When most people think of camping in Tasmania, images of rugged mountains, alpine lakes, dramatic coastal cliffs come to mind. Wilderness experiences throughout the state are major draw cards for interstate and international visitors. Whether you are car camping at Lake Pedder with generators, huge dome tents and freshly caught fish cooking over a fire, or setting off on the Overland Track with all your supplies on your back, part of the joy of camping is looking forward to a warm shower and comfortable bed when you return home. But for the dozens of homeless currently living in tents around Hobart, who don’t know when they might have a front door again, this is a luxury not afforded.
Tents on the Berriedale Peninsula were a common sight up to a few years ago. Jutting out like a hitchhiker’s thumb into the Derwent River, the site of the former Treasure Island Caravan Park is part of the larger peninsula occupied by Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). While the MONA site continues to expand, offering boutique accommodation, high end eating and function services alongside its art gallery, the old caravan park remains vacant. Today, all that remains is a boarded-up ablutions block adorned with graffiti tags, faded numbers on patches of bitumen, and capped poles that no longer connect to power.
The former holiday park has become home to a robust rabbit population, a site for dog walkers and the occasional angler. Earlier this year it also became the makeshift home for an extended family of homeless Tasmanians, newly evicted from their Sorell home.
This isn’t the first such site to pop up recently. Run by the Royal Agricultural Society of Tasmania, the modest motorhome park at the Hobart Showground in Glenorchy usually hosts touring travellers for one or two nights. But earlier this year local people of all ages, including families with children, started arriving at the Showground to pitch tents while they continued their search for accommodation. Unwittingly, the campers at Berriedale and the Showground became the very public face of Hobart’s housing crisis.
Tasmania’s capital is now the most unaffordable city for renters in Australia. There is an acute shortage of affordable and suitable rental accommodation, especially for low income earners, with the lowest capital city rental vacancy rate at just 0.3 per cent. The 2018 Rental Affordability Index (RAI), is an indicator of rental affordability relative to household incomes. If housing costs exceed 30 per cent of a low income household’s gross income, then that household is classified as experiencing housing stress. The RAI shows the average rental household in Greater Hobart faces rents at around 29 per cent of its total income.
It is not just low income households that are feeling the effects of the crisis. The Domain Rental Report for March 2018 states that Hobart renters are now paying just $10 less weekly than they would be in Melbourne. The median rent had increased 15.1 per cent in the last year and now sits at $420 a week. Yet Tasmania’s wages remain the lowest in the country.
How did we get here?
In short, Hobart became cool.
For years, the state government has been marketing Tasmania as an idyllic place to live, a holiday destination, or a place to study – and it has worked. People are no longer leaving the state in the numbers they once were, and more and more mainlanders and former Tasmanians are making the move southward, drawn by the seemingly cheap housing, relaxed way of life, and improving job opportunities. Driven by growth in the retail, tourism and hospitality sectors, unemployment levels have dropped with jobs gains of over 3 per cent in the last year (although Tasmania still has the highest full time unemployment rate in the country). But while the government has been busy selling the benefits of moving to Tasmania via the ‘You in a Year’ social media campaign, there hasn’t been much planning going on about mitigating the effects of a growing population. Rising house prices, increased traffic congestion, and rental shortages seem to have caught the government by surprise; the supply of new homes is failing to keep up with population growth, and there is not enough public and social housing to meet demand.
Tasmania is increasingly an attractive destination for international students, with full time equivalent enrolments in Hobart at the University of Tasmania (UTAS) up by 380 since 2017. To manage the influx, UTAS recently purchased an entire three-star hotel in Hobart’s CBD as future accommodation for students caught up in the rental crisis.
On top of this, tourism is booming, with the industry having a significant role in turning around the economic fortunes of the state. As visitor numbers have grown, so too has Airbnb and short term stay listings. As in many other cities around the world, Airbnb accommodation has morphed from a home sharing to a home letting phenomenon. Many houses in Greater Hobart have been switched from the long term to the short term rental market, depleting an already small private rental market.
While the government has been busy selling the benefits of moving to Tasmania, there hasn’t been much planning for the effects of a growing population.
Accurate data on Airbnb is notoriously difficult to get hold of, but the Institute for the Study of Social Change at UTAS has used information courtesy of the data analysis website Inside Airbnb to report the number of ‘entire properties’ listed on Airbnb. In the Hobart local government area it has increased from 250 to 876 over the past 18 months. If just 70 per cent of these properties were previously in the long term rental market, writes Professor Richard Eccleston, it would mean more than 600 homes in inner Hobart alone had been removed from the long term renting pool.
Of course, homelessness in Tasmania is not new – the recent tent enclaves at Berriedale and the Showground are simply a very visual indicator of the problem. Less visible are the people staying with friends and family, couch surfing from place to place, whole families living in backyard caravans, students crammed into youth hostel rooms. Shelter Tasmania cites the lack of affordable and safe housing as the biggest cause of homelessness. They claim over 3,500 households are still on the social housing waiting list and on any given night over 1,600 Tasmanians have no place to call home.
The enclave of tents at Berriedale was set up on the low side of the peninsula, almost at the water level, at the end of a dirt track. Hidden from the main road, the tents and cars were only visible from the walking tracks along the edge of the river and from certain vantage points at MONA. Quite an idyllic spot if the wind doesn’t pick up too much. On a calm day the sun sparkles on the water, a slight breeze will set the Casuarina needles swishing, water birds forage in the two bays either side of the peninsula, a marked difference to the tent area at the Showground, exposed and treeless, bordering the highway.
As picturesque as the camp at Berriedale is, there are obvious reminders of the working class origins of Hobart’s northern suburbs. Looking north up the Derwent River you can see the white silos of the Cadbury factory. Between the old caravan park and MONA is the Cameron Bay water treatment plant, the source of a ripe odour on still days. Signs warning to eat only certain species of fish from the river and not more than two a week (and definitely don’t eat the shellfish) are a reminder of the history of industry and the heavy metals that still pollute the waterway.
Turning away from the water you look at the housing creeping up the hills behind the river, each vying for the prized water views. Many of the suburbs in the immediate area such as Chigwell and Claremont were once home to tracts of public housing that have long since sold to private buyers. These once affordable, if not particularly desirable suburbs (driving north of Creek Road in New Town is known as passing through the ‘flannelette curtain’) are becoming increasingly unaffordable as the real estate market tightens in central Hobart and buyers and investors alike look further afield for bargain buys.
As house prices rise in the outer suburbs of Hobart, more Airbnb listings are appearing in these areas as well, further displacing even more long-term renters. It is a story that is playing out in major cities around the world. Places that at first benefit from increased tourism are now struggling to mitigate the negative consequences, especially for low income people. Cities such as Barcelona, Venice and Amsterdam are pushing back against being overrun by tourists; New York has banned whole-apartment rentals under 30 days. The proliferation of Airbnb properties is a focal point for activists who claim the short-term rental economy is ruining neighbourhoods and making life miserable for locals.
As one local Instagram user posted: ‘every time the Sun Ra Arkestra come to town, my rent goes up like 30 bucks’.
MONA’s winter festival Dark Mofo has just ended for another year, complete with all the weirdness, controversies, nude swims and burning effigies we have come to expect of the event. 80,000 tickets were sold for the two-week event, 60 per cent to interstate patrons. The box office took $3.3 million, up from $2.4 million last year.
This is good news for local businesses especially during a time of year that used to be very quiet on the tourism front. But economic growth, especially when driven by tourism, does not benefit everyone in a community. As one local Instagram user posted under a picture of a Trump-esque ‘MAKE TASMANIA SHITE AGAIN’ red hat, ‘every time the Sun Ra Arkestra come to town, my rent goes up like 30 bucks’.
Hobart’s Lord Mayor Ron Christie has copped his fair share of criticism for suggesting the brakes need to be applied to the Dark Mofo (with its ‘questionable art’) and that the city might not be able to cope with the growth in visitors brought on by events like the festival. Mayor Christie claimed mass tourism would ‘kill’ the city.
Tourism and business sectors were quick to call out the Lord Mayor, with some saying he should resign for potentially damaging the tourism industry. Dark Mofo creative director Leigh Carmichael said while Hobart shouldn’t be afraid of tourists, organisers were in fact grappling with the growth of the festival – and that it presented a great opportunity to talk about the future of Hobart. Some might say that (cruise) ship has already sailed.
But it is a conversation that is soon to hit Launceston: from 2019, the northern city will play host to MONA’s summer MOFO festival. While the housing market in Launceston has not reached the crisis point currently being experienced in Hobart, house prices and rents are rising. The so-called ‘MONA effect’ might be good for the economic prospects of Launceston, but it is also a city with deeply entrenched disadvantage and unemployment. Any growth in demand for housing, especially from interstate investors looking for strong rental returns, is likely to create acute housing stress.
In March, the State Government held an emergency summit to address the housing crisis, bringing together peak bodies TasCOSS and Shelter Tasmania as well as representatives from the housing, building and construction, property, real estate, local government, non-government, and university sectors.
As a result, a series of short and long term initiatives were announced including an immediate relief fund of $500,000. Most of the announcements after the summit were focused on the release of new land for housing, zoning changes, and tax incentives; an incentivised program to encourage landlords to rent properties to low income families was also established.
The State Government dismissed the need to regulate the Airbnb market despite the evidence that listings continue to grow at the cost of long term rentals.
The so-called ‘MONA effect’ might be good for the economic prospects of Launceston, but any growth in demand is likely to create acute housing stress.
Shelter Tasmania’s position is that there is no single answer or quick solution to Hobart’s or Tasmania’s housing problems. ‘We do need alternatives to sleeping rough, but they need to be viable and long lasting,’ they said in a statement. ‘Any immediate responses must be embedded in longer term solutions to avoid returning people to homelessness when the short term option expires’.
Professor Keith Jacobs, Director of the Housing and Community Research Unit at UTAS, and colleague Kathleen Flanagan are not convinced of the likelihood of effective change, criticising the summit’s inclusion of industry stakeholders. They believe developers, private landlords and real estate agencies derive higher profits from high housing prices, and that any improvement in affordability would affect their business models. The influence of profit making industries on housing policy continues to hold back effective affordable housing strategies.
High house prices and rental shortages make a lot of money for some people at the exclusion of many others. And it is a problem that should concern all of us – as Professor Jacobs points out, when a population spends the bulk of its income on housing related costs, the economy is adversely affected.
At Berriedale, the old caravan park sits deserted once again. A chain has been slung across the main gate and a large No Camping sign posted at the entrance. The small group of tents, though largely unobtrusive, were against Council regulations, as there are no facilities like running water or toilets at the site. The campers, escorted off the site by council staff and police, joined the other tents at the Showground.
MONA has plans to develop the former caravan park if it can overcome some planning issues with the local Council and the adjacent water treatment plant. The vision for the caravan park ,is to provide budget accommodation as a counterpoint to MONA’s rather flash pavilions and proposed hotel development. The plan has been dubbed HOBO (Hobart odour) by the acronym-fond organisation due to the smell from the water treatment plant – a name they may wish to reconsider given the park’s most recent residents.
The proposal shows areas for ‘social camping’, mobile homes, fixed pod style accommodation, and even reclusive camping spots amongst the trees. There’s a difference, though, between camping by choice as a budget-minded holiday maker and camping through necessity – the two may look similar, but it’s only camping if you get to go home after.
In May this year, a protest camp on the lawns of Hobart’s parliament house was set up to bring attention to the problem of people sleeping rough. Newly elected speaker of the house Sue Hickey was tasked with asking the protestors to move on and police were called in to remove them when they declined to do so. Images of homeless people being dragged from their tents were splashed across paper and news reports.
There’s a difference between camping by choice as a budget-minded holiday maker and camping through necessity – it’s only camping if you get to go home after.
A few days later, more than 100 millimetres of rain fell in Hobart in the space of 24 hours. The average yearly rainfall is 600 millimetres. The really heavy rain started around 10pm and caused flash flooding across the city. Water came cascading down the sides of kunanyi/Mt Wellington. Both the Hobart and New Town Rivulets turned to rushing torrents bringing branches, rocks, and gravel with them on their way down the mountain.
Homes were inundated, power cut, lightning strikes took out the ABC News tower on kunanyi. Roads were damaged, CBD parking garages and UTAS classrooms were flooded, cars were filmed floating down Macquarie St (one of the main arterials running through the city). The cleanup and damage repair from that night is still under way.
It was not a night to be outdoors. People camped at the Showground were forced to abandon their soggy tents and shelter in the cow sheds.
Accommodation has been found for some people who were sleeping rough while others remain at the Showground. How permanent those accommodation options are is not known. A spokesperson from Shelter Tasmania said, ‘homelessness services have been making regular visits to the Hobart Showground to assess people’s needs and offer assistance; as they routinely do at other known places where people seek shelter’.
Visitors to Tasmania, and to Hobart come and go. Some bring tents with them, others stay in hotels and Airbnbs. Like any holiday though, it comes to an end. The wait for secure, safe and affordable accommodation continues for many locals. What should have been a temporary situation is ongoing. The tent has become a symbol of a growing group of people not benefiting from the rising popularity of the southern capital.