BYRON BAY, AUSTRALIA—Drive 20 kilometres in any direction from world-famous Byron Bay, the easternmost point of Australia, and you’ll see it: acres of grazing country flattened by floodwaters; landslides where entire hillsides have shorn away; mountains of fresh debris piled high on the streets by muddy locals ferrying in and out of ruined homes.
When some of the worst floods in Australia’s history swept through northern New South Wales two weeks ago, these areas were the hardest-hit. But you’d hardly know it standing in the centre of Byron itself. The cafes are open and bustling; the beachfront car park is full. The water, renowned for its turquoise hue, is now a faecal brown—but out past the breakers a kayaker skates across it effortlessly, a pod of dolphins cresting in his wake.
The contrast is so dramatic it’s dislocating. While thousands of people in the surrounding region have been devastated by this natural disaster—one that has collectively claimed at least 22 lives and drenched more than 20,000 homes—Byron seems more or less untouched.
Ask anyone familiar with the area, though, and they’ll tell you that Byron Bay isn't what it used to be; that the bohemian hippy town has fundamentally changed over the past 10 to 15 years. Hordes of seachangers, property developers, influencers and Hollywood glitterati—the likes of Matt Damon, Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth, who have all made Byron home—have gentrified the coastal paradise into Australia’s most expensive major housing market.
Meanwhile, less affluent locals have been driven out into the more affordable towns and cities of the hinterland: areas that are cheaper, in part, because of their vulnerability to environmental catastrophe and which have, in the past few weeks, been turned into disaster zones. The ongoing crisis offers a worrisome microcosm of a pattern increasingly seen the world over, where societies’ most vulnerable are also the most heavily impacted by climate catastrophes.
One of those former locals is Jessica May. Had the floods arrived two years ago, the 39-year-old hair and makeup artist would have been spared. She was then living in Suffolk Park on the edge of Byron, an area now home to several celebrity residents. But after being priced out of the area in 2020, May moved about 15 kilometres northwest to rent a four-bedroom house in the significantly cheaper but flood-prone area of Mullumbimby. That’s where she was in the early hours of Feb. 28 when the rivers burst their banks.
“I woke up and it was ankle deep, and it got knee deep within an hour and a half,” May told VICE World News. “That's when I just had to leave.”
She had planned ahead for the floods, setting aside valuables, but even that didn’t help. “Unfortunately, my storage unit went under as well.”
May lost everything except what she had the chance to grab: her work scissors, a suitcase of clothes, a small bag of sheets. Her house is a write-off—riddled with asbestos, as it turns out—and her car is gone. After two weeks in a caravan park, she and her teenage son are now living in a van that one of her clients lent her. Without insurance to replace her possessions, and unable to immediately afford another rental deposit on a house, she is homeless for the foreseeable future.
“I have enough now to set up a small camp, which is what I'm going to do with a camper van and go back to work,” May said. “I'm going to relocate to the Gold Coast. And you know why? Because I can't afford to pay $1,200 fucking rent in Byron.”
Located on Australia’s east coast in the state of NSW, two hours south of Brisbane, Byron Bay’s white beaches and lush subtropical landscape have contributed to its growth as one of Australia’s most desirable property markets.
As the rich and famous have moved in, however, May’s situation has become an increasingly common story. VICE World News spoke to at least half a dozen people who were forced to live in disaster-prone areas surrounding Byron Bay because of prohibitively expensive housing prices—many of them now similarly homeless because of the recent floods.
Steph Rouillon, a 35-year-old single mother of three, was forced out of Byron in 2013 when the rent became more than she could afford. The widening gyre of gentrification followed her. Over several years, growing demand and increasingly extortionate housing prices successively squeezed Rouillon out of six other towns and villages in the area.
She was living between caravan parks until a social group called the Women’s Collective Village found her temporary crisis accommodation in Suffolk Park.
Rouillon said the fact she was in crisis accommodation saved her from being in an area devastated by recent floods—but even that safety net is about to be pulled out from under her, as her block of flats is scheduled to be demolished in June to clear way for more townhouses.
“I've got nowhere to go. I cannot emphasise that enough: I have nowhere to go.”
Now that the floods have wiped out supply and boosted demand in the region, and with thousands of other people rendered homeless overnight, her situation has never been more uncertain.
“The majority of people I know who have lost their homes in the recent floods, it's because they've had to move away and move into properties that are close to the waterways,” she said. “That's all they can afford. Usually it's less expensive, [but] you're more at risk of fire, more at risk of a flood. So I guess the further away from Byron you're going, the more chance of a natural disaster occurring and impacting you.”
“I've got nowhere to go. I cannot emphasise that enough: I have nowhere to go.”
Over the past decade, crisis accommodation has been moved out of the Byron area as part of a so-called “centralisation” of social services, according to local newspaper Echo. Louise O'Connell, general manager of the Byron Community Centre, confirmed that almost all of the temporary, affordable and emergency housing in the region is now located in the very towns and cities that were hit hardest by the floods—places like Lismore, where at one point the flood waters reached a height of 14 metres—rather than Byron itself.
It’s no secret that calamities of this scale disproportionately impact society’s most vulnerable, their shockwaves demarcated along the fault lines of class, race and socioeconomic status. Gentrification plays a major role in that trend.
Of the 700,000-plus people who were impacted by the floods, an estimated 4.2 percent were Indigenous residents and traditional owners, many of whom have similarly been priced out of secure housing in Byron—which sits on Indigenous Bundjalung Country—and forced to live in volatile areas further afield. Cabbage Tree Island, a First Nations community some 40 kilometres south of Byron, was almost completely submerged by the rising waters.
It isn’t just the people at the bottom of the ladder who have had their lives upended by the floods, though. O'Connell also noted that while previously the Community Centre was mainly visited by the socially disadvantaged, in the past few weeks “everybody” from the flood-affected areas has been coming in for assistance.
“[These are] people who have jobs and families and businesses. People coming to us who have never asked for help before, never accessed services before, but they literally, literally have nothing,” O'Connell told VICE World News. “They’re turning up saying, ‘Can you help me with a phone?’; ‘I've got no way to get to my property and I've got no money’; ‘I lost all my access to everything and I've got no work because my business has been flooded.’ It's huge. [And] it’s mind blowing how much worse it's going to get.”
Nor is it only society’s most vulnerable who are being driven further out onto the flood plains. O’Connell indicated that the housing market in Byron Bay has become so inflated that even upper middle class people, such as medical professionals and business owners, are struggling to buy property. Home ownership in Byron is now, almost exclusively, the preserve of the super rich.
At the time of writing the average house price in Byron sits north of $3 million—more than quadruple the 2013 average—while a two-bedroom unit typically goes for more than $1.16 million, according to real estate figures. The average rent for a house is about $950 per week, but even a one-bedroom unit usually comes with an asking price of about $650 per week.
“With houses selling for $20 million [in parts of Byron], people who've lived here all their lives are being pushed out,” said O’Connell.
Áine Tyrrell, a 40-year-old local who has lived out of a bus for the past seven years, said things have gone much further than that. As she put it: “The billionaires are pushing the millionaires out of Byron.”
When VICE World News met Tyrrell she was in the process of drying out and demolding the makeshift structure she’s called home for the past half-a-decade: a converted bus parked alongside a structure of corrugated iron and clapboard, on the outskirts of Mullumbimby.
The bus was meant to be temporary; Tyrrell initially moved into the vehicle with her three kids to escape domestic violence. But as a resident of Byron Shire, it’s come to serve another function: she is not subject to the capricious whims of the local property market, where landlords often increase the rent or kick tenants to the curb after as little as six months.
She can’t live here anymore, though. The floodwaters spilled into the bus, surrounding it with sewage, and while most of the water has now receded, Tyrrell is having to come to terms with the fact that her mobile home is beyond salvation. The ceiling of the living space is sooty with black mould, and the surrounding terrain has been turned into an insurmountable quagmire.
Ironically, for the past couple of weeks, she and her children have been living in the heart of Byron Bay for the very first time, courtesy of a benevolent millionaire who’s generously given them a place to stay for a month, until they can find their feet.
Travelling back and forth between her sodden bus and her temporary mansion, from flood-ravaged Mullum to the unspoiled paradise of Byron, Tyrrell describes the disparity as “jarring.”
“There's a few potholes in Byron, but that's the only damage to the area,” she said. “Byron continues to be Byron and everyone's just kind of walking around in their activewear and in cafes doing their thing.”
Despite searching on and off during her seven years in the area, Tyrrell has never been able to afford even temporary accommodation in Byron, Mullumbimby or any other town in the area. In early 2020, as COVID-19 set in, she made a strident effort to find more conventional housing for herself and her children. But it was impossible, she said.
“We were looking at property and at that stage it was $2,000 a week,” Tyrrell recalled. “We were looking just in terms of affordability. And the places that flooded the most were the affordable places we were looking to get.”
“Byron is always spared,” she added. “It doesn't have the same catchment of rivers that flow in to drown us.”
Byron Bay’s already exorbitant property market spiked meteorically during the pandemic, as the “new normal” of remote work sent swarms of digital nomads surging from the cities to the coast, almost doubling the median house price from about $1.42 million in 2020 to $2.7 million in 2021.
“People are buying houses sight unseen, just off the Internet, paying well over what anyone else up here could afford,” said Tyrrell. “We came out of COVID and there's Teslas and Porsches, and we're just kind of like, ‘What just happened?’”
Rents jumped 35 per cent between the fourth quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021, while the number of Airbnb properties as a percentage of the rental market increased from 40.4 percent to 41.4 percent. The average of these Airbnb properties in Byron is occupied for just over two months of the year, and more than half are owned by hosts with multiple listings.
“The billionaires are pushing the millionaires out of Byron.”
There are encouraging stories of philanthropists, millionaires and celebrities pitching in to help with rescues and relief—some locals suggested that gentrifier’s guilt was spurring them into action—but many individuals who have borne the brunt of the disaster feel as though they are out of Byron’s sight and mind.
While a community- and volunteer-led relief effort has banded together and led the recovery in places like Mullumbimby, Lismore and Woodburn, multiple locals told VICE World News that they felt many people currently living in Byron weren’t rising to the occasion.
May gets emotional when speaking about it.
“It’s not okay,” she said. “The amount of Airbnbs that we have in the Byron Shire alone could house every single person that doesn't have a home right now. We could actually sort it out.”
“It just comes down to integrity as a human, on a humanitarian level.”
The flood disaster beleaguering Australia’s east coast the past two weeks has already escalated into a humanitarian crisis. The government has declared a state of emergency, towns have been cut off from food, drinking water and medical supplies, and huge swaths of flooded land are severely contaminated by thousands of dead animals.
Locals are doing their best to get by. But the situation foretells a chilling warning about how, in the midst of a worsening climate crisis, more and more lower- and middle-class people will be forced to live in increasingly volatile environments—all while the wealthy enjoy the relative safety of their gentrified enclaves.
The same day that northern NSW was first devastated by flash floods on Feb. 28, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released an apocalyptically dire report that forecasted an increased likelihood of extreme weather events. Among the findings, which UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres described as an “atlas of human suffering,” was the hypothesis that these kinds of disasters—currently considered a “one-in-100-year flood event”—could begin to happen “several times a year.”
The report also noted the “political, economic, and cultural processes of marginalisation” that contribute to which communities are worst hit by catastrophic climate events—a process now playing out in Byron and beyond.
Researchers have coined a term for the way in which climate change dictates the value of certain areas, and in turn shapes who can and can’t afford to live there: climate gentrification.
In the floodplains of northern NSW, this takes the form not only of lower class people being pushed out into disaster-prone areas, but also flood insurance premiums that can range anywhere between $30,000 and $70,000 per year. Many of the flood victims in places like Lismore, who moved there because they couldn’t afford to live in Byron, couldn’t afford to insure the homes and possessions they ultimately lost. And as the climate crisis makes disastrous weather events more frequent, insurance premiums in vulnerable areas are only expected to rise.
“As physical climate impacts become more frequent and affect more regions across the world, climate gentrification highlights the plight of vulnerable communities who may be least resilient to predictable climate events—having to choose between everyday necessities or living in an area safe from climate risks,” Justin Cheng, a senior associate at Sustainalytics who specialises in insurance and real estate research, observed in November 2020.
Byron is unlikely to be protected from rising sea levels, but when the foreshore goes under, the upper crust will always have the means to escape to higher ground. Even when the majority of nearby Lismore was submerged, its hilltop properties—some of the most expensive in town—were sitting above the high water mark.
But while Chris Hemsworth and Zac Efron may be able to uproot their lives and relocate, millions of people further down the socioeconomic ladder don’t have the luxury of choice.
“It's easy for people to say ‘Well, why don't you just move to Dubbo or move to Sydney?’,” says O'Connell. “But these are people who have their kids in school here. They've grown up here, they have family here, they have doctors here. They have their whole community networks here. It's very hard to just get up and leave.”
“Researchers have coined a term for the way in which climate change dictates the value of certain areas, and in turn shapes who can and can’t afford to live there: climate gentrification.”
Faced with rising tides, rising housing prices and rising likelihood of extreme weather events, some are having to make that hard decision. May is looking to the north; Rouillon is desperately hoping to find more crisis accommodation before her current place is knocked down; and Tyrrell is weighing up her options.
“My knee jerk reaction right when the floods happened, because of where I've seen this area heading for a while, was that we were definitely going to be moving back to Ireland,” said Tyrrell.
“Let's just say magically me and my kids were able to sort out accommodation here. [But] what does their future look like, as kids who have grown up in this area and call this place home, but will never be able to afford to live here either—or will have to move to some dangerous areas just to be able to afford it?”
Even O’Connell, who’s worked on the frontline of the issue for years and watched affordable, secure housing diminish since the 2000s, is at a loss for answers.
“We can't see what the solution is,” she said. “I don't know what's going to happen to people who were pushed out of Byron Bay into more affordable areas such as Lismore—and now there's no housing in Lismore. So where do they go?”
“The problem is huge.”
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