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Byron Shire
June 20, 2021

Tales of housing exploitation

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Maralyn Schofield, Manager of the Northern Rivers Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service, part of the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre. Photo supplied.
Maralyn Schofield, Manager of the Northern Rivers Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service, part of the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre. Photo supplied.

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.’

Long-time Shire resident Shakona Rose was forced to move by rising rents. Photo supplied .
Long-time Shire resident Shakona Rose was forced to move by rising rents. Photo supplied .

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.’

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  1. Causes of this problem include:

    1. Greedy estate agents encouraging locals to sell for outrageously over-the-top prices;

    2. Investors buying property merely to exploit the rental market to its limits;

    3. Out-of-control holiday letting by greedy – and often not locally resident – landlords.

    • It is owners who are keen to get the best price not agents. Agents would rather sell a property at the highest price, but they would also rather sell a property at any price then not at all (unless you structure the contract so they get a much larger commission for a sale over a given figure). The value of a property is determined by what one person is willing to pay. Living in the Northern Rivers is attractive in part because development has been restricted and some people can afford to people pay more for that privilege. What is described here is the natural result of anti-development policies that few of us would want to change; it has nothing to do with greed.

  2. I disagree Peter Hatfield.
    The anti development policies are sensitive to the environmental needs of this shire. More development equals less wide open natural space.
    Many rental properties have been whiteanted by air bnb to provide extra income
    Plus the rental demographic can be very tricky in its mental/ physical /emtional health which is a danger to share house equanimity. Many are opting for single person accomodation which is expensive and rare.
    If Byron wasn’t such an expensive slice of real estate rivalling Sydney prices we may have seen less of a problem.Greed is the root of all commercial trade in housing….how much can i make if i hold on long enough…rather than this is my home.
    With robotic precision people copycat the tv programs that have people renovating and selling at a much higher price…value adding.

    • I did comment Turiya that few of us would want to change those anti-development policies – they are indeed sensitive to the environmental needs of the Byron (and also Ballina Shire). But one direct result of that restriction on supply is high housing prices. That is particularly so in the Bay as there is no equivalent to the expansion in Ballina away from the sensitive coastal and marsh/swamp areas. The problem is the intrinsically high capital value; it has nothing to do with greed. If you have invested a million dollars in a property in the Bay you would expect a reasonable return on that investment – otherwise you would invest it elsewhere or in another asset class. And having bought a property of high value it is unsurprising that you would want its landscaping and decor to match market expectations for an expensive place – no plastic Bhudda from the local discount store in your Wategos garden. Some renters do have their share of personal and social issues – that just makes housing dearer for others as agents and landlords need to factor in the risk of loss of rent from unstable tenancies and damage to property. It does not argue for the State Government to intervene so those people can enjoy the Byron Bay lifestyle at the expense of landlords or the public purse.

  3. So many empty houes, shops and buildings in lismore. Holiday places sit empty. Most of the time. Churches sit empty most of the time. No vacancy in caravan parks because they are now tourist parks. WHY.


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