Tackling Bellingen's coronavirus-induced housing affordability crisis

Bellingen's housing crisis

Bellingen had a housing problem pre-COVID, but now it has become a crisis, says Kerry Pearse from the Housing Matters Action Group.

Over the last few months, demand has been so intense that rental vacancies have dropped to zero, properties are being snapped up before they hit the market, and prices are surging to record levels.

The situation is being driven by shortage of stock plus the social and economic upheaval caused by the pandemic.

Some people are acting on retirement plans earlier than they expected, while others are exiting metropolitan areas because they've discovered they can marry lifestyle choices with working from home.

But while the change may be good news for some, it poses significant threats to the character of our rural and regional towns.

Local families may be priced out, the people we need to work in our schools, hospitals and local businesses may not be able to afford to live here, and the community may become increasingly stratified. There will also be more people homeless, camping in the state forests, living in vans, sleeping in cars.

"The risk that we face is that we will have two communities coexisting," Kerry said.

"People who have come here from the city, who continue to work for city-based employers, who are on city-based wages and whose line of sight is back to the city. And locals on local wages, who can't access the housing they need to stay here."

She thinks we need to act fast and can't wait for governments to recognise the extent of the problem.

Every time I go to town, someone stops me and tells me a story about the housing stress that they or someone they're close to is facing.

Kerry Pearse
Kerry Pearse

Kerry Pearse

"Every time I go to town, someone stops me and tells me a story about the housing stress that they or someone they're close to is facing. I'm worried that we're in crisis now but it's going to take government another 12 months to understand that."

With this in mind, the Housing Matters Action Group wants to involve all of us, including the newcomers, in a conversation about possible ways forward, and they have a list of short-term and longer-term ideas for actions we can take ourselves.

Those who have moved here in the last few months need to be welcomed and integrated so they become part of the community-focused solutions, Kerry said.

"Most of us came here at some point. For the reasons we came, other people want to come here. It's easy to get into an adversarial debate about it, but it's complicated and there's no straightforward answers."

The new arrivals will bring a diverse range of skills and capabilities, and many of them are families with school-age children, which will help counter our increasingly ageing demographic.

"We want to find a way to welcome people but also very consciously make sure we're looking after ourselves as things change, so we don't become a highly stratified community," Kerry said.

Now is the window for us to think really consciously about how we can maximise the opportunity of this change for the benefit of the local community and retain the characteristics of the shire that make it such a wonderful place to live.

Kerry Pearse

Potential Solutions

When Kerry posted those words on a Bellingen community Facebook page one of the comments was, "If I sell why should I sell cheap? I want the best price I can get."

Her response: "Because you probably also want to retain the characteristics of our community which make it such a special place."

She accepts that an economic system where real estate is a major source of personal wealth discourages a fair price focus, but says "we all know stories and situations where people have made different decisions".

"The housing group wants to find a way to have a community conversation about ways to tackle this that's not divisive or polarising," she said.

"And that recognises it's complex and people are operating within a system where the incentives are all about wealth.

"We want to come up with some creative solutions that everyone can contribute to and have a community conversation about what sort of community do we want to be?"

Local Housing Fund

One option on the table is encouraging people at the point of sale or purchase to donate a tiny percentage to a Local Housing Fund that is being set up to assist others in less fortunate housing situations.

This is a bit like the Pay-it-Forward Coffee, but on a larger scale. It aims to raise private funds to support the development of affordable housing and provide immediate help for people in housing stress.

"It's a way of being able to contribute back to the community because you recognise what's happening and you want to make a difference," Kerry said.

"Everyone who sells their house at a time of boom isn't a bad person. They care about what's happening in the community.

"Over time, if that fund took off, it could potentially grow to a point where you could start buying land with it. And that relates to one of the longer-term projects we're working on, which is the establishment of the Community Land Trust."

The Community Land Trust would be a legal entity that could receive land donated by council, the Crown, churches or even private landowners, and raise finance to build dwellings on that land.

"It's similar to Community Title except this is a structure that could own multiple titles," Kerry said. "It was developed in response to the huge housing crisis in the United States and has taken off in the last 15 years in the US and the UK."

People buy in for the value of the dwelling, not the value of the land, and when they sell there's a limit on the gain they can make. As it's not a profit-making venture, it keeps the houses affordable.

The Community Land Trust is mentioned in one of the initiatives to be supported in the Bellingen Shire Council's recently ratified Local Housing Strategy Action Plan 2020-2040.

The Housing Matters Action Group was heavily involved in contributing ideas to the strategy and promoting debate and community engagement.

Kerry said council have a commitment in the Local Housing Strategy to look at housing developments on council-owned lands and have recently completed a review of all their land holdings.

"Council is really concerned about what's happening and are actively looking at what they can do."

Councillors, council staff and Housing Action Group members celebrating the completion of the Local Housing Strategy in September 2019

Councillors, council staff and Housing Action Group members celebrating the completion of the Local Housing Strategy in September 2019

Housing Hub

Kerry said the action group is moving fast to set up the Housing Hub, which was one of the priorities identified in their submission to council's Local Housing Strategy consultation process.

"The Housing Hub will be a place that people can come to for advice and resources. We will be able to link them up with socially and environmentally responsible housing professionals. And have tools and resources that will help them navigate their way through their housing decisions in this area. "

They are applying for grants to get this going, which will pay for the infrastructure they need and fund a coordinator working part-time, whose job would be to coordinate community volunteers.

"Once the Hub is established, it will be the basis for some other innovative solutions," Kerry said.

Such as ...

Seniors Share Housing Scheme

"We know that there are older people living alone in three or four bedroom houses, who don't have anywhere to move to because we don't have many small dwellings in the shire," Kerry said.

The Housing Hub would help unlock under-occupied housing by carefully matching a senior living by themselves with another senior in search of somewhere to live.

"That's been quite successful in other places, especially if you go through a matching process."

Camping on private property

Another thing the Housing Hub could broker is matching up rural landowners who are happy to make land available for camping with people who are homeless and need somewhere to base themselves in the medium-term.

They could also work on the land in return.

There are council restrictions on this option and issues related to sewage and water that would need to be worked out, but it's worth doing, Kerry said.

"We need to look at how we use our resources now and how can we unlock them if we change a few things to make that possible."

The new Housing Strategy focuses on residential areas of the shire. Ideas like this one that involve rural and rural residential lands will come under the Rural Lands component of the Growth Management Strategy, which is still being developed by council.

Short-term vs long-term rentals 

"One of the things that could be done now is that people who have self-contained accommodation on Airbnb could make decisions to transfer that into private rental," Kerry said.

"That could make a big difference right away."

She noted that there's an economic driver keeping such properties in the short-term market, because "people can make three or four times the money using those properties for Airbnb purposes at particular times of the year".

But if people value the characteristics of the community and are clear about the sort of community that they want to be part of, there's a non-monetary value in making a decision to transfer property for long-term private rental so people have somewhere to live.

"Some people wont be able to afford to do that, but some people will. So the action group is keen to open up a conversation about that," Kerry said.

Low cost, long term campground

Setting up a low-cost campground with kitchen and bathroom facilities would provide a refuge for homeless people.

"At the moment there's nothing like that," Kerry said. "When the Showground camping is open, people can't stay longer than two weeks. The community garden has been an informal place for the homeless, but that's not happening any more."

She said it would need to have an on-site manager to ensure everyone's safety and wellbeing and would be increasingly important as the housing crisis escalates.

Innovative private development

The Modern Boarding House Act (2012) legislation encourages developers to build responsible, for-purpose, medium-density dwellings with some shared facilities and charge affordable rents. The focus is on accommodating singles and couples. Developers still get a return on investment but not a top dollar return.

"There aren't many examples yet in regional NSW but it could work really well here," Kerry said.

There's also well-designed, environmentally-responsible build-to-rent developments, which could provide housing for people who are employed but not earning enough to buy into the property market.

"One of the things we're facing is we're not going to have anywhere for the workers to live here," Kerry said. "This kind of development could give them long term secure rental."

What's next?

The Housing Matters Action Group will be meeting with our state and federal members Melinda Pavey and Pat Conaghan to discuss the housing affordability crisis.

"The government is actively encouraging people to move to the regions but it's not providing any social policy platform to ensure it works for the regional communities," Kerry said. "We have very little social housing here and we have a desperate need."

In forthcoming state budgets, Victoria has pledged to spend $5.3 billion on a social housing construction blitz, with a quarter of it dedicated to regional areas. However, NSW has flagged a significantly lower amount described as "hundreds of millions" for social housing to help stimulate the economy.

The Housing Matters Action Group is also about to meet with real estate agencies across the shire, hoping to collaborate with them in problem-solving.

One of the things they'd like is regular information: "what trends are they seeing, what sort of people are contacting them, from where, why are people leaving, why are people coming".

"We also want to ask what they think can be done to maintain the inclusiveness of the community and ask what they think about the Housing Fund and whether they'd be willing to integrate it into their practice and promote it."

Within the next month, the action group will be launching a 30-minute documentary Home Matters by Kell Stoner (Little Story Films) tracing their journey from the time of the first housing forum, through working with council on the local housing strategy and up to the adoption of that strategy.

Kerry said the film will be a useful resource for advocacy and it tells "a good story about what a community can do".

It's an unfinished story that we'll be living through together.