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‘It’s Up to Us’: squeezed by the housing crisis, a NSW rural 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.

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

Called “It’s Up to Us”, after raising almost $350,000, he says they now have six – soon to be nine – transportable temporary units housing people across the region.

Michael Brosnan in Pambula. Photograph: Rachel Mounsey/NY Today News

“We called it that because that’s exactly the case; it is ‘up to us’,” says Brosnan.

“We’re trying to help fill a need that the government hasn’t.”

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

“What we’re doing can only take us so far,” says Brosnan, who, as part of a community group called the Social Justice Advocates of the Sapphire Coast, has also sourced about 100 caravans to house people caught up in the housing crisis and the black summer bushfires.

Units that Damien Foley bought for staff accomodation at Club Sapphire.
Units that Damien Foley bought for staff accomodation at Club Sapphire. Photograph: Rachel Mounsey/NY Today News

“It’s a bit of a band-aid for a wound that is the need for some serious investment in transitional housing and affordable rental accommodation.

The problems experienced by the area are a microcosm of housing issues felt across rural and regional NSW: an overheated rental market and housing stock lost to natural disasters, short-term holiday rentals and landlords hoping to cash in on city folk migrating to the country.

According to a spokesperson for the minister for homes, Anthony Roberts, the Liberal-National government has promised to deliver 271 homes for teachers and police in regional NSW, and accelerate new housing developments.

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

Labor has promised to pilot a build-to-rent scheme – with 30% set aside for social or affordable housing – on the south coast of NSW, which takes in the Bega electorate.

Damien Foley in Merimbula
Damien Foley in Merimbula. Photograph: Rachel Mounsey/NY Today News

Terry Bloomfield, a 70-year-old pensioner who has lived in the region 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 home to Moruya North Head campground, where about 50 households are based while they search for somewhere to live.

But after a friend was assaulted at the campground, he does not feel safe to go there.

So, instead he moves his mobile home from place to place until a ranger tells him to move on.

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“I’d like to be able to rent somewhere eventually but it would now be a minimum $450 a week … that doesn’t leave much money left over to eat,” he says.

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

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

Liberal candidate and current Bega Valley Shire mayor, Russell Fitzpatrick, says he would like to see housing investment “that actually meets the criteria everyone wants”.

Alex Scott and daughter Prudence.
Alex Scott and daughter Prudence. Photograph: Rachel Mounsey/NY Today News

Even for those not in crisis, housing still resonates as a major election issue in the community.

Chief executive of Club Sapphire in Merimbula, Damien Foley, says the business decided to buy a four-bedroom unit to rent out to staff after they realised part of their struggle to attract and retain staff was due to a lack of affordable rentals.

He says while buying the property has helped, it hasn’t eliminated the problem.

“[Housing] is impacting our community, but employers as well, so while there are a whole host of issues people will be looking to see addressed, housing is certainly up there as one of the major ones.”

Alex Scott, 34, who moved to Bega from Canberra last year because it was more affordable for her family to buy a home than in the city, holds a similar view.

“Businesses are crying out to build their workforce … we need people and you can’t have people without houses.”

Regardless of who wins the election, Brosnan said they have to act soon.

“We get calls three to four times a week asking if we’ve got a caravan for someone that’s got nowhere to live,” he says.

“When I get a caravan it’s gone straight away.”

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