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The Rental Crisis in Byron Bay – Lessons from Sodom & Gomorrah and the rape of Rapa Nui

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RapaNui011After 18 years of renting the same property in Byron Bay, my landlord wants to renovate and sell my townhouse, so I am now facing a move which has alerted me to the dire situation for renters in our town. I have discovered that identical properties to mine are now going for more than double what I am currently paying. In fact from the properties I have looked at so far in the $650 per week range, they are not even up to the standard of the one I have lived in for the past 18 years but they are double the price.

A friend messaged me a link to a house she had seen yesterday with a ‘for lease’ sign on it. I looked at the listing on the real estate agent’s website however could not see the rental price, only the bond listed at $6000, which I thought must have been a mistake. When I called the real estate agent to find out about this house she told me that the house had already been leased so I asked her how much the rent was. When she told me $1700 a week I thought I must have heard incorrectly and said to her “did you say $1700 a week” she replied “yes $1700 per week”. I was shocked, but what really got me, was that I could actually hear the proud delight in her voice. Of course to any real estate agent this would be considered a massive score, renting a basic three bedroom fibro shack in Byron Bay for $1700 per week! But this also gave me a whole other perspective, it made me wonder who has fuelled this ridiculous rental situation in Byron Bay, is it the out-of-state buyers that most seem to blame, or is it the real estate agents? This also made me realise that $1700 for a fibro shack would have to be setting a precedent, it probably also means that they can actually now boast that houses in the CBD of Byron are going for nearly $2000 a week!

It’s a sad state of affairs when as a renter you feel that you cannot go to local real estate agents to help you find a new home because essentially what they have done, is to increase the market so much, that average or low-income earners like myself, actually just can’t afford to live here any more.

Is it any wonder that Byron Bay has been filling up with happy houses with anywhere from 6 to 19 people living in them, sharing rooms sleeping in bunkbeds even living in garages and converting lounge rooms into an extra bedroom.

Four years ago I had to lease an apartment in Melbourne for my daughter as she was under 18. I was initially a little shocked by what I thought at the time was a high cost. But I wanted her to be close to where her dance school was so choosing South Yarra meant that we were looking at apartments at the upper end of the rental market. The apartment we settled on was a two bedroom in Caroline Street which I was immediately told was one of the most sought after addresses in all of Melbourne. An older building, this apartment had been beautifully renovated, with brand-new carpets and paint, a complete kitchen update and even a balcony, this third story apartment was in a safe, security-accessed building, complete with its own car park, a rarity in inner-city apartments in Melbourne. And it was $395 a week. In all honesty I struggled at the thought that my daughter could possibly live on the meagre amount of money that the Centrelink youth allowance would give her and I personally paid all of her bills including electricity, water, phone and Internet and even had to help with food and obviously her dance expenses, as her youth allowance as a 16 year old student was only $5 more a week then her rent!

Interestingly, doing a search on two bedroom apartments and units for rent in Caroline Street, South Yarra today, I happened to find an identical apartment in the same building as my daughter’s currently for rent at just $375. In fact a search of all 23 South Yarra two bedroom rental properties listed, the median price right now is $400, in other words, it hasn’t gone up in four years and if anything it’s gone down.

This is not the case for Byron Bay though. I did a search on Byron Bay looking for a 2012 rental price, and the very first property I found was one that had been for rent at $480 a week in February 2012, the same time my daughter moved to Melbourne. That property, which was a basic three bedroom house, sold in July this year for over $3 million. How does a $480 a week rental property in 2012 jump to being worth over $3 million in just four years? That would mean that to get an average gross rental return of 4.68% this property would now have to be rented at $2700 per week! This is not a joke, this is a real house, in a real street in Byron Bay! And this was just the first property I randomly picked off the internet looking at rental prices in Byron in 2012 and comparing to what that same property could be rented for right now, according to its most recent sale price. That is simply astonishing! While this might have real estate agents rubbing their hands with glee and absentee landlords lining their pockets with gold, it is also the death knock for local families and local average income workers.

I have been blessed for the last 18 years, having been able to stay in the same rental property, with fairly minimal rent increases across that time. My rent has increased by 78% over 18 years, whereas the rent on the neighbouring units in my complex have actually increased by 216%. Yes I have been extremely lucky, however I’ve also been an excellent long-term tenant, I’ve never hassled my landlord for anything and have kept this place as best as possible for an ageing property. However I’ve got to say that with rental increases around me of over 200% in 18 years, that is certainly not reflected in income increases and almost everyone I know here, living on a basic wage, has essentially become poorer and poorer as their rents have increased way above their income affordability. This whole ridiculously over the top rental increases in Byron is creating a whole new level of poverty in this town.

Although I have never been against holiday lets and I recognise that Byron Bay is a tourism destination, I learned recently that there are over 1000 holiday rental houses in Byron Bay now, and they are only the ones that we actually know about, which has also made me realise that these are 1000 properties that no longer hold local families and local workers. Add to that the increasing numbers of happy houses, housing students, hospitality workers, retail workers and even families, this is just another form of slum-like living that is increasing in Byron Bay. I know single mothers who have put their children in their garages and rented out the rooms of their houses and apartments, just to be able to cover the rent and live in this town. I know two women who have had three children each living in their garages! Right now I am personally looking at a 100-120% increase in my weekly rent, that is if I can even find a house and any which way, I too will need to take another tenant in to help me pay for the rent, so in another words I’m joining the ranks of the happy houses, not by choice but by circumstance. Either that or I will be leaving Byron Bay. I don’t want to leave Byron, however it has reached a point where if I decide to stay here, no matter what, I will be taking myself another 50% further down under the poverty line.

When I moved to Byron in 1998, I truly believed that this was a place where I could raise my daughters, with a minimal footprint, on a low income and give them a good quality of life in a caring community, where everyone looked out for each other. In 2016 I have found myself having become increasingly poor as the cost of everything here has gone up unreasonably over those years, but nothing more so than the cost of rental properties. There is no affordable housing in Byron Bay, there hasn’t been for many years now, which is why locals have been leaving in droves. And let’s be truthful about it, in that same time period employment in this area for local people has also gone down and down, with far more backpackers and travellers being employed under the table, by unscrupulous employers just greedy to bring in more money, or quite possibly doing this sort of illegal employment because they themselves cannot afford the exorbitant commercial rental costs either.

Byron Bay has lost its soul and become Australia’s Sodom and Gomorrah, it has been destroyed by the greed of real estate agents and wealthy landowners who mostly don’t even live here, and along with it, we have seen an increase in the crimes that comes with poverty, the drunken drug-fuelled debauchery of tourists and the despair of the homeless. It is not the soulful and caring place that I brought my daughters to 18 years ago and I don’t think it ever will be again. Byron has been consumed by soulless commercialism and greed and sadly the ones being burned in the hellfire are average families, our youth and people like me.

I can’t help but think of those societies and civilisations that were brought down by greed and power, just think of Easter Island and compare the creation of the current rental market here in Byron Bay to the creation of the Mo’ai, the monolithic human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people. They cut down the last of their trees to move and erect the symbols of power of the elite that the Mo’ai represented, so much so, that they caused the complete deforestation of their island home, which in turn led to the starvation of their people, as without trees, it led to the decimation of their birds and animals, their streams dried up, their topsoil eroded meaning they were also unable to grow their crops. Byron Bay is just like this, the greed of the elite landowners seeking power from erecting a rental market here, that has eroded our community of local people who faced starvation if they stayed to pay rents way above their means, or in turn being forced to become greedy slum-lords themselves, illegally sub-letting bedrooms and converted lounges and garages, stuffing travellers, backpackers, whoever in their rooms, just to pay for Byron’s answer to the Mo’ai.

I am saddened to think that I may have to leave my home-town, the town I have raised my children in, the place I originally came to thinking that I had found the home I would live in for the rest of my days. But unless I can find an affordable house, that is what I face, being forced out of the place that I have lovingly called home for 18 years, the community that I have invested 18 years of joy, along with my blood, sweat and many tears. I feel raped right now, raped by the ugliness of the reality of the rental market and like so many other victims of the greed I am seeing, I too am now looking at leaving. What a shame it has come to this.

We have a Council election just weeks away and for me, the only choice is a vote for the Greens, as they are the only group who have seriously made it their mandate to address the monstrous issue that is the lack of affordable housing here. Not only that, but their own big lesson from the last four years, in realising that having anyone on our local council, who has any vested interests in real estate or development, simply doesn’t represent the people of our shire, has been an important lesson and we as the voters must make sure that those we elect do not have ulterior motives that would be of detriment to the future of our community. If Byron Bay is to survive in any soulful way, we must make affordable housing the number one priority of the in-coming council. If we don’t, Byron Bay, like Sodom and Gomorrah and in turn Rapa Nui, will crash and burn. Local people and their needs, must be addressed and nothing more importantly, than the rental market crisis and the extreme need for affordable housing projects to keep our local families and our local workers, living here.

Nicqui Yazdi
From the realestate.com.au website – Byron Bay – With a median house price of $925,000, Byron Bay is higher than New South Wales’ median house price of $600,000. When it comes to renting, the Byron Bay median house rental price per week is $700 which makes renting more expensive than New South Wales’ average of $445

Words: Nicqui Yazdi

The Common Ground of Byron Bay. If you wish to contribute, please contact: Kirra Pendergast P: 0408 068 824 E: kirra@commongroundaustralia.com

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