that dead woman. I've walked our dog past the house countless times, watched my children skateboard down the Kippax Street hill in front of it, and occasionally parked my car outside the property. It was grim to wake up to this news, to say the least.
Just a stone's throw away from the chic Crown Street shopping strip there are many houses like the one lived in by the dead woman. I can count at least five homes in our immediate vicinity that appear, at least from the outside, to be empty and derelict. It is, unfortunately, part of the fabric of Surry Hills; something we locals are used to and have come to accept as a feature of living in a suburb that has a rich, diverse and disparate history.
Longer-term residents of my neighbourhood have told me that some of the deserted properties are owned by migrant families who bought them for a song in the 1950s and '60s and have since abandoned life in the inner city for suburbia. My own home is a case in point. Before our purchase, it had been left to rot by its ageing owner who had turned it into what became over time a derelict boarding house, with single rooms inhabited by a myriad of lost souls who lived out their dying days in miserable isolation.
From time to time we see the elderly folk who have elected to hang on to their increasingly valuable assets visit their dilapidated terrace houses. We watch them pick up the junk mail, undertake some minor, cosmetic maintenance, and then quickly disappear again. We might give them a wave and nod politely. As many of these owners are not now part of the changing tapestry of our neighbourhood, they rarely interact with residents, preferring, it would seem, to keep a low profile.
I know many of my fellow residents and they are good people. We often meet on the street to chat and share our news. We look out for each other's properties, talk about improvements to, and new developments in the area, and we pass on information about local break-ins. We have each other's phone numbers and email addresses. Some of us have, from time to time, banded together to express our concerns to Sydney City Council about the appalling condition of some of these empty properties. We've written to Lord Mayor Clover Moore about one house that we fear is infested with vermin, squatters and squalor. Some years ago I even asked the council's rodent catcher to investigate whether there was a rat infestation at the Kippax Street house where, unbeknown to anyone, that poor woman lay dead.
It seems, from this sad case, that as long as the council rates are being paid, no one has the time, nor the inclination, to give too much thought to what might be going on behind closed doors. One can only hope that this tragic story has a silver lining. Might it be the catalyst for change to Sydney City Council's approach to dealing with neighbourhood complaints about these derelict dwellings?
There is a fine line between caring for and interfering in the business of one's neighbours. At what point do you make a decision to knock on a door unannounced, climb a fence, or ring the police to ask them check on the welfare of your neighbour? If you have heard that your neighbour has moved out or is on a long holiday, is it incumbent on you to make further inquiries? If your neighbours were noisy, are you alarmed if suddenly it is quiet or do you just rejoice at the new-found peace? These are questions that I suspect many Surry Hills residents will be asking themselves for some time to come.
Perhaps we should have taken more of an interest in the neglected Kippax Street property but closer to home, surely someone needs to ask who has been paying the rates all this time, what happened to seven years' worth of junk mail and why is it only now that a family member has come forward?
Emma McDonald is a lawyer and freelance writer.
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