Nestled on the picturesque coast of Western Australia’s south-west food and wine region, Busselton has been welcoming holiday-makers for decades.
But as the rental crisis in the area has worsened, an unprecedented number of local families are seeking refuge at the caravan parks built for tourists.
Every day, park managers are turning away dozens of families who have been forced to sleep in their cars or camp in the bush after their rental properties have become unaffordable.
Natalie Darby has been managing one local park for seven years and says she has never seen such demand before.
“We have no semi long-term accommodation available and are receiving at least a dozen calls a day,” she said.
She said she had about 50 long-term bookings.
“I find we have a lot of single parents with children, but then we also have older, full-time working couples who cannot secure long-term accommodation in Busselton and the greater region.”
Six kids, no house
Kirsty Watson and her partner, a plasterer, have been living in the Busselton area for 12 years and have never had any issues securing a lease.
When the property they were living in was put on the market, they applied for more than 30 different rentals in the area.
Ms Watson said after six months they made the decision to move into a caravan at the park with their six children.
Now the family has been there for almost a year.
“We’re hoping we get our own place, but we’ve been here since May,” she said.
“Both my daughters [16 and 19] moved into their own caravan because there were just too many of us in a confined space. “
Ms Watson said there needed to be more effort put into setting up short-term options.
“[The government] should look into putting up some dongas, even if people have to pay for them and then they live there, “she said.
Three in a bunk bed
Michelle Turner moved into a caravan at the park with her three children about two months ago after being unable to find a long-term rental.
She says caravan parks have stepped in where other agencies have been unable to help.
“If it wasn’t for [park manager Nat Darby] I don’t know where we would be, “Ms Turner said.
“When she said, ‘We’ll be able to get you into a place here,’ it was tears of happiness – not tears of ‘What am I going to do?’
Ms Turner shares a bunk bed with her two youngest children in the caravan and her eldest has the top bunk.
Zero per cent vacancy
Busselton has been identified as among the places with the lowest rental vacancy rate in WA.
According to figures released in March, the Busselton area had a zero per cent vacancy rate.
The vacancy rate does not mean there are no rentals on the market, but those that are available are being rented in less than 21 days of being listed.
Other areas in the state experiencing shortages as severe include East Bunbury, Denmark, and Bridgetown.
Morweena Richardson, a financial adviser with AnglicareWA, said the situation was at a crisis point.
“They’re not just moving to caravan parks… they’re couch surfing,” she said.
“There are people sleeping rough and there are also some circumstances of domestic abuse where women are having to stay in an unsafe environment because there is no alternative.”
Figures released by the Department of Community show as of March 31 there were 1,329 applications on the public housing waiting list for the South West region, representing 2,119 people.
That included 156 priority applications representing 301 people.
Dave Hewitt is 64 and has been on the list for public housing for about three years, more than two of which he has spent living in a caravan park.
He was working as a truck driver, but gave up for health reasons and later moved out of his Port Geographe home because he could not afford the rent.
“The caravan park is OK to be in for a while, not long term,” Mr Hewitt said.
Long wait for new builds
In a statement, WA Housing Minister John Carey said the government was working to address the crisis.
“We need to increase housing stock, and while that will take time in the current market, measures such as our $ 20,000 Building Bonus Grant and $ 116 million Regional Land Booster program have ensured we have a significant amount of new housing stock in the pipeline to be delivered, “he said.
Real Estate Institute of WA deputy president Joe White said there was a significant backlog in new homes being built.
“We have had, over the COVID period, an increase in people moving to the area and at a corresponding time a decrease in available rentals with rental stock being sold off,” he said.
“That hasn’t been able to be replaced with the new houses under construction.”
Mr White said up until November 2019 there had been a five-year period of gradual rental decline.
“Such a long period of decline meant that at some point it was going to turn around and COVID supercharged that,” he said.