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Byron Shire
August 16, 2022

Will Byron become the Malibu of the antipodes?

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Here’s another reason for millennials to be marching on the street.

We found out last week that on census day 2021, 15 per cent of the dwellings in the Byron Shire were unoccupied (2,348 places to be precise). That figure was 30 per cent in Byron Bay itself, three times the national average.

The local revolution is nigh among the young, and let’s not hold our breath for a northern rivers squatting law.

Although housing affordability has become a national issue, there are undoubtedly unique circumstances in our area that are not being adequately addressed.

Damian Kassabgi is a resident of Byron Bay and a former policy adviser to Prime Ministers Rudd and Gillard. Image supplied

The community has been failed by state and local government representatives over the last decade, who were bystanders (and perhaps complicit) as house prices skyrocketed, as rents went up (by 24 per cent) while the region didn’t adequately increase affordable housing stock for those in need.

The NSW Government has started regulating Airbnb/holiday letting without requiring the data needed to fully understand our housing situation.

It has gone through this process without adding any cost to Airbnb, holiday letters or even holiday makers to the process (meaning a whole new regulatory framework has gone through the State Parliament without a single new dollar for our area).

Aggregate and anonymised data from the large letting corporations would give us a better sense of which houses are being leased, for how long and how much, allowing the community to better plan for the future and even raise some income in the process.

It is going to be close to impossible to measure any meaningful impact of the new 90 day restriction on letting rules. Will there be an increase in long term accommodation, or simply more unoccupied houses?

In San Francisco, where I have lived, a house was not permitted to be listed on Airbnb without being licensed by the city, which included A$650 fee every two years.

Without knowing the full extent of the Airbnb letting penetration in our area, let’s assume the 2,348 unoccupied households in the Shire were charged a similar fee for the privilege of holiday letting – such a scheme would raise $1.5 million in new revenue for the area (every two years!).

But of course this revenue raising can’t occur at a local government level without NSW legislation.

In relation to the accommodation needed – millennials and gen z’s (i.e. the workers in our cafes, restaurants, gardens  and salons) aren’t asking for much.

My partner, son (four) and I have been living in a 60m2 granny flat over the past two years.

We built it back in 2014, without realising we’d need it in 2020 as COVID refugees coming home from some years working abroad.

Even though it is a temporary situation for us, we have learned a lot about what permanent accommodation needs to look like for a small family.

We speak about how our place may have been a permanent solution if planning rules had allowed it to be 30 or 40 sqm larger.

A 90sqm place would have allowed for a second bedroom, a full size kitchen – even some space for a home office and a surfboard or two!

The problem with the ‘granny flats’ scheme is that they now need to accommodate full millennial families, not just granny.

Harvard Professor and urban economist, Edward Glasear, has calculated that the world’s population could fit in a land area the size of Texas in townhouse style accommodation.

A good size terrace in Sydney’s Paddington, Newtown, Surry Hills or Glebe has a total internal space of somewhere between 90 and 120 sqm.

Terrace housing is clustered, meaning there is lower impact on the environment – less land use, with less building material and piping needed.

Of course our region is not, and should never be a city, but the point is that high rise does and overdevelopment does not not need to be the answer to density and accommodation.

With the right planning laws, we should be imaginative enough to use the abundant land around us, to permanently house families with a low impact on our environment with architecture that is sensitive to our landscape with long term letting requirements.

The good news from the census is that young people want to be part of our region, giving it energy and life.

The census showed that we now have a larger Spanish speaking population per head than the rest of the nation, and with significant pockets of people from Brazil, Germany and Israel.

New residents can bring ideas, new perspectives and texture such as surfers and alternative thinkers did decades ago.

Only if there are opportunities for a wide range of people however, and not just those who can afford to buy, can we prosper from our youth and these new waves of diversity.

We now need the political will and nous to deliver for this new generation through good, permanent, affordable housing – lest we become the Malibu of the antipodes.

♦ Damian is a resident of Byron Bay and a former policy adviser to Prime Ministers Rudd and Gillard.

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  1. “Here’s another reason for millennials to be marching on the street.:
    What is the first reason because no one is marching on the street?
    Here is a reason to bring back the era of squatters and get free board.

  2. That figure of a million homes empty makes a great headline and journos all over love to quote it, but if one digs down in to the numbers, one finds it includes new homes not yet moved in to, homes undergoing renovation, people on holidays or just spending the night away. There are a host of reasons why people weren’t home on census night. And even if all empty homes were somehow forced to be rented, I doubt if a home worth a million or two or three would be rented at a couple hundred bucks a week.

    The only way now for Australia to overcome the affordable housing problem is to look at building many thousands of units right around the country. Labor’s puny 30,000 homes over 4 years is meaningless. There are hundreds of thousands of families who will never own their own homes and can barely afford the current punitive unregulated rentals. Elsewhere in the world this achieved through private/public partnerships and rentals are geared to ability to pay rather than what the market will bear. Bodies such as the future fund and super funds have $trillions to invest and as long as they get returns of 6-9% they’re happy. Housing should be regarded as a right rather than a privilege for the better off.

  3. Byron Shire Council has failed the community a lot more than by the State and Federal governments.
    The local Council has failed the community.
    There is no industry in Byron Shire. There was a meat works and that was all in the way of big industry for work and income for the community
    So the Shire turns to tourism and we have a place full of shops and retail and buying and selling and empty houses waiting for the tourist renter. The Air-BnB. Oh and there are the many hotels to get drunk at. That is a Byron holiday.
    That is the income of the town, the town relies on the tourist to open the wallet and purse.
    The Council itself does not do that. The Council relies on the community via rates ad fees for income such as Parking fees that was brought in by the last council to bleed the local community.
    Why does not the Council impose a Bed Tax on tourists? A bed Tax can be increased or decreased according to the wealth of the town. Are wealthy tourists going to stop coming to Byron from Sydney , Melbourne and Brisbane because of a Bed Tax? No. They have the money because metropolitan employment is more stable than rural employment.
    With a Bed Tax the local community would know that the council was on the side of the Byron community and not on the side of the developer. Trust between Council and community then would exist.

  4. Just what is “Affordabler Housing”? Just what is it because anyone who speaks of the word “affordable” does not know what the word means.
    We are going to frind out today. Phllip Low of the Reserve Bank is going to lift Interest Rates. Now we are going to find out what affordable houses are unaffordabnle. Ther eare at least another two Interest Rate rises to go as it is forecast that inflation will reach way over 7 percent.
    Who will ;be able to afford their mortgage when wages and salaries are not rising. So it is logical that an affordable house is a house where you don’t have to have a mortgage to buy it as the mortgage is the part that the ordinary couple can’t afford.

    • So the people that have mortgages on those houses will not be able to afford to keep paying them off and will have to sell them, but no one has money, so they will have to sell for 25% of what they bought it for. That’s what happens when they inflate a bubble them pop it. Market crash.

  5. Unpacking above
    Re: “without adding any cost to Airbnb, holiday letters” – Council rates are higher for business than residential, 100% higher for CBD business and 50% higher for other business (both the 100% and 50% extra can be increased by Council), ie can occur without NSW gov permission, but screw the increased income we want housing for residents
    Re: Granny Flats would accommodate a family “if planning rules had allowed it to be 30 or 40 sqm larger.” – Neighbor got planning permission for a 4 car garage, put hot water and airconditioning in, then got consent to convert garage to a ‘Studio’ that was 11% bigger than allowed for a Studio . And note the aprox 14.5 metre high mall being built at the bottom of Jonson st is in a 9 metre high zone, which is the same 9 metre high restriction as every residential block (but you may need a ‘friendly’ Council planner to also get that breach) – ie if you stick by the ‘rules’ honest people are at a disadvantage to those that game the system.
    Re: “The local revolution is nigh among the young, and let’s not hold our breath for a northern rivers squatting law.” – this is legal comment on aspects of the the current squatting Law:
    Removing squatters from private property NSW:
    Discuss the issue with your local police, so they are aware of the situation before you speak with the squatter. After your discussion with the squatter, if they still do not want to vacate, lodge a formal trespass complaint with the police and request they remove them from the property.
    Police can arrest and forcibly remove a trespasser but must first give the trespasser the chance to leave voluntarily. … If the trespasser has caused any damage, the victim may claim the loss from the trespasser. If the trespasser refuses to pay, the victim can pursue court action for damages.
    Can you turn off utilities on a squatter?
    Even if the utilities are in your name, shutting them off is illegal. Most squatters will continue living in your rental regardless of whether the utilities are on or off anyway. Just as if the squatter was a tenant, changing the locks is illegal.
    If you can stay there for 12 years then you can claim title and ownership of the property.

  6. Yes, planning laws do need updating to deal with current and future population growth. I don’t think a $A325 pa charge will be an impediment to AirB&B as it’s peanuts and will most likely be a tax deduction anyway.
    We need a plan for population growth for this century as the census is red flagging the associated issues now, and this is a lag indicator.
    We need to also need to manage tourism, both day tripper and longer term visitors. Unbridled, we experience road damage, anti social behaviour, over crowded beaches and streets, and high rents.
    We need to be able to charge a bed tax to fund infrastructure maintenance and repair.
    Shire President needs to show leadership on this issue, consult community, go to Macquarie St and hammer this out with Govt.

    • If you look at the bottom of those titles you will notice it says ‘property rights and interest are reserved by the crown’. You are simply buying the title of ‘Owner’, you don’t actually own the property, they do. That’s why you have to pay them rent twice a year.

      Fee simple comes from the word Fief defined as “rights granted by an overlord to a vassal who held it in fealty (or “in fee”) in return for a form of feudal allegiance and service.”

      So stop complaining and keep working peasant. Your not living in a Constitutional Republic with Free Market Capitalism. Things would look very different if you did.

  7. No, there are more houses than people to live in them, all across Australia, and has been for years. The housing crisis is country wide.
    The money printing since 2008 has created a bubble of all assets. The strict laws around rental has made it not worth while to rent these places out, better off to just sit on these houses and make money through the artificially inflating property prices.

    The damned thing of it is, that as this market breaks, and all this inflation spills out into the real economy, most people won’t have the money to buy these properties anyway. As a lot of them have loans on them, and the price crashes, many will find it better to surrender the properties to the bank rather than try to pay off the loan, at which point the likes of Black Rock and Vanguard will come in and snarf them all up.

    You will own nothing, you will have nothing, and they will drug you up to shut you up. You are the carbon they wish to reduce.

  8. I may be a tad cynical, but I really don’t think there is any real interest from our lovely council or our ever so hard working State Government or for that matter our new well meaning Feds .

  9. Perhaps a review of historical circumstances may have better informed Damian.
    Byron Council has not been a bystander, it has been an advocate for community for many years but suffers from the lack of constitutional power to make it’s own decisions. The Byron Shire Council has sought to regulate holiday letting / STRA since 2003. Council undertook successful legal action against those renting out residential properties until 2012. Council also sought to amend the LEP to explicitly prohibit the use but was thwarted by the State ALP government, as their approval is required to make changes to planning instruments.
    After the council elections in 2012, Council sought to negotiate a reasonable precinct outcome with STRA owners / managers but was unsuccessful. As the NSW Coalition also acted in support of the use and restricted council’s ability to regulate the use, Tamara Smith MP and Byron Shire Council have lobbied extensively to restrict the permissible use to 90 days over the last three years.
    NSW Governments have long been informed of the housing crisis in Byron Shire and many other areas but have continued to support the previously prohibited use of tourism accommodation in residential areas. A failure to require the commercial use to pay financial contributions was also ignored. It appears that despite the State’s ongoing pressure on local government to deliver more housing, it fails to address the impacts. Increased structures are not providing permanent homes for residents but instead fuel the unavailability and unaffordability of dwellings by being used for a commercial purpose.
    It is not the first time the lack of financial contribution for the use has been raised. Also previously raised issues about the impact on infrastructure, amenity and community resilience have been ignored.
    Granny flats (secondary dwellings) were established under the NSW Affordable Housing SEPP 2008. They were not intended as an alternative to family living, they were identified to accommodate individuals or couples in need of affordable housing and size restricted so as not to create increased infrastructure pressure in existing residential areas.
    In fact, the idea for this type of new affordable housing type was a proposal presented to the State in 2003 and 2006 by Byron Shire Council, after extensive strategy research, but was rejected. Then in 2008 it became part of their affordable housing strategy.
    As the author presents as a property owner he may be entitled to pursue the other options available to increase the density of development and allow a larger premise for a family. Some residential lots allow dual occupancy or even medium density development. The dilemma of the too small granny flat could be overcome with an application for enlargement under either of the forementioned options.
    The State has created numerous new state wide planning instruments that allow for increased density living in existing residential areas. The failure of these state wide approaches is a lack of recognition that a regional area like Byron Shire differs from city and metropolitan areas and does not have the capacity to meet the infrastructure needs eg. transport and sewerage .
    New ideas for affordable housing are not scarce. What is scarce is a commitment from State Government to provide the necessary regulations to ensure that the ideas genuinely meet the needs of those in our community who are at risk, those who provide much needed essential services including volunteering and those who are part of this community.
    It’s sad that many who played a role in protecting and contributing to a place that is now so desirable for commercial gain it is unavailable to them. The negligent governance and market rules are beyond the control and powers of local government.

    • The most informed comment of all.

      May I add – the deregulation of residential housing for use as tourist accommodation was dressed up as a ‘crack down’ and reduced to an issue of noise and amenity. Impossible to get housing availability and affordability on the agenda despite the urgent need. It’s only now more people , including working people, are homeless state officials are hearing about the impact of Airbnb more.

      The parliamentary inquiry into the Airbnb issues back in 2026 was initiated by metropolitan greens seduced by the ‘sharing economy’ rhetoric. That has now changed thankfully but they did a lot of damage and none of the politicians could quite ‘get it’. Yes, many of them own more than one property, including the former leader of the ALP and choose to see Airbnb as ‘home sharing’.

      NSW already had and has a first class planning system with residential zoning and a category for tourist accommodation. Many local councils wanted to wash their hands of a difficult issue.

      It was residents in the city apartment blocks whose blocks had been turned into quasi hotels who fought it the hardest and split the cabinet. There was little engagement with regional communities, and many of them had had a holiday letting market for decades and limited or no support from their council. The local government association has not been strong at all because so many councils want unlimited Airbnb. It was not a priority for them.

      The traditional real estate agents were caught in the headlights as new unlicensed ‘host’ businesses with no trust account arose quickly. In the end they have had to work together.

      The global booking platforms clip the ticket at both ends and pour millions into lobbying and astroturfing campaigns. The hosts are usually sub contracted unlicensed people with no connection to the property. It’s a parasitic ‘industry’ IMO but it now attracts institutional investment.

      The executive power of planning ministers is vast and removing strategic planning powers from councils to limit Airbnb is just one of a long list of measures to disenfranchise local communities. Local Councils over all have been pathetic but no one could say that about Byron Bay. Byron was frequently described as ‘extreme’ ! They have fought the state planning policy all the way and State Liberal Gov has made them jump through hoops. The political effort ranged against Byron has been formidable.

      BTW Bryon is not unique. The south coast LGAs have as many Airbnb properties and their problems have become more acute because of bush fires.

      The fact is that Airbnb is a global pariah. It has turbo charged investment in dwellings for tourism and built its business on illegal letting. It deploys its strategies and tactics globally. It employs political operatives and uses its ‘hosts’ and ‘guests’ to campaign for its corporate interests. It moves profits off shore through Ireland and pays little tax.

      There measures government could adopt such as Classifying this land use differently; Improving the registration system; requiring permits for all STRA; local autonomy on zoning; Rating these properties as a business and removing negative gearing for STRA to create some disincentives.

      There will come a time when these areas will have to stop the purchasing of dwellings for second homes and tourist accommodation. The alternative is watch the market develop as it has in the USA with large corporations buying up housing for this new model of tourist accommodation.

      Ironically Covid had been more effective than regulation putting the brakes on Airbnb.


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