Locals are being forced into exploitative rental exchanges and substandard housing by unscrupulous landlords taking advantage of the region’s housing crisis, the head of the local tenants’ advice service says.
As new figures show that rental vacancy rates remain at record lows, the head of the Northern Rivers Tenants Advice & Advocacy Service, Maralyn Schofield, says people are being forced to work on properties for next to nothing just to have a roof over their heads.
‘You’ve got these big properties with dwellings that often aren’t approved and are often substandard, such as old vans or sheds,’ Ms Schofield says.
‘And tenants are expected to exchange labour at a significantly reduced rate for this substandard accommodation.’
A local man, who wishes only to be known as ‘Andrew’, says a landlord asked him to do $1,000 worth of building work each week in exchange for accommodation in a tiny caravan and poor-quality food.
‘It was sweltering hot, not very private and there was no running water,’ Andrew says.
‘I was building an outdoor kitchen, putting awnings on all the windows. I hated it but I just felt like there was nowhere else to go.’
Ms Schofield said the rents in the Byron Shire had become ‘ridiculous’.
‘I’ve been working in housing and homelessness for 15 years and I have never seen it this bad – we really are in dire straits,’ she says.
A growing number of longtime locals are being forced to leave the Shire because they can no longer afford to live here.
Among them is Shakona Rose, the founder of the popular Soulful Abodes for the Tribe Facebook page, who had been living in the Shire full time since 2006. She has now moved to Gympie, north of Brisbane.
‘You could still get a decent granny flat for $120 a week in 2011, then it just started to go through the roof,’ Ms Rose says.
She says that after couch surfing, house sitting and sleeping in her car for 12 months in northern NSW, Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast, she had had enough.
‘A lot of landlords aren’t that bad,’ she says, ‘they’ve got huge mortgages to pay and they’re doing their best to pay them. But we need a balance.’
Low rental vacancy rates
New figures released by Real Estate NSW this week reveal that the rental vacancy rate in the northern rivers remains at an historic low.
Just one per cent of all rental properties were vacant during the month of August, a 0.3 per cent increase from July, but not enough to lift the region from near the bottom of the ladder among the different regions of NSW.
Ms Schofield says that the historically low vacancy rates made it even more important for tenants to be better protected under the NSW Residential Tenancy Act 2010.
‘The Act is about to go up for review and what we’ve been pushing for is an end to no-grounds evictions,’ she says.
‘At the moment, a landlord doesn’t have to give a reason when they give a tenant an eviction notice. But our argument is that there’s always a reason and it should be transparent.’