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However, this small town of 9,000 inhabitants only became a tourist attraction at the turn of the 1970s. Until then, it was a working-class town, known then for its whaling station and slaughterhouses.
A city run by environmentalists
Fintan Callaghan, a musician who has lived here all his life, remembers that “when the wind blew in the wrong direction, a stench covered the whole town”. Everything changed in 1973, with the organization of the Aquarius festival – the Australian equivalent of Woodstock – in Nimbim, about thirty kilometers from the coast.
In its wake, many hippies arrived in the region, which, in addition to an alternative way of life, brought a real cultural and artistic dynamism. It was at this time that Fintan, then a small child, arrived with his mother, “one of the pioneers of the Australian hippie movement, to live in community”.
These new residents also had a profound influence on local politics. Byron Bay is one of the few Australian towns to have been run by environmentalists for decades, proud to preserve their town’s identity. For example, no building has more than two floors. McDonald’s or KFC, ubiquitous in the rest of the country, have never been able to establish themselves there. And in the 1990s, very strong opposition in the streets and in the courts forced Club Med to give up opening a vacation center. The French company left Australia for good a few years later.
It is also here that in 2001, for the first time in the country’s history, land rights were recognized for the local indigenous community, whose presence in the region dates back more than 20,000 years.
Skyrocketing prices and rents
It is this uniqueness that has made Byron Bay a popular tourist destination – it welcomes 2.2 million holidaymakers each year – but it is also a haven for many celebrities. The pioneer in this field is Paul Hogan, better known as Crocodile Dundee. But we could also mention Olivia Newton-John, or more recently, the mentalist Simon Baker and Chris Hemsworth, who plays Thor in the Marvel films, who built a huge villa estimated at more than 20 million euros.
An attractiveness that now comes at a high price. Byron Bay is the Australian city where real estate prices have increased the most: +34.8% in one year and +112% over the last five years. So much so that the median price of a typical Australian house – a single-storey house with two bedrooms, a small garden and a garage – is now 1.5 million euros. Its average rent: 800 euros per week. It’s more than in the Coogee area, one of Sydney’s most famous beaches.
The teleworking wave
For Mayor Michel Lyon (Green Party), the situation worsened ten years ago with the proliferation of short-term rentals. “We are a tourist destination, so 10% of our accommodations have always been dedicated to vacation rentals, which offer much better returns than long-term rentals. But the trend has definitely accelerated with the emergence of platforms like Airbnb. Today, 40% of all accommodation in Byron Bay is rented on such sites. As a result, the number of available homes has decreased significantly, which has led to a significant increase in rents,” Lyon explains.
Many people came from big cities.
In these conditions, the slightest grain of sand can turn into a disaster. This is what happened last year to Fintan. “I lived with two of my daughters in a converted garage that I rented for around 250 euros a week. Then my landlord decided to turn it into a yoga studio. I don’t blame him, he gave me more than three month” notice [the legal notice period in Australia is one month]. But it happened at the worst possible time,” he recalls.
“At that time, at the start of COVID, a lot of people, realizing they could telecommute from anywhere, came from big cities,” says Fintan. I visited more than 30 apartments and each time there were at least 40 people. Some were ready to pay $50, $100 per week more than the advertised rent or to pay six months in advance, in cash! But I had an impeccable record: as a tenant, I always paid my rent on time.
Still homeless at the end of his notice, Fintan had to leave his daughters with relatives while he spent his nights, for about three months, in homeless shelters more than an hour from road (his hometown being devoid of it). With one of his daughters having “serious mental health issues”, he eventually managed to get one of the few social housing units available (2-3% of all rental stock) in the area and says to himself ” extremely lucky”.
According to official statistics, there are nearly 200 homeless people in Byron Bay
Influencers and homeless
Given the crowds at the Homeless Hub, the city’s only homeless shelter, many people aren’t so lucky. Entirely funded by donations, this organization serves hot breakfasts every day of the week. You can also take a shower, do your laundry or get help from social workers to carry out certain administrative procedures.
“It was very important to us that this place be like any other café in the city, so that people who come here feel good, dignified, but also so that they can bond,” explains Ariana, one of the volunteers. Since the floods that devastated the region a few months ago, she has noticed an increase in the number of homeless people, whose profile has changed: “We now have families who come with their children, but also people who work but who can no longer afford to live,” she says.
Fabian, for example, has been sleeping in a tent for four months in the middle of the dunes. “I had to stop working: I’m tired because I don’t sleep well and I’m always cold. It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back for me, as a roofer, not having a roof over my head.” He had left Melbourne because he couldn’t stand the confinement and is now seriously considering returning.
According to official statistics, there are nearly 200 homeless people in Byron Bay, who like Fabian, sleep in a tent in the bush or, when they still have one, in their car. The municipality is second only to Sydney (population over 5 million), where there are 272 homeless people.
It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back for me, as a roofer, not having a roof over my head.
It is in this context that Netflix announced last year the filming of a reality show, “Byron Baes”, centered on the many influencers who have taken up residence there in recent years. Through sponsored and very profitable publications, they sell a dream life punctuated by surf trips, yoga sessions and tastings of smoothies and kombucha.
It was not to the liking of the town’s longtime residents, whose petition, calling for the filming to be banned, garnered more than 10,000 signatures. Because, as Michael Lyon explains, “this show does not represent our city at all”.
That wasn’t enough to cause Netflix to back down, although “most of the footage was shot out of town because no company wanted to be associated with this show.”
The Airbnb problem
The city councilor has recently regained a little optimism. After years of lobbying the New South Wales government, he has just won the power to limit rentals on Airbnb to 90 nights a year, up from 180 currently.
But for Mandy Nolan, we must go even further. The comedian, candidate for the Greens in the last federal elections, has placed the issue of housing at the heart of his campaign. “My priority was to remove tax incentives for rental investment, which are more important than for first-time buyers. It’s a failing system, a symptom of ultra-liberal capitalism out of control.” Along with other green elected officials, she revealed, using supporting cadastral data, that some 900 homes in the city are owned by just 89 people. None of them live in the region.
“Owning a property is every Australian’s dream, and it’s part of our culture to get ahead in life by investing in property,” says Liam Annesley, director of a property agency in Byron Bay, for whom business is n have never tasted so good. “In the 1980s, my parents bought a house for $78,000. When you get to the point where you can no longer afford to live where you live, where you work, where your kids go to school, it there is a problem,” he concedes.
$20 million mansion but no staff
And this crisis does not spare the wealthiest. “In this tourist town, most jobs are in the catering or trade sector, and paid at minimum wage. It’s too little to pay for accommodation on the spot. As a result, there is a general labor shortage, with some restaurants only opening four or five days a week, instead of seven, because they are understaffed,” explains Mandy Nolan. “What’s the point of having a $20 million mansion if you don’t have anyone to maintain it?”
But the Labor government, elected last May, may be able to mitigate it. “They promised to build 10,000 social housing units. It’s a drop in the ocean but it’s better than nothing,” reassures Michel Lyon. In the meantime, the number of tents behind the dunes continues to grow…
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