Most newcomers to Mareeba are enticed by wide open spaces and the promise of at least 300 sunny days a year but, like the rest of regional Australia, it too has a rental crisis.
- The Atherton Tablelands has one of the lowest rental vacancy rates in Queensland at 0.2 per cent
- Social welfare organizations are handing out tents to those in need of emergency accommodation
- Finding safe places to camp out is becoming increasingly difficult during peak tourist season
For Guy Closset, the lure was the prospect of somewhere better to live than in a tent or beneath the condemned building of a disused school in Atherton.
“[My partner] was kicked out of where she was staying and I didn’t want her to be on the street by herself, so I ended up staying with her,” he said.
The couple had been in the Atherton Tablelands, which has one of the lowest rental vacancy rates in Queensland, at 0.2 per cent.
Mr Closset was already living precariously, having lost work when the pandemic broke out.
“I was staying with my mum but I was more couch surfing,” the experienced warehouseman and worker said.
“I was sleeping in the front room, you know, and then I met my partner.”
A crowded market
The move to Mareeba, a larger centre, has allowed Mr Closset and his pregnant partner to live more securely in a caravan at a tourist park, at a cost of $260 a week, while they search for a house.
But Mareeba’s rental vacancy rate is only marginally less tight – 0.3 per cent according to the Real Estate Institute of Queensland.
“A lot of properties that were rented are now being sold, and the new owners are living in them,” Robert Larkin of Mareeba Community Housing said.
Mr Larkin, a housing supervisor who works with those experiencing homelessness, said his organization had about 200 clients on his books at any one time.
He knew of one woman spending 60 per cent of her income on rent.
No emergency accommodation
The shortage of available rentals has made it harder for housing organizations to provide emergency shelter for those in need.
Many have resorted to handing out tents to families with nowhere to go.
Miriam Newton-Gentle, ministry worker and leader of the Salvation Army on the Atherton Tablelands, said the lack of crisis options magnified the problem in the rural area.
“One of the big things is we have absolutely no emergency accommodation,” she said.
“We’ve got small hotels and motels but they can’t take people long term, so when people are rendered homeless, they are absolutely homeless.”
Mr Larkin said caravan parks were traditionally the “go-to” crisis accommodation of choice for providers in the Tablelands as they were an “easy transition for people who are sleeping rough”.
“But right now, caravan parks are full because we have a lot of travelers coming through with their own camper wagons and so there isn’t as much available,” he said.
“This is probably as tough as it’s been.”
A shortage of homes
The closest crisis accommodation to the Tablelands is in Cairns, just a short drive away.
But Far North Queensland’s largest center is battling the same problem and places are hard to come by.
The Queensland Audit Office also published a report last month indicating people in the region eligible for social housing were spending an average of two years on the waitlist.
A spokesperson for the Queensland housing department said $2.9 billion was being spent to increase the supply of social and affordable homes across the state by almost 10,000 over the decade to 2027.
Over four years, 234 new social homes will be built in Far North Queensland, in addition to 174 commenced in the past five years.
But Aimee McVeigh, CEO of the Queensland Council of Social Services, said the state government needed to invest in building at least 5,000 new homes each year statewide over the next decade to meet demand.
“We [also] urgently need more crisis accommodation, so families have a roof rather than a tent over their head while they’re looking for secure long-term options,” Ms McVeigh said.
The Tablelands Regional Council recently voted to investigate whether it could sell off a block of council-owned land in Atherton for medium or high-density housing.
While more than a quarter of homes nationwide are semi-detached, units or apartments, that figure is less than 7 per cent on the Tablelands.
Mr Larkin said about 70 to 80 per cent of his clients were couch surfing, living in carports, or in the backs of utes.
“We could do with demountable housing that could be brought in as they did across Europe after the Second World War,” Ms Newton-Gentle said.
“It doesn’t exactly give people hope to give them a tent, it really doesn’t.”