I’ve been a renter my whole life. When I was younger, I was always more interested in travelling the world than buckling down and saving for a home loan. Then I had my daughter, became and single mum and the sole income earner for my little family. By that stage, buying a house in my hometown of Lennox Head was simply out of the question. I know countless people like me, professional, hardworking, renters, living in fear for the next rent increase or notice to vacate and the prospect of being forced to move away from their friends, families and community.

It may surprise you to know that you need to earn over $125,000 per year to “afford” to live in the Ballina Shire (by this definition, housing is considered affordable when comprises no more than 25-30% of household income). In reality, the medium annual income for people living in the Ballina Shire is $74,000, which means Ballina Shire is considered a “severely unaffordable” place to live. We also have a significant housing availability issue. At the time I wrote this article realestate.com had 11 properties available for long-term rent in Lennox Head.

Meanwhile, one thing that our Shire has a lot of is short-term holidays rentals. At the time of writing there were 618 entire homes listed on airbnb.com in the Ballina Shire, the vast majority of these were in Lennox Head. That means there are almost 50 times more short-term properties available to rent than long-term properties. On average, short-term properties are rented for 42 nights per year (even the most popular listings were rented for an average of 137 nights per year). That’s a lot of houses sitting empty while people struggle to find somewhere to live!

There is no doubt that short-term holiday letting is an important part of our town’s tourism-reliant economy, however the message I am getting from local businesses is that they can’t find enough staff because people on low and fixed incomes can’t afford to live here. What is the point of attracting tourists to our own when we can’t serve them?

Short-term holiday letting is not the root cause of our housing crisis (we can thank decades of divestment from social housing and neoliberal economic policies for that) but believe it is adding fuel to a fire that is already raging out of control. The situation has been made even worse by the recent floods which saw thousands more people become homeless.

The NSW Department of Planning and the Environment recently introduced a range of policy reforms to regular short-term holiday letting across the State. Central to this was a 180-day limit for non-hosted short-term rental accommodation in certain locations, including the Ballina Shire. Byron Shire, where non-hosted short-term holiday lets comprise up to 35% of the total housing stock, lobbied hard to have this cap reduced to 90 days, but the scale of the problem is not as significant in Ballina Shire and a similar exemption is unlikely to be forthcoming.   

This leaves Local Councils with few options available to incentivise property owners to return their additional homes to the long-term rental market. Brisbane City Council recently announced that it would charge commercial rates to un-hosted short-term holiday lets, however this not a realistic oprtion in NSW, where Councils are subject to rate caps that limit the amount of money that Councils can earn from rates. While it may be possible to apply a rate rise to a certain geographical area, we’d need to reduce rates somewhere else in the Shire so as not to exceed the cap.

At yesterday’s Council meeting, the Greens successfully moved that Council should write to all ratepayers across the Shire and encourage them to return any secondary dwellings that were unoccupied or listed on short-term letting platforms like AirBnB. A similar letter by the Mayor of Eurobodella Shire has already resulted in over 100 houses being returned to the long-term market. Byron Shire is about to send out a similar letter as part of its annual rates notice.

Meanwhile, I believe that advocating to the State Government to enable Councils to regulate the short-term holiday letting industry is part of a comprehensive approach to the housing crisis across all levels of government. Until we find a solution, I am going to keep raising awareness about this issue in the community.