Housing crisis in hubs like Broome stifling dream of developing north, experts say

Developing the north has long been a goal of successful federal governments, but experts say the regional rental crisis is constraining growth.

Long-term residents of the Kimberley, in Western Australia’s far north, are leaving due to sky-high rents and limited housing stock, while businesses are struggling to attract and house incoming seasonal workers ahead of the busy dry season.

University of WA social sciences head Amanda Davies said unless something changed, it would be difficult for northern centers such as Broome to capitalize on development opportunities.

“If we’re looking at seriously developing northern Australia, it’s important that infrastructure is available to give businesses confidence to expand… affordable housing is one of those,” she said.

“We’re looking to the northern part of Australia to grow through hubs like Broome, and it’s very important that there is capacity to attract and retain populations.

A smiling blonde woman on the edge of a metropolitan waterway.
Amanda Davies says meaningful housing strategies are needed to facilitate sustainable growth in northern Australia.(ABC Kimberley: Erin Parke)

Dr Davies said Broome was in a difficult position where it could not grow because of the housing shortage.

“[The housing crisis] looks like it will probably intensify and get worse, “she said.

“We do have more people looking for lifestyle opportunities and to move into northern areas.

“It’s more probable that the situation will worsen until there is significant strategic investment in lower to medium housing options in the area.”

A dark-haired woman and her partner sitting together at a table.
Maggie Yu and her partner Allen fear they’ll have to leave Broome.(ABC Kimberley: Jessica Hayes)

Tough choices

Rising property values ​​and low rental vacancy rates have left some locals facing tough choices, including childcare worker Maggie Yu.

She has lived in Broome for almost a decade, but may soon be forced to leave the town and the community she loves because she cannot find anywhere to live.

The lease on her property ends next month and she is scrambling to secure another property to live in with her partner.

“I’m so stressed and couldn’t sleep for a few days,” she said.

“I’ve been living in Broome for over eight years – [securing housing] has not been a problem before, but from 2020 it’s been a really stressful problem. “

A bright real estate sign that reads "for sale" in front of some gum trees.
Broome’s median house price has jumped almost 30 per cent in the last 12 months, while rental vacancy rates remain stubbornly low.(ABC Kimberley: Jessica Hayes)

Ms Yu has lodged several unsuccessful applications for private rental properties via real estate agents and has trawled community groups on social media for a spare room.

She has so far come up empty handed and fears that as more people arriving in town ahead of the busy dry season in search of work, the competition for accommodation will only increase.

“If nothing comes up we’ll probably have to leave Broome and relocate to find another place to call home,” she said.

“It’s really now to leave this place, because we’ve been here for such a long period of time and we love the people here and the strong community relationships.

“If we move again everything has to start again from zero, so I do hope that we can stay and don’t have to leave.”

In the meantime, Ms Yu and her partner have been offered a place in a friend’s caravan until she can find a more permanent solution or has to leave.

“It’s not what we’re usually looking for, because we lived in a house for the past eight years, so that will be a pretty new experience for us,” she said.

A man with dark hair stands in front of a large building.
Tony Hutchinson says Broome’s rental woes are likely to get worse before they get better.(ABC Kimberley: Ben Collins)

‘Going to get worse’

Broome-based real estate agent Tony Hutchinson said the Kimberley rental market was in a “diabolical situation” that did not look likely to ease any time soon.

“I think it’s going to get worse,” he said.

Mr Hutchinson said building delays and worker shortages meant there would be significant delays in the delivery of new houses.

“The supply of new accommodation is going to have a big delay – it’s going to be at least two or three years,” he said.

A man with a greying beard, dressed in a shirt, stands in front of a bookcase indoors.
Michael Fotheringham says Australia is at a critical point.(ABC News: Daniel Fermer)

Michael Fotheringham, the managing director of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, said Australia was at a critical point in tackling unaffordable housing and a lack of stock across the nation.

With the federal election set for May 21, he said a national response was urgently needed and political parties must set out policies that would address housing stock issues.

“It’s not something we can continue to ignore and think that the market will solve itself,” he said.

“We’re increasingly seeing people needing to do things like sleep in their cars to maintain a job because there’s no housing near where they’re employed.

“That’s not a future of Australia that any of us hope for.”

Dr Davies said housing should be viewed by the major parties as a key ingredient for realizing northern development goals in the upcoming election.

“I would be looking for some really meaningful strategies for supporting employment growth, for sustainable housing in the north, to really start to ensure populations that are already there can grow and grow in a sustainable manner.”

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