‘No place for them’: the rental and social housing crisis in the bush

Tamworth has never been a high-demand area for social housing, but many locals are being pushed to the edge.

In Tamworth, five and a half hours’ drive north-west of Sydney, real estate agent George Barton has never seen a market like this. Housing supply in the region of more than 60,000 people has become almost nonexistent. “As it stands today, we’ve only got three [rental homes] on our books,” he says.

“And two of them are $500-a-week-plus.”

The rental crisis has pushed an unprecedented number of people into the hunt for social housing in a region which has not traditionally had a problem with access to affordable homes. Lynda Townsend, homelessness manager with Tamworth Family Support Services (TFSS) in the New England region of New South Wales, says she has never seen a situation this bad.

View From Tamworth Lookout of town
Housing supply in the region of more than 60,000 people has become almost nonexistent. Photograph: Dave Robinson/The Guardian

Like many community housing and social support service providers in regional NSW, she has witnessed a rise in evictions and homelessness during one of the coldest winters on record; while Covid, floods, and increased demand for housing have left many living even closer to the edge.

Domestic violence has increased not so much in frequency but “in viciousness”, Townsend says, as couples were forced together in tight spaces during lockdowns, jobs were lost, schools closed, and families stressed.

“I’ve been in my role three years, and we’ve never had a waitlist, but at the moment I’ve got around 40 that are waiting for a case manager.

“Some women in our refuge are staying there for up to six months,” she says. “When we weren’t in the midst of a housing crisis, we would actually have them out in two or three weeks, once we’ve got them stabilised.”

Townsend estimates that vacancies in Tamworth have dropped to a fifth of normal levels. “It’s typically around 3.5%. The latest availability we have is 0.7%,” she says.

Data collected by TFSS client surveys shows that the proportion of people seeking assistance who cite “Housing crisis (eg eviction)” as the main reason for needing help has more than doubled from the 2019-2020 to the 2021-22 financial years, from 19.2% to 41.2%.

The proportion looking for assistance due to “Housing Affordability Stress” also rose from 3.2% to 6.1% for the same period.

House with ‘For Lease’ sign on the front fence
Rental vacancies in Tamworth have dropped to a fifth of normal levels – below 1%. Photograph: Dave Robinson/The Guardian

Plentiful housing myth

Migration to regional centres hasn’t just been driven by tree-changers unshackled from their city offices, but also by those marginalised in the cities who have bought into the myth of plentiful, cheap housing in the bush.

Flood victims who’ve lost rentals elsewhere have also come to Tamworth. If you’re already sleeping in your car, you may as well drive it somewhere, Townsend says.

“We’ve got a family that were in Ipswich. Their house was condemned after the floods in Queensland, and they were told to go down to Tamworth.

“They were actually camping at one of our dams with two small children – one a seven-month-old.”

Elderly long-term renters are also being driven out of homes, with the temptation of increased rental incomes proving too great for many landlords. This has led to a rise in 90-day evictions, where owners are asking tenants on rolling tenancies to vacate the property without having to give a reason. One 78-year-old TFSS client was given a 90-day eviction notice for the property he’d rented for 15 years when the owner decided to sell. He is now living in his car.

Winter temperatures in Tamworth can get to below 0C at night.

Nick Grimes, senior housing manager at Homes North community housing company in Tamworth, has seen a notable increase in clients seeking public housing. “Evictions have absolutely increased” over the past couple of years, he says.

“Tamworth and Armidale have never been considered high-demand areas for social housing. But in the last year and a half, they have become so .”

According to Grimes, “a whole new cohort of people” who have never before required social housing are now asking Homes North for help.

“They’ve held down regular jobs and their first port of call was the real estate [agent],but the real estate [agent] was at capacity, so they’ve got nothing,” he says.

“Those people then wonder, ‘Well, what else is out there?’; and that’s when they turn to us.”

Some demographics are underserved even by the already-strained services available to the homeless, Grimes says.

“We’ve got a women’s refuge, which is fantastic. We’ve got a youth refuge. But probably the bulk of what I come across is single men. There’s no refuge for single men,” he says.

“There’s no place for them to go.”

Two employees at Homes North sit at their desks
Staff at Homes North community housing company in Tamworth have experienced a recent spike in applications. Photograph: Dave Robinson/The Guardian

‘Domino effect’

According to George Barton, a real estate agent with McCulloch Agencies, an increase of $10 a week might have been the norm once, but it’s not uncommon for renters to now face a $30 or $40 hike in weekly rent.

“We feel for them. We’ll go over and beyond to help them find that next one,” he says.

Barton is seeing an exodus of property buyers coming out of Sydney.

“It’s probably the biggest transfer of population out of the metros into the regions since the second world war,” he says.

Metro residents who bought lifestyle blocks in places like Mudgee are realising they can sell their property, clear all their debts, then pick up a home on just as big a block in Tamworth with the profits, Barton says.

“Sydney’s bought out the Central Coast, and the Central Coast’s bought out the Upper Hunter, and the Upper Hunter are moving up here,” in what he describes as a “domino effect”.

Tianah, a young mother with two daughters and a third on the way, returned to Tamworth after leaving family in Queanbeyan and spending time in rehab for drug use. She is currently in a TFSS transitional home, which she shares with her younger sister.

“We need at least a three-bedroom house,” she says. “I’ve applied for everything I can, and I’ve just been knocked back for everything so far.

“I think that I’ll get housing now, because I’ve done everything that I’ve had to do.”

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Dakota* is a middle-aged woman who fled both domestic and criminal violence in Queensland, forcing her to shut down her small business and move back to Tamworth. There, she slept on her estranged mother’s kitchen floor until TFSS and a sympathetic real estate agent were able to help her find a home.

“I had to give up my business, my clientele, for my own safety,” she says.

“I moved back down to Tamworth this year, and got connected with Carmel at TFSS. She’s an absolute gem. I don’t know where I’d be without her right now.”

With a place to finally call home, Dakota says, “Now, everything is falling into place for the first time in years – and when I say years, I mean years.”

*Name has been changed.

Tom Plevey

The GuardianTramp

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