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.
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.