In late-March 2020 as borders were shuttered, businesses closed, and Scott Morrison held a press conference every single day, many city slicking surfers rejoiced*.
They were no longer bound to their desks 9—5 or subject to their supervisor’s cursory glances, now the only thing standing between them and three surfs a day was a handful of scattered Zoom calls.
At first, city adjacent beaches were packed (which temporarily closed some Sydney beaches), then came an exponential rise in board and wetsuit sales**, before city-restrained surfers realised they may never need to return to their oppressive office desk.
The ability to work from home has been a luxury of freelancers for years, but by the back half of 2020, working from home was a worldwide phenomenon. And cashed-up surfers (or those just seeking a sea change) took full advantage of it. If office work was on indefinite hiatus, then why spend your time hassling the masses at your local CBD-accompanied sandbank when you could move to a surf town? And if you weren’t a surfer, then it was the perfect time to abandon your life as a corporate mule and embrace your new reality as a foam-wielding 40-year old.
The impact, however, goes beyond the irritation of locals in Byron, the Gold Coast, and a bevy of other coastal towns. Vacancy rates – that is the proportion of places for lease – in coastal regions plummeted, in some instances to zero. In layman’s terms, there wasn’t a single house, apartment, or bench for lease in these towns; it served as a panacea for coastal property moguls struggling to buy their 11th house, but dire straits for coastal residents needing to move.
According to data obtained by the ABC, at the end of 2019 beach towns like Byron Bay, Vic’s Surf Coast, Newcastle, and the Goldy all had vacancy rates between 1.7 and 3.1%. By December 2020, the highest vacancy rate from the bunch was 0.3%. While those seeking a sea-change drove much of this trend, another factor was property owners staying home as their usual summer haunts (i.e., the snowy fields of Aspen) were unwelcoming to them.
As a result of the increased demand, house prices in regional areas have also soared: 14-percent in Byron, 15-percent in Noosa, and nearly 10-per cent in Newcastle. Expectedly, these cost increases have been passed on in the form of rental hikes to tenants, and coastal renters are now facing overloaded markets with premium prices. A new reality concisely described by one removalist on the Surf Coast.
‘We had one woman (on the Coast) who’d been there 15 years and the owner put it on the market and it sold within one day,’ Dean Attard told ABC. ‘Then the new owners doubled the rent.’
‘And this poor lady who lived there by herself had to move to near Melbourne as she couldn’t find anything locally.’
Another young family similarly described the impact of rental price increases as thousands of Hypto Krypto carrying creatives flood their town. ‘Five years ago we were living in Jan Juc paying $270 [a week] for a house. Now we’re lucky to get a non-renovated bedroom for $500 [a week],’ Serena Leitmanis told the ABC.
‘We’ve just stopped applying at this point because it’s become too expensive.’
Other residents unable to find rentals have resorted to living in their cars while they battle in the market or decide to pack up and move inland.
According to Tim Lawless, a researcher at CoreLogic who obtained and analysed this data, this trend is set to continue. ‘I think this trend is quite entrenched now and it will persist into 2021. Perhaps as we go into mid-2021 we will start to see affordability diminish between capital and regional markets.’
The upside of this however is those of us living in the city have had some rental relief after years of inexorable increases. Sydney experienced a 14.7-per cent rental drop amidst the pandemic, with inner western residents experiencing comparable drops. The downside, however, is that we still have to surf dogshit waves and somehow there’s still 100-plus pommy backpackers in the line-up.
*This is by no means the reality for all surfers. It’s mostly reflective of those financially capable, often with full-time work which can be done remotely, the bourgeois if you prefer.
**The wait for boards was up to and over 3 months with many board manufacturers around August last year. Clothing companies may have slashed their staff numbers and torn apart contracts, but board shapers and wetsuits manufacturers saw a big uptick in sales over 2020, partially driven by this sea change and newfound free time.