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May 23, 2024

Cruelty of rental crisis now centre stage

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New witnesses in long-running kambo inquest

Proceedings reopened in Byron Bay Courthouse yesterday in what is expected to be the final stage of the long-running coronial inquest into the death of Jarrad Antonovich.

The crisis of unaffordable and insecure rentals here is not news, but right now there’s a real opportunity to help fix it. 

Nationally, the federal Senate is investigating the ‘worsening rental crisis.’ A tripartisan committee wants to hear the first-hand experiences of renters. They want to know what can ‘reduce rents or limit rent rises’, how leases can be longer, and ‘renters’ rights’ improved. Submissions close next week.  

At the same time, the NSW government wants submissions on how to make rental laws fairer. 

Given this region is among the least affordable and most unfair in the nation – where renters suffer the toxic inflationary cocktail of holiday-letting, covid migration, and floods – those inquiries want to hear from us. 

‘The rental crisis is real and it’s happening in Ballina, Lennox, Byron, and Bruns’, says Cathy Serventy, general manager for housing at local non-profit Social Futures. 

‘We’d been in crisis for years, and then a natural disaster turned it into a catastrophe.’

‘In Byron, even people who work at Social Futures can’t afford to rent a place by themselves,’ Serventy told me. 

She and colleagues see families with children forced to leave schools and friends, to chase affordable rents. People facing the humiliation of invasive lease applications, and the brutality of eviction and homelessness.

Byron now has the highest number of rough sleepers in the state, surpassing even the City of Sydney. But even for renters with a roof over their heads, stress can breed sleeplessness and suffering. 

Just ask any friends or family unlucky enough to be trying to make a home in the local ‘rental market’. 

A third of Australian households now rent. Out-of-control rent rises directly damage the quality of their lives. In Byron Shire, rents have risen by around 60 per cent in six years.  

A staggering 50 per cent of tenants here are in ‘rental stress’, defined as more than 30 per cent of income going on rents.  

While there are complex causes, the rise of Airbnb, Stayz and other platforms is clearly a key factor. 

Just months ago, the Independent Planning Commission (IPC) held hearings about Council’s push for a 90-day cap on short-term rentals. A local professor famously described the crisis as ‘almost dystopian… undermining the fabric of society’. 

The key expert report to the commission was damning, finding that in Byron, ‘Airbnb is equivalent to 83 per cent of the total rental stock’. In 2022, there was a massive 34 per cent drop in availability of two-bedroom homes for private rentals, at the same time as a 20 per cent increase for Airbnb.

‘We can call it a crisis both in terms of affordability and availability’ wrote authors from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute. Essential workers including those in cleaning, hospitality, teaching, and nursing ‘will be increasingly unable to live and work in the township,’ they wrote, echoing what every local already knows. 

The evidence and the community spoke. The commission listened. It recommended an even tougher 60-day cap, to incentivise the return of houses to long-term rental.  

An expert on both Airbnb and the wider crisis is University of NSW’s Dr Chris Martin, who argues there’s been ‘far too much accommodation of landlords and property owners’ in housing policy in Australia. 

‘We need to change our renting laws and give tenants greater security,’ Dr Martin told me this week, ‘and there’s an absolutely sound case for having regulation of rent increases for existing tenancies’, and letting the market set the price of new ones.  

The current political context is the Greens’ push for rent caps, Labor’s resistance, and national cabinet due to meet soon on improving renters’ rights. 

The wider structural context is the decline in affordable housing, as boomers like me benefited hugely from obscene inflation of housing prices, rather than from any special effort or skill. 

One per cent of Australians reportedly own nearly a quarter of investment properties, with most investors over 50 and most renters under 35. Housing has become for-profit, not for-people. 

In my years reporting from the late 1980s onwards – from the 7:30 Report to the Australian Financial Review – housing affordability was seen as boring. Journalists – also growing rich through housing – sought the limelight of the political beat, not the shadows of the housing round. 

But change is coming. This week an influential giant of Labor’s left, former Deputy Prime Minister, Brian Howe, publicly promoted longer leases and limits to rent increases.

‘There is a sound case to investigate some form of intervention in the private rental market,’ he wrote in The Guardian, ‘…the federal government should put pressure on the states to ensure rental prices are moderated.’

With home ownership impossible for millions, a third of us renting, and the cruelty of unaffordability under the spotlight, fundamental change to address the depth of this rental crisis is inevitable, if fairness means anything at all in Australia. 

♦ Dr Ray Moynihan is an honorary Assistant Professor at Bond, who’s worked for ABC Four Corners and been a Harkness Fellowship at Harvard. Currently a Greens volunteer, his views are his own. 


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13 COMMENTS

  1. My experience as a professional ‘in real estate matters’ for over 40 years is that governments should keep out pf “rent control” – it usually only makes the situation worse.
    You would have to be a populist Utopian to ignore all the historical evidence of this phenomenon.
    Intervention in the rental market is never a panacea.
    It always causes more problems than it promises.

  2. “Byron now has the highest number of rough sleepers in the state, surpassing even the City of Sydney.” At least they’re smart enough to choose this region. Why sleep rough in Syd when you can do it in Byron by the beach.

    Your article focusses only on Byron but this issue is country wide!

    As well there’s never any mention of the Greens “moratorium” on development in Byron LGA from 1997 – 2007 (approx.) – brought on by Jan Barham and co to protect the natural beauty of the place. Could put any more poo down the pipes. Now that same party (Greens) has the hide to restrict current government’s attempt to do something. PUT THAT IN YOU PAPER to improve your integrity!!!

  3. Spoken by someone no doubt with interests in the parasitic real-estate industry.

    Show your “historical evidence of this phenomenon” and the “problems” it causes.

    What is *your* solution?

    • Perhaps see the above post, aussie Mate.
      [ Sorry, alphabet person, you are on the wrong tack – and I have no interests in the ‘parasitic real-estate industry’.]

  4. The solution is to simply allow nobody to own anything more than the house they live in. If you insist on owning more than one residence, you should be paying someone to caretake it for you. If they suck at it and damage the place, you have a right to claim damages. Otherwise, you pay them to protect it for you.

    • So I wouldn’t be able to spend my money to build a second house to rent out, thus the house remains un-built? Fewer houses to rent would drop rental prices?

  5. It is about protecting the nominal value of the collateral, at all costs. If they do not, then the whole financial and economic system in the global west collapses. The politicians will do everything required. This includes residential property, commercial property and all REIT unit valuations. Understand this fact. The asset values will be protected at all costs. This is not by mistake or some sort of unfortunate unintended circumstance. It is deliberate and intentional. As the economy continues to fall into recession, housing shortages will continue to worsen so as to maintain nominal asset valuations. So do not be delusional and think that the politicians will do anything. All that they will do is make the problem worse.

    • You are right John – until (unless) enough people speak up to demand fundamental change to make the housing market fair and sociable. Or until it crashes anyway.

      Unfortunately people who own houses mostly won’t demand the housing market be made fair.

      Just like the people with jobs were/are happy for equal employment opportunity to be replaced with people being discriminated against on the basis of their race – and being called “racist” if they object.

      I wonder how many of the people who watched while others were discriminated against in the job market, on the basis of race, now find themselves in rental/ homeless crisis and needing others to speak up for them rather than tell them to stop “whingeing”?

  6. Landlord’s make money in their sleep – it’s mostly unearned wealth. Land is a separate factor of production, not the same as capital, as neo-classical economists would like you to think.  Few people understand this. 

    Taxpayer-funded improvements increase the value of surrounding land. This publicly created value could be captured through 
    councils’ existing rating system to fund public goods.

    Yes, high rental costs are a problem everywhere but let’s face it, Byron Bay is heaven and that’s why everyone wants to live there. Certainly, essential workers should have access to affordable rentals; everyone else, you need to be able to afford it, that is, to buy a house. If not it’s only sensible to consider other locations. Everybody knows that pleasant coastal locations only get more expensive as the population increases and land supply stays static. It’s only wise to consider that self-evident fact before you decide where to put roots down.

    Will we tackle this as a society or will those who inherit from wealthy baby boomer parents  not give a toss about others? Most politicians own multiple properties so there is a conflict of interest in asking them to change the laws that need changing (such as holiday letting, negative gearing etc). The Greens will not even discuss limiting population and are hypocritical in the way they block developments.

  7. If you think most landlords are making a fortune out of rents you are so badly wrong. Most landlords have a mortgage on their rental property that costs them over and above the rent they receive. If you have the intelligence to calculate the return on investment you will soon see it is not really a great investment. But don’t let common sense interrupt your whinging and whining, maybe you should look into owning your own home somewhere other than the Byron Shire or Ballina Shire where home prices are ridiculous. There are many country towns out there that still have affordable property’s and available work, yes you may have to move away from the coast.

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