For three weeks Kien Hannah and her family made a little cluster of mattresses and cuddly toys their home.
Unable to find a landlord or real estate agent willing to take them on as tenants, the 30-year-old, her partner, and their two little girls moved from place to place and tried to stay positive.
‘Ocea kept asking “Do I have a bed, Mummy?”,’ Ms Hannah says of her cherubic three-year-old.
‘I think she missed that security of having a place that was hers.’
Finally, after months of trawling through real estate listings, they found a house to rent in Mullumbimby just a stone’s throw from where their old house had been.
‘I am just so relieved that finally we’ve got somewhere, you know?’ Ms Hannah says.
The local mum is just one of hundreds struggling to find a home in the Byron Shire as soaring rents and inadequate housing supply force thousands into hardship and, in some cases, homelessness.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
As locals try desperately to squeeze into the painfully tight rental market, thousands of bedrooms and whole houses across the shire that could be used as homes lie empty.
Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show that there were 2,057 empty dwellings in the Byron Shire on census night.
That’s 15.3 per cent of the region’s housing.
A further 2,300 dwellings are being underused, with one or two people living in a house that has two, three or four unoccupied bedrooms.
The statistics, from the 2016 Census, also show that the average number of people per household in Byron is 13 per cent smaller than the national average and that we have significantly more underused housing than most of the country.
Ms Hannah says, ‘I feel very angry that a basic human need for everyone is not being met even though we have these empty houses that we could be living in.’
Dr Yvonne Hartman, a housing researcher from Southern Cross University (SCU), says the equation is simple. ‘It’s self-evident that having houses and bedrooms just sitting there empty reduces the amount of housing that’s available for people to live in,’ she says.
‘It’s one part of the lack of affordable housing that’s contributing to the housing crisis.’
There are a number of reasons that so many bedrooms in the Byron Shire stand empty.
Many of the 2,057 unoccupied houses are holiday rentals or holiday homes, properties that are only occupied for a month or two during peak season and then stand empty for the rest of the year.
CEO of North Coast Community Housing John McKenna says, ‘The amount of money that the owners of these houses can get from a single week over Christmas is just incredible.’
‘There’s really no financial incentive for them to rent the houses out for the rest of the year so they just sit there.’
Many of these houses and a significant proportion of the underused bedrooms in the shire are being let through Airbnb. While this is not news for most residents, new figures have revealed the extent of Airbnb letting in the shire.
The previously unpublished figures from independent website Inside Airbnb show that in the 12 months to April 2017, the total number of listings in the Byron Shire rose 20 per cent to 1,794.
Airbnb listings up
The biggest increase was in the number of whole houses being listed, which increased by 29 per cent to 1,204.
‘It’s whole properties being listed that are having the biggest impact,’ CEO of Anglicare North Coast Estelle Graham told a housing forum last month.
‘In the northern rivers, you’ve got 64.8 per cent of the properties listed on Airbnb being used just 69 nights of the year.
‘The rest of the time they’re just sitting there.’
‘Clearly there’s a tension between people’s right to do what they want with their home and the urgent need for housing.’
Yet the hundreds of rooms being rented out to tourists through Airbnb only account for about one-third of the 2,341 underused houses in the Byron Shire.
The remainder are homes occupied by the owner living on their own or sometimes with a partner while up to four bedrooms are unoccupied.
Ocean Shores has by far the most underused houses with 473, according to the Census figures. Byron Bay is next with 374, Mullumbimby 299, Suffolk Park 262 and Bangalow 150.
‘We have an older-than-average population in the northern rivers – there are quite a few retirees and people whose children have grown up and left home,’ says Tony Davies, chief executive of the Northern Rivers Social Development Council, Social Futures.
‘So you’ve got people in larger homes that are excess to their requirements.’
‘It is part of the issue of unused housing capacity. But no-one yet knows how much of that could be freed up. We need to start testing that.’
It is the right of any home owner to live alone in a large house if they wish to.
Housing experts contacted by The Echo said those who wanted to move into a smaller home faced significant barriers to doing so.
‘There’s a lack of suitable opportunities to downsize,’ Mr McKenna says.
‘The one- and two-bedroom townhouses and units that people need just aren’t there [in the shire] and that is something we need to address.’
Christine McNeil knows better than most how hard it is to find a smaller home in the Byron Shire.
She began searching earlier this year when a brief stay by the younger of her two children came to an end.
She discovered that there was virtually nowhere to go.
‘I was looking to downsize because I think it’s crazy for a woman alone to be living in such a large house and because I was having to keep working just to pay for the repairs,’ says Ms McNeil.
‘But when I started to look seriously, I just found that there were very few smaller houses or units on the market and those that were on there were snapped up almost immediately by investors.’
After trawling the shire’s property listings for months, she decided to move into a quiet, affordable retirement village unit in Ballina.
‘It’s quite a big thing to think about leaving the shire. I love living in the country so much and I’m having to give that up.
‘But it just doesn’t make sense living in a big house like this on my own, especially when people are homeless.’
The other major disincentive for many of those in the shire who want to downsize is the stamp duty bill that comes with buying any new home.
‘You might be living in a four- or six-bedroom house that would sell for seven figures,’ Mr McKenna says.
‘But if you’re retired and on a limited fixed income how are you going to come up with ten thousand dollars to pay the stamp duty and the other costs of transitioning into a new place?’
In 2012, a stamp duty concession scheme for seniors was scrapped by the NSW government and, despite the worsening housing crisis, there are still no incentives for older people to downsize in NSW.
‘The fundamental issue is that the housing supply we have in the Byron Shire in terms of price and the type of houses is not meeting the needs of the community,’ Mr Davies says.
‘And that will ultimately result in the community changing to the point where it is not a place that people want to live in any more.
‘But to address that issue of housing supply we have to address the issue of density. To create vibrant towns and communities where our artists and small-business owners and teachers can live we need to increase density.
‘That doesn’t mean cookie-cutter units built by rapacious developers. It means decent, environmentally sustainable, affordable houses that would allow Byron Bay to return to that vibrant, creative community that we all love.’
But here’s the rub: many residents strongly oppose increases in housing density because of the traffic, noise and parking issues it can bring, and some believe it will destroy the character of the towns and suburbs. These pressures are becoming more prevalent since 2011, when the council removed secondary-dwelling contributions.
Ms Hannah and her partner Laing Kerns-Stokes agree that building more affordable housing is important, but believe there are also changes that should be introduced closer to the coalface first.
These include changing the renting rules to ensure tenants have enough time to find a new home if they’re forced to leave, and requiring property managers to consider individual needs rather than just money when choosing among rental applications.
They also believe that landlords should be forbidden from discriminating against prospective tenants on the grounds that they have kids.
‘We had people literally say “Well we don’t really want kids, I just don’t really want them around”,’ Ms Hannah says. ‘I don’t think you should be allowed to do that… it just comes down to human decency.’
For more on renters’ rights, visit www.rentersrights.org.au.