I am occasionally asked what changes I’ve seen during my 30 years living in Byron Bay.
My quick one-liner is, ‘I see more Land Rovers, fewer Kombi vans’. This answer is a bit cute as well as true. But if we care to look deeper there is more going on here than what model of cars are being parked in Jonson Street.
Juggling a small-town ambience while being one of the country’s foremost tourist destinations is not an easy circus trick. This is Australia’s third most recognised destination for tourists after Sydney and Uluru. We had over 1.1 million visitors here in 2013 while more southern city retirees are choosing it as the place to make a final nest. But all this success has its problems. Anyone who takes the time to read the letter pages in this paper can see that there is a lot of complaining going on and a lot of that complaining is around one thing – housing!
Many of us remember crusty old Ross Tucker who was a conservative councillor in the last council. I remember hearing him once saying, ‘You people come here and claim a piece of paradise and then want to shut the door’. He was right, but there is no door to shut. The only way to maintain exclusivity is with price and now with Byron’s property prices on par with the southern capitals that is exactly what is happening.
At the end of the 2014 financial year Sydney’s median price for a standalone residential dwelling was $807,880. Byron Bay and postcode 2481 is $775,000. Melbourne is $658,000. The green council that replaced Ross Tucker has been replaced as well since many of those green voters can’t afford to live here anymore. Everyone is against rampant unchecked development but not everyone acknowledges that the repercussions of limited development are usually unbridled real estate prices.
Byron Bay is not alone with this problem. It is an ongoing dilemma for small towns and some cities all over the world. The Silicon Valley area of San Francisco is possibly the most famous exclusive urban area. School teachers and government employees have to commute long distances since close, affordable housing is not available. The city’s public transport is being left behind by private fleets of white, Wi-Fi, luxury buses commuting the high-tech workers to and fro. The once low-rent areas like Mission and Tenderloin have been gentrified.
I have seen this cycle played out a number of times in Byron Bay over the last few decades. Different groups of people come, settle, struggle, pack up and move on. It’s amazing that the resilience of the community is maintained while being continually recycled.
I have heard lots of ideas and schemes to help alleviate this ongoing problem: affordable housing committees, developer contributions, rent control, stop holiday letting to bring back housing stock for locals. There has been a tsunami of talk but very little ever comes of it as the forces in play are probably too strong to tackle.
We have decided to put the environment, rural land and nature above people and houses. The residents and voters of Byron Shire have consistently chosen this preference and that’s great. One of the side effects of that is that property prices will rise quicker than other areas. How to resolve negative aspects of this resolution is still on the drawing board.
Under the radar, behind the scenes, if not exactly illegal but certainly in the grey area, is one option already in play and working in a fashion. The hills of Byron Bay are alive with studios, workshops, cow bails, storage units and sheds that have been converted and customised to house people. The conversation is: are these people being exploited by paying high rent for substandard accommodation? Or is this a neat way around the housing shortage and are these landlords being altruistic and community minded as well?
Probably more of the former but another problem is this topic is never widely discussed. Council does not want to know about it for obvious reasons. I have heard it joked that if compliance officers went all-out we would probably lose up to a third of our population. Landlords certainly want it kept under the radar as their income is threatened and tenants want to maintain any dwelling they can, knowing that going back into the rental market is too painful to even contemplate.
If there is a solution then it needs to be an extension of what is already working. Is it possible to create more dwellings while still maintaining our rural vistas and rolling green hills? Last year NSW state planning allowed residential zones to include granny flats on urban allotments. This infill type development could be expanded to rural zonings. Byron Shire Council have just adopted the new LEP and are looking at approving detached dual occupancy in rural zonings.
Another option is to expand rural worker accommodation to include environmental restoration. This policy currently allows dwellings only for farm workers within strict guidelines. Both these options would encourage people on acreages to build smaller secondary dwellings – more houses without the urban sprawl.
This is the only way that is currently working to house people who would otherwise have to leave the shire. Why not encourage more people to build more affordable housing on their rural properties and actively support financially challenged long-term residents to stay? This is what is supposed to happen in a diverse, multi-textured community. Range Rovers and Kombi vans should be able to park side by side.
Michael Murray works as a property buyer’s agent.