04 March, 2024
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From units to spare rooms: the urgent Australian rural housing fix

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Renting out 25,000 spare rooms to essential workers is among the urgent solutions being considered to ease Australia’s regional housing squeeze, along with relocatable homes and modular dwellings.

Country house prices are hitting record levels and narrowing in on the city market, with median values over $605,000, analysis by the Regional Australia Institute shows.

Rental vacancies are worsening, dropping to 1.2 per cent in September, while the regions attracted 166,000 new residents in recent years.

Housing should be seen as an urgent priority as country populations grow and demand more workers, the institute’s chief executive Liz Ritchie said.

“Our regions are gearing up to be the engine room of the nation’s transition to net zero, however housing will be the key barrier to this growth,” she said.

“While it is still more affordable to buy in the regions for now, there is no third option if locals or metro-movers are priced out of the market and supply fails to meet demand.”

 Liz Ritchie says housing should be a priority as country populations grow and demand workers. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS 

The institute is hosting a national summit in Canberra on Friday to examine policy solutions, hearing from housing and construction industry leaders, social services and local councils.

Some regional communities are taking charge to attract key workers, with health care professionals, carers and admin staff in hot demand.

The summit will hear about the construction of a 15-storey building with 80 apartments in Dubbo, the first high-rise residential building in the western NSW city.

Local councils and tourism bodies in central west NSW are exploring whether the region’s estimated 25,000 spare rooms could be rented out, following success of a similar project to recruit nurses in rural Canada.

Quilpie Council, in outback Queensland, had some traction offering $12,500 grants to people building new houses across the region and upped their offering to $20,000.

Other solutions include a South Australian council building one-bedroom units at its caravan park and suggestions of an urgent roll-out of modular and relocatable homes.

 The median price of regional dwellings jumped 54 per cent between March 2020 and December 2023. Image by Stuart Walmsley/AAP PHOTOS 

The institute is calling for 40 per cent of the federal government’s $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund, set up to increase social and affordable housing, to be directed to country areas.

Laureta Wallace, a director at the think tank, said regional housing issues were particularly nuanced.

“We’re wanting to build awareness of those bespoke challenges that regional towns have,” she said.

“What’s happening in Byron Bay in housing is much different to what’s happening in Broken Hill.”

The median price of all dwellings in the regions jumped 54 per cent from $392,802 to $605,780 between March 2020 and December 2023, compared to a 29 per cent increase to $832,193 in the capitals.

Monthly building approvals continue to decrease, a similar trend to the capital cities.

National Affordable Housing Consortium chair Karen Smith-Pomeroy said although housing was a pressing issue nationwide, it is more acute in regional areas.

“It’s a vicious circle,” she said.

“If you want to have thriving industries in regional areas, you have to have housing and if you haven’t got housing, you may not be able to have the industry.”

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