When home is hard to find

When Lismore mum Josie separated from her partner of 10 years, she and her three kids moved into her sisters lounge room and hung a sheet up for privacy while she looked for a place to rent.

She never dreamed that almost three months later she would still be there.

Josie (not her real name), who is employed full time in the community services sector and has two good local references, applied for at least 16 houses through several Lismore real estate agents, even offering some landlords two months rent in advance as an incentive, before she was finally successful in renting a three bedroom house in town.

Josie said she had no idea it would be so difficult to rent a house and has asked that her real name not be used, for fear of jeopardising her chances of renting a home in the future.

Its been very stressful very disheartening. You feel a bit judged, she said. I found myself asking: Is it because Ive got three kids? Is it because Im a single parent?

Josie is one of a growing number of people struggling to find affordable rental accommodation in Lismore.

Lismore City councillor Jenny Dowell is president of the Northern Rivers Social Development Council (NRSDC), an organisation that will be working together with local councils on solutions to the affordable housing shortage in the region.

The NRSDC will soon present a report on affordable housing models and options that will identify stakeholders, partnerships and the next steps to local government to increase affordable housing in the region.

Cr Dowell said the problem extends throughout the Northern Rivers and was due to several factors such as rising interest rates pushing up rental prices and the yearly influx of students that puts pressure on an already squeezed rental market.

Cr Dowell said many families were suffering as a result of the shortage.

Eight hundred families are currently on the North Coast Community Housing waiting list and meanwhile some people are being pushed into desperate situations; such as one large family who were forced to pay $500 a week in a caravan park because they could not find a suitable rental property, Cr Dowell said.

The family could afford to pay $260 per week for long term accommodation, yet could not find a suitable home.

In this fiercely competitive climate, it seems those able to pay more come out on top and Cr Dowell speculates that, just like in Sydney or Melbourne, people could be offering $30-40 above the advertised rate in order to secure a rental.

Its not uncommon to have between 30 to 40 people line up (for a single property), she said.

Suzzanna De La Mare is the property manager at Lismores largest rental agency, Wal Murray and Co First National Real Estate, and she said while houses priced at over $300 per week usually sit on the books for a while, quality units which cost between $190-$220 per week and houses in the low $200s get an average of 10-15 applicants.

There is not quite enough to go around, she said.

Ms De La Mare said there are cheaper options but they are in less popular parts of town where there is a lot of trouble.

The situation is getting worse, she said. Prices in the last three years have soaredthey are on average $50-$100 higher than three years ago. (Back then) we only had one house over $300, now we have houses over $400 on our books.

She said some landlords asked more for a property than what it was worth and because of the rental shortage they can get away with it.

While Ms de La Mare says all applicants receive equal treatment, however those with the best references will come out on top, leaving people such as first time renters at a disadvantage.

People on lower incomes are also at an obvious disadvantage and while Ms de La Mare encourages them not to apply for rentals that are financially out of reach, (i.e. more than one third of their net income), this leaves them in a double bind.

Because the ones they should apply for are the ones most coveted.

Ms De La Mare said she has watched people break down in tears in her office when their applications are repeatedly knocked back and said it is understandable that they are cracking under the pressure.

She believes December to February is the time when people who are looking really struggle and the crisis may ease off after March as students and new professionals moving to the area settle in.

But she believes the problem will persist and the government needs to address it and build more affordable housing.

There are simply too many people and not enough houses.

I dont know what theyll do, they need to find a solution, she said. People need a roof over their head and its getting really expensive. Somethings going to crack.

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