The housing squeeze on the NSW south coast hit home for Eurobodalla Shire mayor Mathew Hatcher early this year, when his family’s rent jumped by $150 per week.
Mr Hatcher, who has run cafes and coffee vans for years, then began to hear locals’ rising concern about the number of people sleeping rough through winter.
“They can’t find a place to stay, or they’re priced out of the market,” Mr Hatcher tells AAP.
“Some can afford 400 bucks a week, but they can’t afford 600.”
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New data reveals Eurobodalla was one of several regional areas where more than a quarter of homes were empty on Census night despite a growing housing crisis.
Some 27.2 per cent of the shire’s 22,827 homes were listed as unoccupied in the national survey.
The region is under particular pressure. About 500 homes were destroyed during the Black Summer bushfires, followed by a pandemic-led population boost which drove house prices up around 35 per cent in the past year.
Last week, the situation prompted Mr Hatcher to write to 8,500 non-resident ratepayers, mostly people from Canberra and Sydney who own holiday houses, asking them to rent out their homes long-term.
One real estate agency told Mr Hatcher their rental listings went from four to 49 in a matter of days.
Mr Hatcher says it’s likely property owners didn’t fully appreciate the scale of the problem until they got the letter.
“When people think ‘homeless’, they think of drugs or alcohol … they’re not thinking of it being a mum with two kids, or a teacher at the local high school,” he says.
Australian National University demographer Peter McDonald says investment properties are likely a big factor in the more than one million unoccupied dwellings recorded in the 2021 Census.
Empty homes for sale or travelling residents are also likely part of the picture, Prof McDonald says.
Nationally, 9.6 per cent of private dwellings were unoccupied on Census night, a similar rate to that recorded in the 2016 survey.
However, in several coastal holiday hotspots such as Eurobodalla, WA’s Margaret River and Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, the unoccupied rate was above 27 per cent.
At least a quarter of homes were unoccupied in local government areas like the Lower Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, and the West Coast region in Tasmania.
In Queensland, the Southern Downs, Whitsundays, and the Sunshine Coast had unoccupied dwelling rates above 10 per cent.
Campaign group Everybody’s Home, which represents 150 social and affordable housing organisations, says the figures reveal a tendency to view housing as a money-maker.
Spokeswoman Kate Colvin says tax incentives encourage speculative investing in property in the hope that house prices will rise.
“Housing has become seen more as an asset for wealth generation, rather than a home to live in,” she says.
“We need government to step in. Housing is right up there as one of the absolute basic essentials that we need for our lives.”
Accommodation shortages are keenly felt in many areas after city residents flocked to the regions during the pandemic.
It’s a tough situation for holiday hotspots, where short-stay accommodation is needed to support the tourism sector.
“By no stretch do we want that to end,” Mr Hatcher says.
In the Margaret River region, a west coast surf destination also renowned for its rolling vineyards, holiday houses have long been a feature.
But now the lack of homes is making it difficult for local businesses to retain staff.
Richard Muirhead, president of the Gracetown Cowaramup Bay community group, says the small village of Gracetown is grappling with how to house both tourists and workers.
“We have shops closing, we have cafes only open three days a week, we have wineries who ring all their mates to help pick the grapes. It’s a real problem, but I don’t know what the solution is,” he says.
Ms Colvin says housing advocates are hopeful the new government, and a new federal budget, will better address the issue of affordability and accessibility through tax reform and public investment.
“We need a better balance,” she says.