This week we chat with Bellingen Shire Mayor Dominic King about the current housing crisis to discern what can actually be done locally to ameliorate the problem. We wanted to know if Council has the resources and power to implement the initiatives required to provide for those in our community struggling to secure affordable housing.
We have previously interviewed Kerry Pearse (Chair of the Housing Matters Action Group) and Frankie Mayes, who continues to live under the threat of homelessness. And both agree with our Mayor. This a ‘whole of community’ problem, requiring a ‘whole of community’ response…..
Dom from your perspective, what factors have contributed to our current housing crisis?
This is not a new problem in the Bellingen Shire, although there are a few factors that have intensified the issue, such as the movement of people out of urban areas to the regions due to COVID. The boom of high prices paid for housing in the capital cities has enabled people to pay higher prices for properties to rent or buy in our region.
However I feel the biggest factor has been the lack of acknowledgement and planning for this crisis by state governments over the last 20 years. The reduction in the number of social housing or affordable housing options over time has never really been addressed by either of the major parties when they have been in power.
As community members are being pushed out of the local housing market, what impact does this have on the character of our shire?
Absolutely it diminishes our character. We have always spoken about how we wanted to maintain the ability of all of our residents to continue to live in the Bellingen Shire regardless of their income or circumstance.
The Council has a 20 year ‘Bellingen Shire Housing Strategy’ that was formulated before the onset of Covid19. Is this strategy still relevant and does it go far enough in addressing the problems?
It’s still relevant because even before the pandemic we were seeing increasing pressure on the residents looking for affordable renting options. The pandemic has certainly sped things up, but as I said poor planning from the State and Federal governments around housing is the biggest factor. The 20 year time frame is something we have worked with the community housing group on and I would suggest that this is a goal of where we want to be in 20 years, which doesn’t mean that we are not being proactive right now.
We (BSC) have been acknowledged by planning bodies and the Federal MP Pat Conahan as being leaders in Local Government in this area. Also it’s not something we get any sort of funding to do and many would rightfully argue is the responsibility of State and Federal Government.
The Housing Strategy predicts that 1861 new homes could be built in residential areas across the Shire by 2040. Is this actually viable?
I think it’s viable if we aim to do something unique that ensures we have development that is innovative and fit for purpose. I would like to see developments that have a variety of housing types to suit the needs of the community rather than what suits the developer. I would also love to see innovative design around using less resources that has the protection and enhancement of the environment as one of its key goals.
Things like renewable energy, waste management, better water use, wildlife corridors, affordable housing options and local food gardens could easily be implemented into the design of any housing options. Particularly if it is based on implementing good design and not just focused on profit making.
So I would say if you were talking about a roll out of stock standard developments, with poor design principles that we see in places like Western Sydney I would say no it’s not. However something that makes a statement about how we can live better into the future then I would say “bring it on’’.
With respect to new homes, the community has expressed a desire for high quality infill rather than the release of more land through rezoning (Greenfield). How do you see this looking?
I would hope that people in the areas that are earmarked for infill would be looking to see if they could construct accommodation options that will help ease the rental stress we are experiencing and can have a mutual benefit for them as well. Whether that means building a secondary dwelling or renting out a room in a house that has spare bedrooms and living space. This is such a growing problem across the country (especially coastal regions) that there absolutely needs to be a discussion by the higher tiers of government about how we begin to address it.
Suggestions around diversity in housing would involve a lot of changes to existing local planning and building controls. Are changes to planning controls currently on the table?
The planning laws are certainly a starting point, but I would be cautious about changing any of the legislation that protects the environment, heritage, wider community protection and the sense of place. It’s more about tweaking the planning laws and coming up with a variety of locally based solutions that fit with the needs of the community.
Are there any plans for more affordable/social housing/new campgrounds in the Shire? Is this something Council intends to work toward?
Council is currently working with the community group the Bellingen and Nambucca Housing Action Group, The Freemasons, and local developers to kick start some affordable housing projects asap. As for Social housing, it is a State Government responsibility and BSC does not have the expertise, budget or legal mechanism to work in this space. In regards to camping, we are looking at options but they are in very early stages.
A lot of these strategies are long-term goals. As we are currently experiencing a crisis, what can be done to relieve the pressure quickly?
I think there are some short term strategies that are being worked on in the groups I have mentioned above, however some of the responsibilities rest within the our own communities. We are all impacted when there is homelessness or residents that can not afford to rent or buy in our region. Not only are there ethical and moral reasons that we should look after our most vulnerable people but many people who are working full-time are finding it near impossible to find accommodation. These are people that work in a whole range of industries that we all rely on to provide the lifestyles we value.
So as a community we need to ask ourselves if there are ways we can help to alleviate this crisis. Whether that is in investing in affordable housing options, renting out your spare room, accepting less rent for investment properties, or even lobbying local State and Federal MPs to fast track some emergency accommodation options. The bottom line is, we all need to come together if we are to address this problem.