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Pandemic prompts housing 'crisis' in regional SA

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Regional South Australia is on the brink of an “unprecedented” homelessness crisis as repatriated Australians and city-dwellers buy up country properties, leaving locals facing “alarming” waiting lists for affordable housing, advocates say.

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Regional housing organisation ac.care told InDaily the number of people seeking emergency accommodation at its Limestone Coast homelessness service in the state’s south-east increased by a third over December and January, compared to the same period last year.

There were 71 individuals and families who required emergency accommodation assistance last December and January, compared to 48 the year before.

The South Australian non-government organisation has reported a similar trend at its Riverland and Murrayland services.

Ac.care chief executive Shane Maddocks said the COVID-19 pandemic, rising property prices and rental costs had prompted the increase in demand.

“These trends are due to numerous factors, including people returning from abroad to live in their investment properties, leading to these homes being lost to the rental market, while other people have relocated from cities to regional properties after working remotely proved feasible,” he said.

“While this has delivered economic and lifestyle benefits for some, especially those already in the housing market, it has made it harder than ever for those with less financial capacity to secure affordable housing.”

Maddocks said ac.care was on the brink of “crisis point”, with its emergency accommodation at capacity.

He said the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the housing market had left South Australia “on the precipice of an unprecedented homelessness challenge”.

“The true impact of the pandemic is now becoming much clearer as the economy rebuilds and affordable accommodation rapidly dries up in our regions, leading to alarming waiting lists for housing,” he said.

Shelter SA executive director Alice Clark said affordable housing in regional areas had dried up across the country and South Australia was “not immune”.

“In Perth, Adelaide, Hobart and Canberra, rents have gone up and the regions in every state are being affected,” she said.

“I keep thinking about this number – it’s almost half a million people – who have come back to Australia from overseas.

“Because our vacancy rate was quite low anyway, even if it was say 5000 households (returning to South Australia)… it would have quickly taken that vacancy rate even lower.”

Clark said a lack of social housing in regional areas had also contributed to the housing “crisis” in regional areas.

“There’s a bit of a myth that you can just go live in the country and everything will be OK,” she said.

“Since I’ve been at Shelter SA when we’ve travelled to the regions, they tell us there’s always 100 or more rough sleepers in their local area, so that might be in Port Lincoln or Port Augusta or even as close to Adelaide as Gawler.

“Wherever we go that’s outside the city of Adelaide, it has always been a problem and I can only imagine with the JobSeeker (payment) being reduced as it has been already, JobKeeper is going to disappear, the problem is only going to get bigger.”

Alongside an increase to JobSeeker payments, ac.care has also called on the state and federal governments to increase spending on social housing in regional areas.

“Despite ongoing campaigning by organisations such as ours, government spending on social housing has not kept up with growing demand, even though more investment in this area would provide an economic stimulus, as well as meeting a vital need going forward,” Maddocks said.

“This issue will not go away without significant government intervention.

“If this crisis is not averted, these families and individuals could tragically be forced into rough sleeping wherever possible at levels not seen before in some of our regional areas, prompting diverse social, health and welfare issues that could be avoided.”

The State Government’s 10-year Housing and Homelessness Strategy, released last year, states the SA Housing Authority will develop local and regional housing plans “to respond to specific conditions and local demand”.

“Recognising much-needed and long-overdue change is needed, the Marshall Liberal Government is also reforming both our homelessness and social housing systems, focusing on stopping South Australians cycling in out of homelessness and supporting them into safe and stable housing, as well as delivering more efficient, fairer and better services to people in public housing,” Human Services Minister Michelle Lensink said.

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