Karina Benton grew up in Canberra and spent holidays staying at her granny’s house in Batemans Bay.
About seven years ago, she moved to the coastal area with her three kids.
Now the family is homeless, not because of financial instability or a poor rental history, but because there simply aren’t any houses for them to move into in the area.
“We’re sleeping on the floor of my oldest son’s one-bedroom apartment,” says Karina. “We were in a motel for a month and we’ve been here for about two weeks and there’s still no houses.”
Karina has a band of people and organisations on her side, including public housing assistance, Anglicare and Ray White Real Estate in Batemans Bay. She says they do a wonderful job of helping people find housing, but all this help can’t make an empty house magically appear.
Along the NSW South Coast, people’s second or third homes sit empty for most of the year, which has historically made it hard to find permanent rentals, but the situation is especially bad in 2020 following the loss of 461 homes in the Black Summer bushfires in the Eurobodalla, with 226 more damaged by fire.
A spokesperson for Eurobodalla Shire Council said as of October 29 this year, it has received 162 development applications for buildings lost or damaged by bushfire, including modification of existing approvals.
“Of the 162 applications, 118 have been approved, with an average turnaround of 30 days,” said the spokesperson. “The 118 approvals are made up of 31 outbuildings, 71 dwelling houses, seven commercial buildings and nine alterations.”
The situation is similar throughout the Bega Valley, which recorded 466 homes lost in the bushfires.
“As soon as a rental comes up, it’s gone,” says Rodney McDonald, agent for Elders Real Estate in Bega.
“We’ve got long lists of pre-approved renters so most rentals aren’t even hitting the market. It’s an ongoing issue.”
According to Bega Valley Shire Council, as of 5 November, only 70 development applications have been lodged for bushfire rebuilds for dwellings.
“Approximately 57 have been approved,” said a Bega Valley Shire Council spokesperson. “The remaining 23 applications are currently under assessment.
“Bushfire affected people can put a temporary dwelling or structure on their property without council approval for up to two years so we can’t be sure of the number of people living on their property temporarily, but according to our survey data, we estimate there are between 35-40 households living on their properties in pods, caravans and shipping containers.”
The construction of the new Batemans Bay Bridge has necessitated the need for housing for bridge workers and has contributed to the current shortage. However, Penny McManus, business development manager at Ray White Real Estate Batemans Bay, says housing bridge workers is an insignificant part of the problem.
“A lot of people are blaming bridge workers for the housing shortage and I don’t think that’s fair,” she says. “They’ve been here a long time. They are a percentage of the problem, but they are not what’s causing the problem.”
The root cause of what’s currently happening with the rental market is COVID-19, says Penny. There are three main ways the pandemic has impacted housing supply and demand.
“The first reason is that people haven’t been moving since the pandemic began in March so we don’t have that constant change of tenancy we usually see as people shift interstate and locally,” she says.
“The second reason is we usually sell a lot of investment properties, some of which are then rented out. This year, we’re seeing just as many investors from cities buying, but after realising they can work remotely, they’re buying houses and moving into them.
“Finally, sales are very hot at the moment, driven by that move from urban to regional areas so lots of investors are selling while prices are so high. We’ve been seeing lots of tenants who may have been renting the same house for years and now the house is on the market, they’ve been given 30 days to find something else.”
According to Karina, it’s widely understood in the Batemans Bay area that housing has never been so hard to come by.
“Everyone knows how bad it is at the moment,” she says. “There was an elderly couple staying in the same motel as us who were in the same situation. I’ve never had this much drama finding a property.”