A rally organised by Mandy Nolan and Cr Cate Coorey on Christmas Eve in Byron Bay, saw hundreds gather in misty rain at Apex Park to oppose the NSW government’s backflip on Council’s push to cap short-term holiday accommodation to 90 days in some residential zones.
Mandy Nolan said that the rally was to send a message to the state government that we want homes, not hotels. ‘That is why we are here. This has been a conversation in this community from when Jan Barham was the Byron Shire Mayor, when 20 years ago, a motion was put before Council to regulate short-term holiday lending. We are still in that place. Two decades on. The housing stress in this community has reached a fever pitch.
‘We are on the Country of the Bundjalung nation. When we talk about housing, we also have to address the fact that we live in a region where our Traditional Owners cannot afford to live here. That is one of the major issues. We must always have Aboriginal justice and particularly housing equity and justice at the forefront of these conversations when we have them.’
A story of broken promises
Tamara Smith MP thanked everyone for coming out on Christmas Eve. ‘This just shows how committed you are to this issue. To me is a story of broken promises, and political lobbying by very powerful vested interests. And again, our communities had to come out again and say the same things over and over again.
‘We’ve done all the polite things, as we know – during Jan’s era as mayor, these were unlawful people running BnBs in areas that were not zoned for that. But what we’ve seen with this disrupter is that it’s replicated like a virus, and it is out of control. And we’re not alone in the world, that experiencing this complete loss of the right for residential to for homes to be for people to live in. You know, that’s the fundamental principle of this is that we want homes for people to live in.’
The goalposts have changed
Ms Smith said the goalposts have changed many times. ‘I said to the premier – if you really care about our housing crisis, deliver the cap for council – and he said “yes”. And then I met with Minister Roberts and the ball started rolling again. So at the 11th hour, after we saw massive lobbying, by vested interest – we’re dealing with international corporations, we’re dealing with very, very wealthy people that don’t live here, most of them – and lo and behold, Council was vetoed.
Ms Smith said we need to not just be super polite and make another submission. ‘I mean, I’m up to about my 10th submission on housing. And I’m sure many of you have made countless submissions. How many times do you keep saying the same thing. I’m really glad that Cate and other residential groups are coming together to start a grassroots campaign, because I think the time for being polite is over. This is actually about our homes. This is about people in our community. That’s the face of this.
‘When they’re talking about the economics no one quantifies this, that social infrastructure, how important it is to have a neighborhood, where you actually know the people in your neighborhood.
‘I think for me, what I see starkly, is that we’re losing part of our soul and our spirit. We’re becoming like The Truman Show.
‘Another thing, our fire and rescue – they have to live within five kilometers of the station, guess what? they can’t afford to.
’It’s enough – time’s up!’
Turning a blind eye
Mayor Michael Lyon said the Byron Shire has always had holiday lettings since the 60s, since the atrocities of the whaling industry wound up. This has been a holiday town. And we’ve always had holiday lets – we’ve always had people staying here in houses for their holidays – and for the longest time council was really able to turn a blind eye to that, because it didn’t really matter, there was plenty of housing. It wasn’t harming anyone.
In 2000, the impact started to be felt – the supply dwindled and rental costs increased.
Now, there are about 3,000 long-term lets in Byron Shire and there are 1,200 registered official holiday lets and hosted where the owner doesn’t live there. We know the figure is a lot higher than that. So you’re talking already 40 per cent of our rental stock is commercial. If we don’t regulate, and this is the danger if we don’t regulate it now, what’s the future hold? What happens when visitation returns? What happens when the pressure is there, because of all of the growth around us in southeast Queensland? What happens when they want to convert more and more of our long-term stock, we can’t afford to lose any more. In fact, we need to close some of it back.’
Run a strong campaign
Cr Lyon said it’s absolutely essential that we run a strong campaign over the next couple of months. ‘I believe if we do that, and if we put our best foot forward in a positive way to that Planning Commission, we will not only get a 90 day cap, but we may get more. Because the case is there for more. The case is there for regulation.
‘The government is fixated with economic activity, but I can promise you that the economic activity you get from having long term tenants – from having people doing the jobs here that aren’t being done at the moment – the doctors, the nurses, the teachers and all across the tourism industry as well – those jobs are not being doing and we’re going to damage the brand of Byron in the tourism industry. If we don’t have staff to do the jobs, it’s going to eat itself.’
Everyone knows we’re in a housing crisis
Property developer Jason Dunn said that everyone knows we’re in a housing crisis in Byron. ‘It’s happened slowly but steadily. Byron Bay is the most impacted postcode in Australia from holiday letting. It’s impacting our community, it’s impacting our businesses, and it’s threatening to kill the tourism industry over time because we can’t provide a quality experience to the guests that come and visit this town.
‘It’s a very sensitive topic as everyone knows, because on one hand holiday letting can generate jobs for cleaners and housing managers and encourages new businesses. But at the same time, it is reducing the housing the permanent housing stock that is required for our community. The community require this permanent housing stock to staff their businesses and offer quality tourism experience.
Mr Dunn said the community is at real risk of losing everything that is special to it. ‘Our people, our council, are fighting to be able to control their own destiny, and keep the town a special place.
‘The business community urges the state government to allow Byron Shire council to keep our community together by limiting Airbnb and SDRs accommodation nights in in Byron Bay, community first commodity second.’
Mourning the loss of more of Council’s planning powers
Byron Shire Councillor Sarah Ndiaye said as well as being a Councillor she is a high school teacher. She said she mourned the loss of more of Council’s planning powers and watching more properties slip into the abyss of short-term holiday rentals. ‘The face for me of this is teaching students who when you ask them how many houses they’ve lived in, it’s more than the birthday candles they have on their cake. The highest I’ve come up to is 23 in 16 years. That is the impact. How can you have a strong sense of self and a sense of place when you are constantly having to move?
‘We have some of the worst rental laws when it comes to longevity like a friend of mine was about to try and move back into their house in France. The minimum lease there is three years here. Here, you’re lucky to get six months and rarely get extensions. So we’re starting at a very low place when it comes to housing.
‘And it’s not that that government doesn’t invest in housing, they do! $14 billion through negative gearing last year. That’s how much they spent putting into the pockets of people who already have properties. And then there’s rental assistance, another billion dollars gone straight into the pockets of property owners, when that money could be getting invested in much needed housing and increasing our houses for the people to live in.
‘The money is there the will is not. And that’s the really difficult thing when the people that are most impacted by this are sleeping on the streets, in cars, couch surfing spending most of their income, just to keep a roof over their head. And the others, are cashed up in lobby groups that can earn 1,000s of dollars a night off those houses, and can have meetings with premiers and ministers at there will
‘We must stand for the people that do not have a voice in this.’
An avalanche situation
Rally co-organiser Cate Coorey said the joy of seeing the hundreds reminded her of what a great community we have. ‘Many of you have been here a long, long time and you’ve seen change, and you’ve created what this town is by resisting the worst of that change. But suddenly, we’re in an avalanche situation.
‘It’s interesting – some of the feedback that came on the posts that we made about this event, because we’d sort of said, “Our homes are not your hotels”, and someone said, “well, but they’re not your homes, we bought them”, and I thought, it’s really interesting the concept of property rights and what people think a house is, or a home is, if it’s just a commodity. If that’s how you perceive it, then really don’t give a rat’s about what’s going on around you.
‘So they are our homes, they were our homes up until a year or two ago – that place that you painted white and through a bit of raffia around was a home to a family. And that family’s gone! They had to pull their kids out of school because they couldn’t get anywhere to live near to where they were. Literally children who grew up and all their friends were here. Their parents couldn’t maintain their jobs here, because the commute from wherever the closest place they could get, was just untenable.
‘So it’s a corrosion, it’s an unraveling of our social fabric, and we cannot put up with it.’
It’s time for action
Cr Coorey said it was time for action. ‘We’ve created a dedicated email address ([email protected]), we want people who have been affected by this to tell their stories. The only way we can convince the IPC and the state government that this is actually happening, it’s just not a bunch of whingers, is that we all know a story of someone – who got moved on, who who had to leave their job, whose kids have got pulled out of school and had to move away, the business owner who’s shutting down – these are real stories of this impact.
Cr Coorey said we don’t hate tourists and visitors. ‘They actually, probably don’t even understand what’s happening here. They’re not aware of that. They think that they’re helping out someone, you know, to make a little money on the side. If they knew that they were displacing a family, maybe they’d think differently about it.
‘Let’s stay on this. Keep strong and keep the community together.’
Respecting the wishes of the locals
Speaking on behalf of Victims of Holiday Letting (VOHL), Doug Luke says he applauded Council’s unanimous vote, and was appalled that the decision-making for the process was taken away by the state government. Jan Barham, who was in this same fight 20 years ago as Byron Shire Mayor, says the government should respect the wishes of the locals. ‘They need to allow us to be a community, we deserve that.’
The rally ended on a bittersweet note – a song by Gyan Evans accompanied Simon Greaves, reminding us that the houses have all gone to “Macquarie Street”.
‘When will they ever learn?’
Mandy Nolan said the irony of the rally, wouldn’t go unnoticed. ‘This is Christmas Eve. That is the story of a pregnant woman about to be a mother, looking for somewhere to stay. Well, if Mary had turned up in the Byron Shire, she wouldn’t have found even a barn, because that would be on short-term holiday letting as well.’
You can support the campaign by signing the Byron Deserves Balance petition.