Byron holiday rental debate flares as renters struggle to find homes amid housing squeeze, floods aftermath

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In the Byron Shire in northern New South Wales, local councillor Sama Balson just wants a place to call home.

Ms Balson said she has lived in 19 different places over the past six months, moving 26 times between rentals, short-term accommodation, and friends’ homes.

She lost her rental house at Huonbrook, west of Mullumbimby, during severe storms that led to catastrophic flooding in late February.

“You never imagine when an event like that happens that you still won’t have a proper, secure, stable home where you can unpack your boxes six months down the track,” she said.

“It’s unfathomable.”

Between juggling work, her responsibilities as a single parent, her role as a Byron Shire councillor, and as founder of the charity The Women’s Village Collective, Ms Balson has also had to devote countless hours to managing her unstable housing situation.

She said she estimated it had cost her thousands of dollars’ worth of time, as well as the real expenses it created.

“Factoring extra time to get to school, extra time to get to work, where you’re going to get your meals, trying to schedule real estate inspections in and around work,” she said.

“These are just some of the things you’re constantly having to think about.”

She said housing affordability in the region was out of control.

“I’ve seen places without bathroom walls, camp stoves on the balcony, no proper amenities, no proper kitchens, and I’m talking about these places renting for over $500/week in many cases,” Ms Balson said.

“People can’t keep living like this, we can’t move every few days, it’s not sustainable.”

‘Heartbreaking’ decision

Jenelle Bowen lives in the Byron hinterland at Myocum where the weekly rent takes up about two-thirds of her income.

She moved in just before the floods in February, but prior to that had spent 12 months moving between different temporary accommodation options.

Late last year she made the difficult decision to send one of her two daughters to live interstate.

“She’s one of these kids who really doesn’t adjust well to a lot of change,” Ms Bowen said.

“I’ve sole parented these girls for the past 12 years, so it was big for her to go.

“It was pretty heartbreaking.”

Holiday-letting cap

In the wake of the floods, more than 1,000 people from the Northern Rivers region are still living in emergency accommodation.

The natural disaster exacerbated a situation that was already being described by local politicians as a housing emergency.

In a bid to address the situation, the Byron Shire Council is seeking approval to reduce the cap on non-hosted holiday lets from 180 to 90 days a year for most of the shire.

The strategy has been hailed as a way to increase the shire’s stock of permanent rentals, although it would allow year-round, short-term letting in precincts in Byron Bay, Suffolk Park, and Brunswick Heads.

The plan is on public exhibition, and has already provoked a backlash.

The Association for Short Term Rental Accommodation (ASTRA) has claimed more than $200 million would be lost, along with almost 1,500 jobs.

ASTRA’s Sarah Workman said there was no need to change the rules because a new licensing system had already reduced non-hosted, short-term rental accommodation by almost 80 per cent.

“Over 4,000 properties have already been returned to the permanent-rental pool,” she said.

But Byron Shire Mayor Michael Lyon said he did not accept ASTRA’s figures.

“This holiday letting industry obviously has come out fighting and they’re going to combat it because on some level their businesses model is at stake,” he said.

“So let’s be honest about what’s going on there.

“But, as policymakers, we need to look at the bigger picture, and that bigger picture is the whole economy, the whole community.”

Mr Lyon said a 90-day cap would have broader benefits for rental availability.

“I think it’s very myopic to only look at one particular sector,” he said.

“Everything you do has knock-on effects, so by having unregulated holiday letting you are costing the economy because of all the housing you don’t have.

“So there’s a whole raft of jobs across every sector that aren’t being filled.”

Harsh reality

For the time being, Jenelle Bowen has turned to social media hoping to raise enough money to buy a caravan to park under her rental property.

She said that would give her enough room to once again house both her daughters.

“Everybody wants the little house with the picket fence and the ability to offer that stability to their kids, but I don’t see that as a reality in this area.”

(Original ABC Article)