According to data from the most recent census, as reported on local ABC radio, 50 per cent of the people who live in Byron Bay moved there within the last five years. Have a think about what that means. It means that half the community is new and half the pre-existing community is gone. What does that do to your social cohesion? To your ability to build on generations of social capital?
It means half the community who volunteered, who ran a raffle at the pub for the local footy team, who organised the Xmas street barbecue are now living somewhere else. In their place is a new class of super-affluent Byron Bay locals. That’s not an unfounded assumption. The median house price is now $3.5 million. That’s significantly more than most Sydney suburbs. So if you moved here over the last five years chances are you sold in Vaucluse and relocated here. Chances are you are wealthy.
The worst housing crisis in the state
We also have the worst housing crisis in the state. According to the last census data, more than half of those renting spend 30 per cent of their household income on rent. The vacancy rate for Byron, Ballina, and Lennox is 0.9 per cent. Although on census night almost 16 per cent of our homes were unoccupied. One can only assume that’s short-term holiday lets. Free-market capitalism has given our housing market cancer. We have super wealthy new residents and a growing homeless population.
Many relocated here because the hardcore creative and hippie crew pioneered a coastal utopia. We have a strong connection to Country. The Arakwal people fought and won native title. The very people who have made this place special, who underwrote the uniqueness that fed market desirability are the ones who can’t afford to live here. Yeah, it sucks. But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. In my outrage I always look for optimism.
So here is the good news. We have an opportunity. We have a lot of new wealth in our small towns. It’s not Liberal voting wealth. We have progressive wealth. We know these people vote Green. We know from their voting trends that they care about climate, they care about equity, that even though they are the beneficiaries of enormous privilege, their values are aligned with more co-operative ways of living. So here’s the opportunity. Philanthropy. We need to grow our philanthropic sector. And when I say grow, I mean blow it up.
One of the trends that shaped philanthropy in 2022 was a worldwide increase in charitable giving. This was spurred on by racial injustices and climate disasters. We are a long way off curbing the growth in social and economic inequality, but perhaps our local wealthy can make a dent. You see, we are small enough to see the impacts. We already have many incredible services, like the SHIFT project that addresses homelessness in older women, the Fletcher Street Cottage – support service for people at risk of homelessness and Human Nature Adventure Therapy – non-clinical mental health program for at risk young people. All these programs run on philanthropy. In the absence of government’s agility, flexibility and insight, the sector has found its own money and created its own services.
A helping hand
During the floods I was given $5k grants from an anonymous philanthropic source that I was able to give to women who had been flood impacted. It was transformative. Being able to give someone money on the spot, in their time of need, without a lengthy approval process was powerful. One woman told me the act of generosity had restored her belief at a time when she had none. Kindness does that.
I’m not saying government shouldn’t step up. They should. We are billions of dollars behind in expenditure on housing and human services. They are slow. Compliance and data obsessed. People become numbers and funding programs and recipients are at the mercy of election cycles. We have our own philanthropic community grants program with the Northern Rivers Community Grants Program. Since 2005 they have granted $2,436,166 across seven LGAs (local government areas) to 349 projects across 143 organisations.
That’s brilliant, but we can do better. Half of the population who moved to Byron Bay in the last five years need to get involved in giving. We can fund the pathway to reach a Zero Emissions Byron Bay. We can reduce poverty. We can innovate public transport options. We can create housing options. We can give.
Old mate capitalism
Capitalism isn’t going anywhere. Try as we might, we can’t seem to break it. It’s the foundation stone of poverty and exploitation. Philosophers Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek said, ‘We can envisage the end of the world more clearly than we can the end of capitalism’. That observation rocked me to my core. Capitalism is a cult, and none of us are leaving any time soon.
So, in the meantime, if you are wealthy and you want to be a disruptor – fund it. Find programs that need money, and grow the community you want to live in. You can fund the change you want to see.
With the collective wealth we have in this area it is immoral for anyone to be without housing. It’s our responsibility. So put your hands in your pocket and find your change. It’s the season for giving. So give.