THERE just aren't enough rental properties available in Bendigo, the head of a specialist central Victorian advocacy program believes.
Housing Justice manager Kirsty Waller said the rental market in Bendigo had become much tougher.
"In particular, people who have received a notice to vacate their current rental properties for various reasons such as the owner needing to sell the property or move back in have found it extremely difficult to find a new rental property in the time that has been given to vacate that premises," Ms Waller said.
Her comments come after tenants experiencing housing stress contacted the Bendigo Advertiser with concerns about the state of the city's rental market.
Those in the industry have cited diminishing vacancy rates, rising rents and a limited supply of affordable rental properties as factors compounding the pressures on Bendigo tenants, to the point where families are facing homelessness.
A Bendigo man and his partner have sent their two oldest children to live with extended family to give them the best chance of succeeding in their senior years of secondary schooling, while the rest of the family faces the prospect of camping out on a friend's property.
The man and his partner have been desperately applying for rental properties for some months, after having been served with a notice to vacate.
Save for an extension on the notice, they would already be without a home.
The Bendigo man said he was hopeful their search for a suitable rental would prove fruitful before they had to be out of the house.
Another Bendigo man and his young family have been living in a rental property plagued with problems for years, for fear they would otherwise be homeless.
The man said he was concerned for how the state of the house was affecting his children, all of whom are under the age of five. However, the man was conscious he and his partner were unlikely to be able to afford anything else that was available for rent.
He said the landlord had addressed some of their concerns, but other issues were longstanding.
Some of the problems had been remedied with a form of adhesive tape.
The man said he just wanted the issues fixed.
The Real Estate Institute of Victoria reported a rental vacancy rate of 1.1 per cent in Bendigo and Loddon last month - the highest it's been since February.
However, vacancy rates for several real estate agencies in Bendigo were below one per cent.
C R Martin Real Estate reported a vacancy rate of 0.14 per cent.
Elders Real Estate Bendigo recorded a vacancy rate of 0.5 per cent
"I've been here 15 years and this is the lowest I've ever experienced it," Elders property management department manager Breanna Attard said.
Where in past years property managers had arranged multiple inspections, these days Ms Attard said there would be one.
Inspections would attract about 10 or 20 prospective tenants, on average, with about half going on to submit applications.
"The owners have got a lot to choose from," Ms Attard said.
She said the furnished side of the rental market had availability, but the turnover for empty rentals was rapid.
"Competition is so strong... prices are going up in line with that," Ms Attard said.
She cited the average price for a two-bedroom house between $250 - $260 per week.
Ms Attard said the agency had recently rented out a five-year-old, four bedroom house for $450 a week.
Rentals were often only on the market for a week or two, if that.
"Sometimes they don't even make it to the market," Ms Attard said.
She estimated a quarter of the properties on the agency's books might not be formally advertised, with property managers able to fill them with tenants from the internal database.
"We should be encouraging more investment in Bendigo so there are more properties available in Bendigo for prospective tenants," Ms Attard said.
C R Martin senior property manager Sharon Reeves said there had been a drop in rental properties in Bendigo, particularly on the lower end of the market.
It was believed as many as 500 properties had disappeared from the city's rental market in the past 12 - 18 months.
We should be encouraging more investment in Bendigo.Breanna Attard, Elders Real Estate Bendigo
"A lot of our investment properties are being sold for private ownership," Ms Reeves said.
"A lot of owners are getting out of the investment market because of changes to legislation. It's deterring a lot of landlords."
She had been working with three landlords in the 24 hours before speaking with the Bendigo Advertiser that were putting their properties up for sale.
"We're finding there are fewer purchases for investment and more for private ownership," Ms Reeves said.
With more legislative changes predicted, she expected the vacancy rate in Bendigo would get even tighter.
Ms Reeves said 20 - 50 groups of prospective tenants were turning up to opens for some properties.
She said she could have leased a property available for rent for $225 a week in Kangaroo Flat 20 times over.
"Anything under $300 a week can be leased within a week," Ms Reeves said.
Another property in Kangaroo Flat, advertised for $370 per week, was leased within two days.
Ms Reeves said properties advertised for rent for $400 or more a week had fewer applicants and were generally vacant for longer.
Most real estate agents in Bendigo were receiving between 45 - 65 applications a week, on average, according to the REIV.
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Median weekly rental house prices had shot up by 6.1 per cent across the board in regional Victoria.
Unit rental prices had risen by 7.7 per cent since September 2018.
The REIV found the median weekly rent for houses in Bendigo was $323 - a $10 increase in 12 months.
Rents in Ballarat and Geelong rose by eight and six per cent in the same period, with the median house price in Geelong reaching $400.
It was getting tougher for tenants to find a home throughout regional Victoria, with REIV chief executive Gil King highlighting pressures like low vacancy rates, confusion at rental law changes, and the absence of rental properties.
"We have received reports of more and more owners turning to short-term rental accommodation options like AirBnB to rent their rooms out," he said.
He said property managers were being absolutely swamped by inquiries when they were advertising new homes for rent.
"We need more incentives to convince investors to put their houses back on the market," Mr King said.
A state government spokesperson said changes made to rental laws were designed to increase protection for renters while allowing landlords to effectively manage their properties.
"There is no evidence suggesting rental stock has fallen as a result," they said.
Victoria has a build-to-rent initiative, but the government spokesperson described it as an "emerging sector".
"That's why we've set up a working group to talk through ways we can encourage more with councils and the property industry," they said.
There aren't believed to be any build-to-rent developments in or around Bendigo.
City of Greater Bendigo statutory planning manager Ross Douglas said vacancy rates had always been an issue in the 20 years he'd been in the city.
He said the city had put strategies in place to ensure there was space for growth.
"There's plenty of land supply, but land supply is not the issue," Mr Douglas said.
He said lot sales had slowed.
Mr Douglas said the city was in the formative stages of investigating affordable housing.
"We know low-cost housing is an issue," he said.
Back at C R Martin, Ms Reeves said agents were trying to help good tenants that were experiencing financial difficulties or seeking new rentals after being issued notices to vacate.
She said some families were turning to private rental arrangements in their desperation.
"It's very risky," Ms Reeves said.
She was aware of some private arrangements that had fallen through at short notice, increasing the urgency of the situation.
Haven; Home, Safe receives about 50 requests a month from people in Bendigo for help from programs like its Private Rental Assistance Program.
The initiative helped more than 550 Bendigo people in the past financial year with a total of $866,785 in brokerage.
The program is set to expand, following a $2m boost from the state government.
"For some families, this means they don't have to make the choice between having the utilities cut off or being evicted," Brad Quinn, the program's Bendigo coordinator, said.
"To save a tenancy or stop a potential eviction is so important, not just for the client but also for the landlord's family and their income needs."
Haven; Home, Safe chief executive Ken Marchingo said the organisation was grateful for the funding that supported a number of its initiatives, including PRAP.
But he said: "What we need to see is a very targeted supply strategy of affordable rental housing.
"We are doing great work with the funds we've got but in the global sense, until we can increase the amount of affordable rental properties, we are just trying to compete with everybody else who is trying to get a rental house.
"I don't believe the people in greatest need should be out there trying to compete in the private market. This needs a non-market supply response."
Mr Marchingo said the non-market response used to be called public housing, "but the scale of this problem will defeat any state government on their own."
He suggested state governments, nationwide, enlist the help of housing associations like Haven and blend their capital, debts and assets to create more housing.
Haven assisted 1789 individuals in the past financial year - 67 more than the year before.
Its Hey Van initiative has had contact with 125 people who were sleeping rough since March 4, when the program started.
The resource has mainly been used for crisis accommodation, allied health, food, medical, and travel concerns. It has also provided assistance with rent in advance.
Bendigo mum Katie McEwen said Haven provided her family with some support to stay in budget accommodation. But it has largely been up to herself and her partner to foot the bill.
The blended family, with includes six children ranging in age from teen to baby, has been in need of new rental accommodation since mid-year.
Miss McEwen said she and her partner had been searching since being issued with a notice to vacate.
Some of the children were staying with other family members, which added to the family's stress.
Miss McEwen said she was shocked, not only by how tough the rental market had become, but by how difficult it could be to access support.
"Until you're in the situation, you don't realise how hard the support is to get," she said.
Another woman, who had been sleeping on the floor of her father's house with her three children since the house they were renting flooded earlier this year, said there was a need for additional supports.
"If I didn't have my dad, I don't know where I'd be," she said.
Asked if Greater Bendigo would be able to sustain a population projected to double by 2050, based on current rental market conditions, Mr Marchingo said he would have concerns about where early school leavers and people on pensions and benefits were going to live.
"I think it [projected population growth] is incompatible unless there is a targeted [and] integrated housing, transport and land use strategy that actually has funding attached rather than hope and is supported by national, state and local governments," the Haven leader said.
Who can help?
There are a number of organisations in the region that can help people experiencing homelessness or who are in housing crisis.
Adults can contact Haven; Home, Safe - which assists with affordable rentals, transitional housing and other support services - on 5444 9000.
Anglicare Victoria can assist young people on 5440 1100.
While Housing Justice is not a homelessness service, it can help people experiencing problems with their tenancy in public or private rentals. The phone number is 5445 0990.
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