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In Byron Bay, the ravages of Airbnb

Posted on Jul 31, 2022 at 12:58 PM

It’s a scene that is repeated almost every evening… Small groups form on the seafront, some take out a guitar around an improvised campfire in the rocks, a few acrobats hypnotize passers-by by twirling bolas fiery and most clink glasses over a few beers, modestly covered by paper bags. They are all there to admire the sun setting behind the mountains bordering the northern tip of the beach, which stretches for about thirty kilometers, tinting the sky with shades ranging from pale pink to scarlet red…

Located at the eastern tip of Australia, an ideal geographical position where very beautiful waves are formed, Byron Bay, in New South Wales, is one of the most popular destinations for surfers. It is also home to one of the oldest surf clubs in the country, created more than a century ago, in 1907. However, this small town of 9,000 inhabitants only became a tourist attraction at the turn of the century. 1970s. Until then, it was a working-class town, known for its whaling station, then for its slaughterhouses.

A city run by environmentalists

Fintan Callaghan, a musician who has lived there all his life, remembers that “when the wind blew in the wrong direction, a stench covered the whole town”. Everything changed in 1973, with the organization of the Aquarius festival, the Australian equivalent of Woodstock, in Nimbim, about thirty kilometers from the coast.

In its wake many hippies arrive in the region, which, in addition to an alternative way of life, will bring a real cultural and artistic dynamism. It was at this time that Fintan, then very small, arrived with his mother, “one of the pioneers of the Australian hippie movement, to live in community”.

These new inhabitants also profoundly influenced local politics. Byron Bay is thus one of the few Australian cities run by environmentalists for decades, who are pleased to have been able to preserve the identity of their city. Thus, no building is more than two stories tall, the McDonald’s or KFC, although omnipresent in the rest of the country, were never able to establish themselves there, and in the 1990s, very strong opposition, in the streets and in the court, forced Club Med to give up opening a vacation center there. The French company also left Australia for good a few years later.

It is also here that in 2001, for the first time in the country’s history, land rights were recognized for the local Aboriginal community, whose presence in the region dates back more than 20,000 years.

Average rent: 800 euros per week

It is this uniqueness that has made Byron Bay a popular tourist destination – it welcomes 2.2 million holidaymakers each year – but is also a haven for many celebrities. The pioneer in this field is Paul Hogan, better known as Crocodile Dundee, but we can also mention Olivia Newton-John or more recently the Mentalist Simon Baker and especially Chris Hemsworth, the interpreter of Thor in the Marvel films, who s he built a huge villa estimated at more than 20 million euros…

An attractiveness that is paid today at a high price. Byron Bay is the Australian city where real estate prices have risen the most: +34.8% in one year and +112% over the past five years. So much so that in the sector, the median price of typical housing in Australia, a single-storey house with two bedrooms, a small garden and a garage, is now 1.5 million euros. Its average rent: 800 euros per week. It’s more than in the Coogee area, one of Sydney’s most famous beaches.

The teleworking wave

For the mayor of the agglomeration community, Michael Lyon (related Green), the situation worsened ten years ago with the proliferation of short-term rentals. “We are a tourist destination, so there has always been around 10% of our accommodation dedicated to vacation rentals, which offer much better returns than long-term rentals. But the trend has accelerated significantly with the emergence of platforms such as Airbnb. Today, 40% of all accommodation in Byron Bay is rented on such sites. As a result, the number of available homes has fallen sharply, which has caused a significant rise in rents, ”laments the elected official.

At the start of Covid, many people, realizing that they could telecommute from anywhere, arrived from big cities […] Some were ready to pay 50, 100 dollars more per week than the posted rent or to pay six months in advance, in cash!

Fintan Callaghan Resident of Byron Bay

Under these conditions, the slightest grain of sand can turn into a disaster. This is what happened last year to Fintan. “I lived with two of my daughters in a converted garage which I rented for around 250 euros per week. Then my landlord decided to turn it into a yoga studio. I don’t blame him, he warned me more than three months in advance [le délai légal de préavis en Australie est d’un mois, NDLR]. But it happened at the worst possible time,” he recalls.

“At that time, at the start of the Covid, many people, realizing that they could telework from anywhere, arrived from the big cities, says Fintan. I visited more than thirty apartments and, each time, there were at least 40 people during the visits. Some were ready to pay 50, 100 dollars more per week than the posted rent or to pay six months in advance, in cash! Difficult to compete when you are a single father, musician moreover, in front of couples who have two salaries. Yet I had an impeccable record: as a tenant, I always paid my rent on time. »

Still homeless at the end of his notice, Fintan had to leave his daughters with family members, while he spent his nights, for about three months, in homeless shelters more than an hour away. road, his hometown being devoid of it. One of his daughters having “serious mental health problems”, he finally managed to obtain one of the few social housing units available (2% to 3% of the entire rental stock) in the area and says he “extremely privileged”.

Aerial view of Byron BayiStock

homeless families

Given the crowds at the “Homeless Hub”, the only homeless shelter in town, many people are not so lucky. Entirely funded by donations, this organization serves hot breakfasts every day of the week. You can also take a shower, do your laundry or get help from social workers to complete certain administrative procedures.

“It was very important to us that this place look like any other café in town, so that the people who come there feel good, dignified, but also so that they can bond there”, explains Ariana, one of the volunteers. She notes since the floods that ravaged the region a few months ago an upsurge of homeless people, whose profile has changed. “We now have families who come with their children, but also people who work but who can no longer afford housing,” she notes.

Fabian, for example, has been sleeping for four months in a tent in the middle of the dunes. “I had to stop working: I’m tired because I sleep badly and I’m cold all the time. It’s still a shame for me, who was a roofer, to no longer have a roof over his head…” He, who had left Melbourne because he couldn’t stand the confinement, is now seriously considering returning there.

According to official statistics, there are nearly 200 homeless people in Byron Bay, who sleep, like Fabian, in a tent in the bush or, when they still have one, in their car. The municipality arrives in the matter just behind Sydney (more than 5 million inhabitants), where there are 272 homeless people.

It is in this context that last year Netflix announced the filming of a reality show, “Byron Baes”, centered on the many influencers who have taken up residence there in recent years. Through sponsored and highly paid publications, they sell a dream life punctuated by surfing outings, yoga sessions and other tastings of smoothies and kombucha.

Not really the cup of tea of ​​the historical inhabitants of the city, whose petition, demanding the prohibition of filming, collected more than 10,000 signatures. Because, as Michael Lyon explains, “this program absolutely does not represent our city”.

Not enough to bring Netflix back, even though “most of the footage was shot out of town because no businesses wanted to be associated with this show.”

Every Aussie’s Dream

The city councilor has recently regained a little optimism. After having pleaded for years with the government of New South Wales, he has just obtained from the latter to be able to limit rentals on Airbnb to 90 nights per year, against 180 currently.

But for Mandy Nolan, we must go even further. This humorist, candidate for the Greens in the last federal election, has placed the issue of housing at the heart of her campaign. “My priority was to remove tax incentives on rental investment, which are more important than for first-time buyers. It’s a broken system, a symptom of ultra-liberal capitalism out of control. With other elected Greens, she had revealed, with land registry data in support, that in the city some 900 homes are owned by only 89 people. Of these, none live in the region.

“Home ownership is every Australian’s dream, and it’s in our culture to get ahead in life by investing in real estate,” said Liam Annesley, director of a real estate agency in Byron Bay, for whom business has never been better. “In the 1980s, my parents bought a house for $78,000. It must be worth 3 million today… When it comes to a point where you can no longer find accommodation where you live, where you work, where your children go to school, there is a problem,” he concedes. .

Labor shortage

And this crisis does not spare the wealthiest. “In this tourist town, most jobs are in restaurants or trade, and paid at minimum wage. It’s too little to stay there. As a result, there is a general shortage of manpower, some restaurants only open four or five days a week, compared to seven before, because they are understaffed”, underlines Mandy Nolan. “What’s the point of having a $20 million villa if you don’t have anyone to maintain it?” »

Faced with this crisis, even the god of lightning is powerless… But the Labor government, elected last May, may be able to mitigate it. “They promised to build 10,000 social housing units. It’s a drop in the ocean but it’s better than nothing, ”reassures Michael Lyon. In the meantime, the number of tents behind the dunes continues to increase…

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