Australia’s regions grew at a record rate last year, and this migration is permanent, not transitional, says Infrastructure Australia’s chief executive officer Romilly Madew AO (pictured). “Before COVID-19 we saw housing affordability through a distinctly urban lens. Now we see it is an issue across Australia.”
In Tasmania, one in three renting households is in rental stress. In the Northern Territory, 54 per cent of houses in remote communities are overcrowded. And in the Illawarra region, where 58,000 more homes are needed between now and 2041, people can spend 10 years on social housing waiting lists.
These are just three of the stories of housing affordability and access that are playing out around Australia’s regions, and that are captured in Infrastructure Australia’s Regional Strengths and Infrastructure Gaps report.
Published with an interactive map, the report is certainly a conversation starter.
“Prior to COVID-19, our focus was on the fast-growing cities that were bursting at the seams. Housing affordability was an urban narrative. But the pandemic has changed the way we think about place,” Madew says.
Australia posted the highest regional migration on record in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the report reveals. A massive 43,000 people moved from capital cities in 2019/2020 – a 200 per cent increase on the previous year. Capital cities lost a further 11,800 people to internal migration in March 2021 – the largest quarterly loss on record.
It is no surprise, then, that more than half (55%) of the 48 regions consulted for Infrastructure Australia’s report said availability, diversity and affordability of housing was their top priority.
The adoption of remote working drove migration to satellite suburbs and commuter regions, such as the Illawarra, Hunter, Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast and Tasmania, the report finds. That flexibility also encouraged short-term population movements, placing extra pressure on the infrastructure in smaller towns and holiday locations.
Sea and tree-changers and higher domestic tourism visitation also exacerbated housing and accommodation availability and affordability. Then there’s the “suspended exits” of young people who may have left their home region for the bright lights of the city.
“People have moved for a multitude of reasons, not one. We originally thought this migration was transitory. But now we think this change is permanent,” Madew says.
People who were already under housing stress have been hit the hardest and are now turning to already stretched social housing.
Poor housing availability, diversity and affordability places a handbrake on Australia’s economic growth and prevents our regions from attracting and retaining skilled workers, Madew adds. “We’ve heard stories of towns that don’t have doctors because there isn’t a single house available.”
The Morrison Government announced a new Regional Home Guarantee in the March budget, which promises to help 10,000 regional homebuyers. Labor has pledged $12 million for its own scheme to give buyers in the regions a foot on the housing ladder.
But Madew makes a clear distinction between housing affordability and access. Rental vacancy rates have fallen below one per cent in some regions, for example.
Our regional renaissance demands new service models and delivery of infrastructure and poses new questions for the industry. The provision of social housing is considered infrastructure, the report notes, while private home ownership is not.
Infrastructure Australia is not the only organisation championing the regions, Madew says.
“The National Farmers Federation, Regional Institute of Australia and the Business Council of Australia are all saying the same thing. We need to acknowledge that Australia, as a whole, makes our economy strong.
“The importance of our cities will never diminish. We need our cities to be vital, booming places. But we also rely on our regions. We must seize the opportunity now. We can’t let our regions flounder. If we want a healthy economy our regions must flourish.”
Infrastructure Australia is calling for submissions until 27 May 2022.