Melaleuca Media
Shortchanged by Seachange

As Stradbroke Island becomes an investor's and developer's paradise, where do the workers live and the locals go? Susan Brown's investigation was published in The Courier-Mail in December 2002.

In the ABC Seachange program, the characters were the lovable and quirky original residents of the town. Nearly all were non-professional working class, and apart from the destruction of the boatshed, all the residents were safe as houses. Even the caravan park stayed.

In real life, and on an island, the picture isn’t so pretty. The sea change phenomenon on Stradbroke Island – and an investment and property marketing boom hanging off it – is driving out the long term residents, even those in the caravan park which is not staying.

Being left with no place to go are the island's workers, those needed in increasing numbers to pull the beers, cook the meals, wait the tables and clean the apartments and architecturally designed houses.

The problem is so acute, the President of the North Stradbroke Business Owners Association, Jo Opie, has put out a public plea to holiday makers to be kind to the Straddie staff over Christmas. She says some have been evicted, some are sleeping in cars and others face the only low cost permanent rental option on the island being closed down in the near future.

“It isn’t as if we were on the dole” said Pauline Devlin, “or if jobs weren’t available. The work is here, but there is nowhere to live”. Dejected at not finding work in Brisbane, Ms Devlin was delighted when she landed a 40hour a week job at the Stradbroke Island Hotel. But there was a sting in the tail. “When I got the job I wasn’t told how hard it would be to find accommodation”. She put her name down at the real estate agents, put up notices and stayed in a dormitory room at the backpackers and at the pub for a few weeks while working split shifts.

“You think really, wherever you get a job you must be able to find somewhere to sleep”.

Not so on Stradbroke. Ms Devlin could not find permanent rental and eventually slept in her Bluebird sedan on and off for 4 months. “During that time, just two houses came up for rental on the whole island”. She says there are plenty of others like her, some with families who either can’t find anything, or are “booted out by the owners during high rental times”. The tiny, empty shop she is staying in with other workers has just been sold and she anticipates being back in the car in three weeks.

A Courier Mail investigation has shown low cost accommodation is an acute problem on Stradbroke Island. Ms Devlin is one of many of cleaners, bar staff, shop assistants and handymen who have no guaranteed permanent accommodation.

The view is no different from where owner of the Stonefish Café Greg Harper sits. Mr Harper opens for breakfast and lunch each day, but only three nights a week for dinner as he can’t get the staff. “We have only just filled our Christmas roster”. And that was by organising billets for some workers. He predicts the problem will worsen.

So does the owner of the Stradbroke Island Hotel. Jim Lally says it will become worse when the privately owned Stradbroke Island Tourist Park is cleared next year for a new short term tourist development.

The two council run caravan parks, Thankful Rest and Adder Rock, cannot offer permanent accommodation. This isn’t a Redlands Shire rule, it comes from the State Department of Natural Resources, who have directed the council caravan parks to accept short term or tourist stays only.

The privately owned Stradbroke Island Tourist Park is the only place at Pt Lookout where permanent and semi permanent residents have been able to find guaranteed long term, low cost accommodation. Across the road from the beach, with fringing banksia forest, it is a place where the pace of life is slow.

Goannas meander through the gardens while wallabies lope along the grass.

Slow was exactly the sort of pace Des and Kim Duckworth wanted when they paid $10,000 for a permanent caravan site at the Tourist Park. The Duckworths had been coming to Stradbroke the Tourist Park for years.

“We thought we had it all worked out” said Mrs Duckworth. Refugees from the Gold Coast, the Duckworths are about to retire and spent a further $25,000 putting in an ensuite and a fibro annexe, roof and patio around their van. “People say this is like a raffle prize home, well it is our little prize home. We had no idea they were going to sell the park” said Mrs Duckworth. “This isn’t the sort of stuff you can pull down” said Mr Duckworth “we have nowhere else to go. The units and houses on Stradbroke are totally out of our price range”.

You can’t buy friendship, and that is something else the Duckworth’s will lose. The back part of the caravan park has a row of elaborate van and annexe structures colloquially called “The Street” and the 29 permanent residents have become friends over the years of watching each other’s children grow, sharing a drink and helping each other out. “It is a community they are breaking up” said Mrs Duckworth.

Swiss Pete lives in “The Street” and his place has to be seen to be believed. Combination van, dining room and workshop, rows of dangling gang fish hooks with traces hang down, tools, and books jostle for space around a television set and long benches full of nuts and bolts. High glass windows let plenty of light in and a stained glass eagle window sits above the bathroom doorway. Pete grew up on a dairy farm in Switzerland, became a chef in New York and ended up at the Stradbroke Island Tourist Park. He is the guy people on the island call if they want building work, fresh fish, or a hand with just about anything. He spent about $25,000 on his set up, and it is immovable.

He thinks the island is in decline. “Every year we get more cement, more traffic, more plastic and more garbage. This is progress. It is almost only for millionaires to live here now, but who is going to clean all their houses and tend the bars?” Like the rest of the residents in the Street, Swiss Pete has nowhere to go and no money to get there.

Lindy and Bob Pickering spent $40,000 on their little place in the park complete with landscaped garden, ferns, vegetable patch and flower pots. Lindy too works on the island. “I’m not going, they will have to bulldoze me out”.

Lennie Johnstone likes to have an afternoon beer in his $20,000 retirement investment. “Nobody expected anything like this at all”.

“You’d think me being in this position I could find somewhere else to live – but even I can’t” said Jan Wild. Ms Wild is the rental property manager for Ray White Real Estate on the island She also stands to lose her van in the Tourist Park. Judy Johnson works three jobs, one as an accommodation manager for Dolphin Real Estate. She lives at the Tourist Park, she will lose her site and she too has no other options for permanent rental accommodation on the island.

Ms Johnson calls the situation “unjust”.

It could be dangerous as well. Most of Stradbroke Island’s volunteer lifeguards and their families live in semi permanent accommodation at the Tourist Park coming over in holidays and on weekends to patrol three beaches. They can’t afford to pay for high priced rental accommodation.

Land tenure on Stradbroke is complex. Significant blocks of crown land are subject to competing native title claims, effectively freezing further release of land. Prices for private blocks are heading north fast. One unprepossessing 2 bedroom fibro hut sold for $500,000 recently. No, it didn’t have a view.

But it shows sale properties are well out of the price range of the working and retiring class of Straddie.

Owners of investment properties want the highest return, and that means rents from $800 to $2600 a week in peak seasons. But the majority of the year is not a peak season and the Courier Mail found a considerable number of vacant units a week out from Christmas.

Why owners would forgo a modest full time rent for the famine and feast syndrome is something that has the council, business owners and potential renters scratching their heads.

“I guess those with the money think these tourist developments are where the demand is. We don’t have any control over that” said Don Seccombe, Mayor of Redlands Shire. Mr Seccombe says the problem will get worse and describes the situation as “unfortunate”. He thinks the two tier marketers are moving in to the island and says there is little the council can do. The Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Housing should be addressing the problem according to the Mayor. “DNR won’t let us provide permanent sites in the council run parks”.

Even if DNR did allow the permanent sites, the Council would only allow vans with a soft annexe according to Division 2 representative Frank Bradley. “If they have hard annexes people would need a building approval from the council which would imply ownership to that piece of ground”. That piece of ground would then have owners in a permanent site, on land managed by the council, which is owned by the state. However if “DNR rescind their order and allow us to offer the permanent van and soft annexe sites, we could solve this problem tomorrow”.

Well not quite, say the residents of the Street. They can’t move their structures, and they aren’t interested in spending their days under hot canvas.

The legal situation in the Street is complex. Residents say their building work was done with the owners approval and the council signed off building and plumbing certificates. Frank Bradley says he hasn’t seen the certificates, but “if they have them with signatures and stamps the owners could be due something”. A Brisbane law firm recently spoke to many of the residents to see if there was a legal case which could be mounted.

“Greed” said one currently homeless worker. Not really said the council and business owners, people want the most return on their land.

“The best and highest use of land has to be the most terrifying phrase in the British language” said Leader of Urban and Regional Planning at QUT Associate Professor Phil Heywood.

Professor Heywood put this down to a classic case of market failure.

“The technical phrase for this is invasion and succession. The only way to prevent this problem from getting worse is by old fashioned Government intervention”. Mr Heywood says the Government need to take a more active role to monitor the market and when it is failing act as an advocate to get innovations off the ground.

He called on the State Government to take an urgent and active role, referring to their recently released 18 page green paper on affordable housing.

A housing association between residents, businesses and government could look at large scale affordable housing which is neither private nor public. Professor Heywood said there were multiple solutions needed including consideration of a housing co-operative, an approach which has worked in other local government areas in south east Queensland.

Jim Lally said he might buy in to a housing co-operative to have guaranteed staff accommodation facilities. Redlands Shire said they would consider a proposal and even Consolidated Properties, who have bought the option on the van park said they would look at something. “It would depend on its economic viability” cautioned joint Managing Director Steve Tyson. “As developers we have to look at anything council tell us too, but it is a difficult problem”.

Back at the caravan park, landscape consultants for the developer were mapping the vegetation. “Our job is to embellish and enhance the character of the site” said one, looking down the row of neat gardens and exotic plants in the Street. The developer plans to put a considerable amount of natives around the site. “We have to get rid of the weed species” said the consultant.

“Weed species” snorted one resident of The Street.

“They probably mean us”

(Published in The Courier-Mail 21 December 2002)