Simply put, the Bellingen Shire is now in a housing crisis.
“It’s impossible to find rental housing and when it’s available the rents are too high for most people on local incomes. Median rents and sale prices are just out of reach for most people living in the Shire, unless they are already in the real estate market,” says Kerry Pearse, Chair of the local Housing Matters Action Group.
Kerry has been a housing advocate and community builder for most of her life. She experienced precarious housing in her late teens and early twenties and cut her teeth as a squatter in the Lyndhurst Estate in Glebe, Sydney. In her mid twenties she went on to work at the Mid North Coast Tenants Advice and Housing Referral Service during the 1980s. This jump started her public service career, initially in community housing policy with the Australian Government.
Kerry is particularly interested in innovative housing models, which offer shared equity and the long-term security of a place to call home. She currently works as a community resilience practitioner through KemJ and with the Burbangana Group, an Aboriginal owned for-purpose consulting company.
Kerry, can you give a brief history of the Housing Matters Action Group?
We formed in 2017 when representatives from Bellingen Neighbourhood Centre, and Lifetime Connect in Nambucca and other interested community members came together to discuss homelessness and housing stress. Subsequently we formed an action group and hosted a forum focused on local solutions.
Over 160 people attended the forum and a detailed work plan was developed with 46 people committing to ongoing actions. Since then Housing Matters Action Group has conducted a localised needs mapping, developed a 10-point advocacy platform, supported Local Housing Strategy community consultations, co-hosted ‘meet the candidates’ events, commissioned 3 films and continue to work towards numerous solutions to local housing issues. These include viable tiny house models, affordable housing in retirement village developments and a community property trust to provide perpetually affordable housing.
We hear a lot about the current ‘Housing Crisis’. Can you outline exactly what is meant by ‘crisis’?
It’s impossible to find rental housing and when it’s available the rents are too high for most people on local incomes. Median rents and sale prices are just out of reach for most people living in the Shire, unless they are already in the real estate market.
We have moved into new territory as local workers in the Bellingen Shire, (including those on moderate to middle incomes), are being priced out and we know of many families who have had to move away.
Bellingen Shire is indicative of other coastal areas across NSW – a regional area in high demand. If we can’t do something to disrupt this situation, we will end up in a highly stratified community with people working from home on city incomes, while many others on lower local incomes are living in very stressful situations in precarious housing.
There has already been a great change where people living in long-term rentals are really stressed about what they will do if they are given notice. And many people in long-term tenancies are being given notice because landlords are moving back into the area. Others are being hit with big rent increases as landlords see that they can increase the rent as the market keeps changing.
As a community, we need to find ways to tackle this situation locally or people who work in our hospitals, schools, doctors surgeries, shops, supermarkets etc just won’t be able to afford to live here.
What are the major factors influencing this current Housing Crisis?
The housing market is broken. There is no longer any link between house prices and local wages. Developing more land is the conventional answer but this won’t cut it. The price of land is so high that it’s out of reach of many people.
The housing market is not responding to the need in many regional areas. Our community is in the process of becoming more stratified between the city waged remote working professionals, who can afford higher prices for housing; and the service workforce needed to keep healthcare, childcare, education and other essential services going, who are being forced out. There is a 0% vacancy rate, and the few homes that become available for rent have long lists of applicants, leading to rent bidding. Homes that become available for sale are snapped up at escalating prices.
But the issue is much bigger. The combination of negative gearing and discounted capital gains tax, introduced 20 years ago or so, have torpedoed housing affordability. We need a new housing system. In our work we are exploring innovative models to pursue systemic change and open up other options for people.
How significant has the altered conditions created by the Covid-19 Pandemic been in exacerbating this crisis?
Despite realising an increasing problem 3 years ago, the pandemic has pushed the problem beyond tipping point. The gap between local wages, rents and house prices means that access to secure housing is no longer an issue confined to very low income earners. Although much needed, an investment in social housing won’t fix the scale of the problem. Without intervention, coastal regional areas are predicted to experience community stratification and workforce shortages for essential services.
Do you foresee that the situation will improve as Covid is slowly controlled?
Without a crystal ball it is hard to predict what further impact COVID will have. We know our crisis demands immediate action and our current action plan seeks to address the issues we’ve outlined.
Based on what you have said and market forces, how can a small region like ours control housing affordability?
The housing system is complex and much is outside our control. However we know that with grit and creativity our communities can find local ways to help retain the diversity and inclusiveness that makes our region such a wonderful place to live.
With seed funding for the Housing Matters Hub we have identified four priority areas which look at a range of innovative responses, using local resources and infrastructure, as well as advocacy to support our community navigate the housing system. We are seeking funding to take the Hub to the next level where we can investigate and implement initiatives, which we anticipate will change the shape of affordable housing. We also seek to influence and engage with government at all levels, to become a case study for positive community-led change to the housing system.
In 2019 the Bellingen Nambucca Affordable Housing Action Group designed a ‘Plan for Change’. It outlined a ’10 point advocacy platform’ of strategies for change. Has the group been able to realise any of these actions?
One of our original strategies in our 10-Point Plan for Change was to establish the Housing Matters Hub. Our vision for the Hub is to provide expert advice and resources to help implement the Bellingen Shire Local Housing Strategy and to have a base for increased action, innovation and advocacy.
Recently we received funding through Assist and Empower Grant enabling us to start establishing the Hub at the Bellingen Shire Learning Alliance building in Church Street Lane. We are also investigating expanding operations across Urunga and Dorrigo.
Our 10-Point Plan for Change also brought into question the role of local Government in responding to the needs of the local community. We have worked alongside Bellingen Shire Council to actively contribute to the Bellingen Shire Local Housing Strategy. We facilitated a number of independent community consultations and then drafted a comprehensive submission that reflected community input from these activities. Bellingen Council really took the community’s input on board and we can see it reflected in the strategy. Now that this Strategy is in place, we are in a position to help implement it. Bellingen Shire Council is taking a lot more leadership than most other Councils in trying to tackle the housing crisis, even though many of the drivers and potential solutions are not in their remit.
Do you believe the Bellingen Shire Local Housing Strategy goes far enough?
It’s a 20 year strategy approved by the State Government with 67 associated actions.“Affordability” is one of the eight themes of the strategy and there are eight actions directly relating to the issue. COVID-19 put the roll out of the actions on the back foot. Thankfully, we are now in a place where we can move forward.
Do you believe the combined efforts of Bellingen Shire Council and the Housing Matters Group will have an impact on local housing?
The first thing to say is that this regional housing crisis is happening outside of the capitals cities right across Australia. So we know that local solutions alone are not the whole answer. However, we believe that we have to find as many local solutions as we can to drive change because it will take years before any government action really impacts.
Our advocacy work has raised the profile of the crisis in our region and in regional areas more generally. We are having conversations with all levels of government and have put forward funding proposals for a scaled up model of Housing Matters Hub, which, if successful, will be a real turning point.
This ground-up approach would be a national first, as it is looking for ways to activate locally driven community solutions, in addition to much needed government policy and program responses. We are also working closely with the Royal Freemasons Benevolent Institute (RFBI), who are seeking capital funding for three sites in our region for affordable housing initiatives, including the old Bellorana site in Watson St. This could be retro-fitted for 16 affordable housing units. The Housing Matters Action Group is very supportive of this proposal and are working closely with RFBI and Bellingen Shire Council to support progress.
The Pandemic has only made our resolve and the need for action more critical than ever. Recognising the emerging pressure points that Covid brought led to our establishing working groups to focus on these priorities.
A goal of your group was to ensure inclusion of affordable housing in retirement village design, development of a housing fund, Land Bank and a Community Property Trust. Has it been possible to develop any of these initiatives? What is needed to achieve these?
Bellingen Council is seriously interested in the Community Land Trust and looking for funding so that we can get some help from specialists to investigate the feasibility of setting one up here.
We have lots of ideas and expertise across our group but we really need some operational funding to make more things happen. There is only so much we can do as volunteers.
Do you have a message for the local community when it comes to ensuring affordable, safe and secure accommodation for all?
All of us need to have a think about what’s important to us as a community and what we can do to help.
For example, people on large blocks with some resources could subdivide and create a smaller block of land for a low-cost building for a family member or friend, or build a secondary dwelling and rent it out. Some people currently renting out self-contained properties on Airbnb could think about transferring them into long-term rental for locals.
How else can locals help or get involved?
There’s so much to do! You’d be surprised (or not) at who in your circle is affected!
- Watch our short film on our website and find out more about us.
- Be part of our Community of Practice of Local Housing professionals. We’d love to hear from subject matter experts who are willing to share their expertise with our community on this critical issue.
- Become an active member by coming along to our monthly meetings and/or joining a working group
- Think about what you could do to reduce local housing stress. Could you take in a boarder? Build a secondary dwelling to rent? Rent long term rather than AirBNB? (Contact us if you want to talk about possible actions: [email protected])
- Contact your local MP and ask for immediate action to respond to the regional housing crisis
- Make a donation to support our work – we mainly rely on donations and volunteers https://www.housingmatters.org.au/
With thanks to Kerry Pearse and Rachael Hetherington (Marketing and Communications Lead for HMAG)