Opinion article

Regional housing shortages impacting essential workers

We’ve got a situation in regional Australia where aged care providers are desperate for staff but are unable to recruit, in part due to housing shortages, writes Regional Australia Institute CEO Liz Ritchie. With regional vacancy rates only increasing slightly from one per cent to 1.5 per cent in the past year and monthly building approvals decreasing since August 2021, the data paints a stark picture and highlights how important collaboration between government, industry, business and community will be over the coming years.

During the past 12 months there has been one issue, almost above all others, that has dominated discussion. Whether it be in the hallowed halls of Parliament House in Canberra, standing on the sidelines of kids’ weekend sporting matches, or making its way onto agendas in business meetings, everyone has been talking about housing. Specifically, the lack of it in Australia right now.

For the regions, housing is perhaps one of the most foundational targets we need to move on. If we don’t have houses, we can’t attract more people to live in the regions, as highlighted in the Regionalisation Ambition 2032. If we don’t have more people living in the regions, who will fill the 91,400 jobs that are currently on offer in country Australia?

When you start to look at those vacancies at a more granular level, as the RAI did in its recent Big Skills Challenge report, you discover that two of the top three roles in most demand across regional Australia include medical practitioners and nurses, and carers and aides –  which equated to almost 12,000 jobs. This has a significant impact on many industries, particularly aged care.

Many people who live regionally often want to age regionally as well. It’s certainly the case for my parents. But it’s getting harder and harder to do that. We’ve got a situation in regional Australia where aged care providers are desperate for staff, but are unable to recruit, in part due to housing shortages.  

In one recent example I came across, a council in southern New South Wales is spending $500,000 to build accommodation for aged care workers it’s recruiting from overseas. The council says while it is a significant investment, it’s an essential one for the future of the local community.

Apollo Aged Care, which is working to revitalise aged care in regional communities, estimates for every bed a facility has, a house is also needed in that community for a staff member. In some of the communities Apollo operates, investigations are underway into purchasing an old motel to house staff, and in another where there is limited housing stock, the possibility of bringing in prefabricated homes is also being explored.

The Regionalisation Ambition sets a target to increase regional rental vacancy rates to above three per cent and ensure building approvals keep pace with population growth. A year into work on realising the Ambition and regional vacancy rates have increased nominally from one per cent to 1.5 per cent, but monthly building approvals have been decreasing since August 2021. The data paints a stark picture and highlights how important collaboration between government, industry, business and community will be over the coming years to address this wicked problem.

And that’s exactly what this is, a big, wicked problem, for if it was an easy fix Australia wouldn’t be in the position it finds itself now. Whilst we still have a long road ahead of us, the wheels are in motion.

The RAI welcomed the Federal Parliament’s recent passing of the enabling legislation for the Housing Australia Future Fund, to direct more than $10 billion towards the development of social and affordable housing. While we know there will be support for cash-constrained local governments to bring vacant land forward for development, we’re yet to see sufficient detail on the carve-outs for regional Australia. Housing – like health and education – is typically the domain of state governments and to this end, a condition of the Federal Government’s investment is that each state and territory also invest significantly.

Perhaps most exciting though, is the emergence of place-based, locally designed solutions, like the examples above.

In a keynote speech to the RAI National Summit in September, the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development Local Government, the Hon. Catherine King, spoke about the Rockhampton Ring Road project in central Queensland. The $1b initiative involves the construction of a new 18-kilometre section of the Bruce Highway. There will be the need to bring in a workforce to help build the road, but instead of setting up a temporary workers camp, houses will be built to accommodate workers and their families which will become future housing stock once the project is complete.

While in western Queensland, 22 councils have combined forces to tackle the housing issue in their part of Australia. The region has been hamstrung by ageing stock, a lack of a real-estate market and limits on borrowing with market failure as evidenced in the RAI’s Building the Good Life report, released in 2022. When the Diamantina Shire Council investigated building two townhouses to accommodate staff, it was quoted $940,000 for each townhouse. 

Unperturbed, the group is working on developing an organisation that would not only build the hundreds of houses the region needs, but also undertake maintenance works on existing council stock creating a pipeline of work for years to come. In the process, the organisation creates ongoing employment, education and training opportunities.  

Regional Australia still has a long way to go when it comes to managing the ongoing housing issues it’s facing, but when so many innovative solutions are coming from the regions themselves, I have faith we will tackle this, one new house at a time.

About the authors

Liz Ritchie

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Liz Ritchie is the CEO of the Regional Australia Institute. Liz’s primary purpose at the RAI is to make a difference through providing leadership, engagement, information and connectivity. Hailing from country NSW, she understands the issues impacting regional Australia and has designed and executed programs across Australia to engage in economic and social issues affecting our regions. Liz served as CEDA’s state director in Western Australia between 2007 and 2016, and prior to that was CEDA’s Associate Director in Victoria and Tasmania.

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