It seems like almost every small business in town is looking for a chef, barista or shop assistant. So where are they? Ask the average “Boomer” and they’ll say that young people just don’t want to work anymore. But ask a “Millennial” or member of “Gen Z” and they’ll tell you that people just can’t afford to live here anymore.

Our town has long been popular with tourists, young families, and retirees, but during the pandemic something unexpected happened. Almost overnight we experienced a tsunami of “sea changers” – cashed-up city-dwellers who had been liberated by the ability to work from home and were keen to make their favourite holiday destination their hometown.

This sudden increase in demand sent house prices and rents skyrocketing. Add to the mix a strong pivot towards domestic tourism and an oversupply of short-term holiday lets and you’ve got the perfect conditions for a housing crisis that is having a devastating impact on local families and small businesses, who are reliant on low- and fixed-income workers to serve their customers.

The purpose of this article is not to stoke the “locals vs. blown-ins” debate. Our little town is growing whether we like it or and I’ve always believed that you if call Lennox Head home, you’re a local as far as I’m concerned. But we need to find a solution if we are to safeguard the sustainability of our small coastal towns.   

It’s worth noting that this housing crisis didn’t happen overnight. Since the Howard era, economic policy in Australia has encouraged investment in property, through incentives such as negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts. Meanwhile, Government-owned “social” housing stock, which has historically been an option for those who are priced out of the housing market, has continually declined. It is estimated that there are now close to 50,000 households waiting up to 10 years for social housing.

Low-income workers, especially those in highly casualised sectors such as hospitality, retail, personal services and care work are falling through the gaps, ineligible for social housing and priced out of the private housing market. These essential workers, many of whom are young people and single parent families, are increasingly experiencing housing stress and having to move further and further away from their support networks.   

Lately I’ve been looking to cities and towns around the world who have overcome similar challenges. For example, in Queenstown New Zealand locals can purchase a 100-year lease of a property owned by a Trust established by Council. The lessee has all the benefits and responsibilities of a homeowner, except the ability to on-sell the property in the private market. If a household decide to move on, the Trust will purchase the house back at the original purchase price, plus an annual inflation adjustment.

In the ski resorts of USA and Canada, Council-established housing authorities require developers to quarantine a certain number of properties within each development for local workers to rent or buy at below market rates, embedding restrictions in the property’s title deed (certificate of title). In Lake Tahoe, an initiative called Landing Locals is providing cash incentives for owners of short-term holiday lets to convert their properties to long-term rentals for local workers.

While housing hasn’t typically been the remit of local government in Australia, I believe that Ballina Council is uniquely placed to contribute to solving our Shire’s workforce housing affordability crisis. Thanks to the foresight of previous Councils, we own large areas of residential and industrial zoned land, which we have historically sold or developed and retained for leasing. This includes 30 lots of ready-to-build residential land in Wollongbar and an estimated 60 lots of residential land in Lennox Head. This land could be developed and retained for leasing as affordable housing for key workers, meeting a critical community need and providing a valuable source of recurrent income for Council.

This is not a problem that local government can solve on its own, but I believe we must do everything we can to safeguard to sustainability of our Shire and ensure that our communities remain vibrant, diverse and economically viable.