The rising tide of sea change

By Nick Osbaldiston and Felicity Picken

Australians are known for their love affair with the beach. While domestic tourism decreases in favour of overseas destinations, this is not before the narrative of retiring to sun, sand and sea has become embedded in our culture. Even before the ABC drama Seachange, demographers like Burnley and Murphy (2004) had noted how the counter-urbanisation movement had been gathering momentum. Furthermore, it wasn’t simply coastal migration that had the nation buzzing, but also inland migration in what is now described, unfortunately, as ‘treechange’.

We say unfortunately because the initial notion of seachange did not connote a geographical movement before it was a social movement of disaffected people who shifted physically to pursue a different way of life and metaphorical transformation that reframed time, career and materiality. These ‘downshifters’ or voluntary simplifiers wanted more to life than the rat race and cultural malaise that is associated with urban, hyper-consumerism. They were interested in permaculture, slower lifestyles and community involvement that meant they embraced the places they were moving to.

However, this kind of migration is increasingly disconnected from these Thoreau-like principles and now ‘seachange’ and ‘treechange’ are used more literally to emphasise physical resettlement to coastal and rural locales. Overseas this is referred to as ‘lifestyle migration’ coined by British sociologists Michaela Benson and Karen O’Reilly and this encapsulates a specifically middle-class phenomenon that, in Australia, implies a middle-class makeover of the coast to elite landscapes.

One of the concerns of coastal residents who already occupy their idyllic place amid the surf and sand is development. The environmental and social impact of unrestrained development on the Spanish and Portuguese coastlines is reason enough to pause and reflect on how much replication will be tolerated here. Certainly we have seen a few locally organised resistances to the infiltration of development, among them the Save Hastings Point organisation and also Friends of Noosa. At the same time, of concern for local councils facing population increases is housing affordability and perhaps the need to increase supply. In the United States where once isolated mountainous areas have received substantial in-migration of wealthier residents, housing equity is now high on the agenda of problems to solve. The Town of Jackson has moved policy on this since 2002 when it originally began to notice that not only wealthy migrants but also second home owners were pushing housing costs upwards and displacing others. In Australia, councils are not ignorant of similar challenges with sea-change locales like Byronshire and the Sunshine Coast prioritising housing affordability. Our research into northern New South Wales using state housing data confirms this as a problem. It is telling that in the decade from 2001 to 2010, the average median house prices in Byron Bay grew approximately 114% to sit at around $560,000, compared to the greater Sydney metropolitan region which grew at approximately 53% to a median price of about $500,000. Median rent rose in Byronshire from $180/ week to $350 during the same period, but a key figure is that rental housing stress (more than 30% of income paid in rent) in Byron is 19.1%, compared to 12.6% in Sydney and 10.4% for Australia.

While this may not come as a surprise considering that Byron Bay has been the focal point of ‘seachanging’ for decades now, what is of interest is the relationship between this and satellite communities.  During the same decade, Ballina’s average median housing cost grew by 135% to $411,000 and Coffs Harbour by 158% to $368,000. This leaves little doubt that the housing prices of once isolated, yet related, coastal townships have grown significantly over the past decade. What is in doubt is what this all means.

It doesn’t take detailed analysis to understand that housing costs in areas of pristine natural beauty were going to increase should development opportunities arise. However, it does take a detailed analysis to understand how and why. Tracking changes to housing cost is fraught with difficulty and measures like median price ignore housing composition and quality. Higher rates of growth may not reflect increasing numbers of wealthy migrants, but can also illustrate the development of newer housing stock and renovations of the ‘beach shack’ or ‘holiday home’ of yesteryear. Whether these shacks remain second homes and possibly augur further permanent migration in the future, or whether they are already being converted to permanent stock is unknowable with current data sets. What is lacking and badly required to assess these changes is a balance between individual and aggregate modes of explanation, not only across movements in housing, but also movements of people. Without this, we are left with the impression that there are displacements of those on low to middle incomes and that this social re-composition is problematic. However, beyond this there is little that can be said about the wider costs or qualitative losses.

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