Battered by the housing crisis, a rural NSW community finds its own solution

About two years ago, Michael Brosnan decided he could no longer wait for the government to act on the housing crisis.

Related: ‘I feel so let down’: the ‘safety net’ overlooked in NSW election pledges on housing

As more and more people in his community on the extreme south coast of New South Wales were being pushed into homelessness, he and other locals decided to start a fundraiser.

Dubbed It’s Up to Us, it grossed nearly $350,000. It now has six – soon to be nine – transportable temporary units housing people across the region.

“We called it that because that’s exactly what it is; it’s up to us,” says Brosnan. “We’re trying to fill a need that the government doesn’t have.”

The area falls within the Bega electorate, which Labor won by a 5.1% margin in a 2022 by-election after 34 years in Liberal hands. It spans a number of tourism hotspots north of Batemans Bay and south of Eden. As residents prepare to cast their vote in the NSW elections, the housing crisis weighs heavily on their minds.

“What we’re doing can only get us so far,” says Brosnan, who, as part of a community group called Social Justice Advocates of the Sapphire Coast, has also sourced about 100 trailers to house people affected by the housing shortage and the black summers bushfire.

“It’s a bit of a band-aid on a wound, which is the need for serious investment in transitional housing and affordable rental housing.”

The problems facing the area are a microcosm of housing problems being felt across rural and regional NSW: an overheated rental market and housing stocks lost to natural disasters, short-term holiday rentals and landlords hoping to benefit from migration of city dwellers to benefit the countryside.

According to a spokesman for Homes Secretary Anthony Roberts, the Liberal National Government has promised to deliver 271 homes for teachers and police officers in regional NSW and to speed up new housing developments.

It would also review its policy in November this year to allow councils to set daily limits on short-term holiday rentals.

Labor has pledged to pilot a build-to-rent scheme involving the Bega constituency on the south NSW coast, with 30% earmarked for council or affordable housing.

Terry Bloomfield, a 70-year-old retiree who has lived in the area for 35 years, questions how much the promises will help given the scale of the crisis. Bloomfield lives in a mobile home he bought after he had to sell his house to pay off his mortgage for a business that failed during the pandemic.

He was told to take the house to Moruya North Head campsite, where around 50 households are based while they look for a place to stay.

But after a friend is attacked at the campsite, he doesn’t feel safe going there.

So he’s driving his RV from place to place when a ranger tells him to move on.

“I’d love to be able to rent sometime, but now it would be at least $450 a week…that doesn’t leave much money to eat out,” he says.

“It’s all well and good for the government to say they will build more housing, but how long will that take? Where am I going until then?”

The incumbent Labor candidate for the electorate, Dr. Michael Holland says if he’s re-elected he plans to expand the It’s Up To Us campaign to build more temporary transitional housing.

Liberal candidate and Mayor of Bega Valley Shire Russell Fitzpatrick says he’d like to see housing investments “that actually meet the criteria that everybody wants”.

Even for those not in a crisis, housing is still a major voting issue in the community.

Club Sapphire’s managing director in Merimbula, Damien Foley, says the company decided to buy a four-bedroom unit to rent out to employees after realizing that part of their struggle was to attract and retain employees , was due to the lack of affordable rents.

He says buying the property helped, but didn’t eliminate the problem.

“[Housing] affects our community, but also employers. While there are a whole host of issues people are addressing, housing is certainly one of the most important.”

Alex Scott, 34, who moved to Bega from Canberra last year because it was cheaper for her family to buy a house than in the city, takes a similar view.

“Companies are crying out to build their workforce… we need people, and without houses there are no people.”

Regardless of who wins the election, Brosnan says authorities must act soon.

“We get calls three to four times a week asking if we have a trailer for someone who has nowhere to live,” he says. “If I get a caravan, it’s gone immediately.”

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