The irony of the situation is not lost on Emily Wright.
After being forced out of her rental earlier this year, the Gold Coast mother-of-two faced homelessness as she searched for months to find a new home in one of Australia’s tightest rental markets.
Eventually, after an exhaustive search, Ms Wright found a new house, but it’s well outside her budget.
So now, as well as relying on food parcels to survive, the 39-year-old university researcher also has a side job: cleaning Airbnbs.
“They’re everywhere,” she said.
“All you have to do is look around the Gold Coast and see the number of homes that are empty for a good chunk of the year.
“I laugh about it sometimes: having a job cleaning the Airbnbs that are part of the housing problem in my community, but I have to find some way to get by, the rent is 60 per cent of my income.
“And [this job] is my survival tactic”.
The impact of Airbnb
Across the country, Australia’s rental market is under unprecedented pressure, with experts labelling it a national crisis.
Vacancy rates have sunk to record lows and prices are at record highs, with a recent report finding renting has become less affordable in every single Australian city this year compared with 2021.
And experts often point to the proliferation of short-term rentals through digital platforms such as Airbnb and Stayz as one of the causes.
But are they affecting the housing supply as much as some people suggest?
Exclusive data shared with the ABC show the number of short-term rentals (STRs) has dropped dramatically from pre-COVID-19 levels.
The data shows there were 251,000 STRs registered across the country in September this year, down from a peak of just short of 400,000 in December 2019, three months before Australia’s border closed.
University of Queensland urban geographer Thomas Sigler pulled together the data, scraping all holiday rental sites for their active listings.
He said it showed short-term rentals take up about 2 per cent of overall housing stock across the country, with landlords — particularly in Australia’s capitals — slow to move back into the space after COVID’s border closures.
He said the problem was outside the major cities.
“In specific holiday areas such as Byron Bay, the Gold Coast or the Sunshine Coast, for example, it gets much, much higher, up to 15 per cent,” he said.
“And in Byron Bay, which is the poster child for this issue, it’s higher than that, and in those areas, short-term rentals do have a major impact on supply.
“But I think if you look at the overall numbers, blaming these digital rental platforms as a major cause of Australia’s rental and affordability crisis, particularly after COVID-19, is a bit of a distraction from the real issues at play.”
A ‘challenging and complicated’ issue
In Byron Bay, the issue of STRs replacing long-term rentals led the local council to attempt to restrict the length of time they can be rented out to 90 days.
But the move, which was designed to act as a disincentive to prospective investors and landlords, was last month blocked by the NSW government.
It said it already had a 180-day cap that helped “reduce the financial incentive for landlords” and balanced the “positive economic impacts” of holiday homes with the need to “support local housing markets”.
In Queensland, the Palaszczuk government is reviewing the impact of Airbnb-style rentals. Other councils and state governments across Australia are also moving towards greater regulation.
Airbnb country manager for Australia and New Zealand Susan Wheeldon said housing affordability was a “challenging and complicated issue”.
She said the company put forward a proposal earlier this year that included the introduction of statewide registration schemes and codes of conduct. It said it also supported a “tourism levy”.
But, she said, short-term rentals also provided a way for everyday people to combat rising costs of living and growing mortgage repayments.
“It’s no surprise that we’re seeing many people rely on hosting to make ends meet in the face of the current economic climate,” she said.
University of Sydney chair of urbanism and housing expert Nicole Gurran said although there may have been a drop in sheer numbers of STRs over the COVID-19 period, it was inevitable that a return of international tourists would see an eventual lift in numbers.
Professor Gurran said as Australia continued to face a rental crisis, regulation of the sector was “critical”.
“We know that anything we do to take away supply out of a rental market will exacerbate the pressures that people face when they’re trying to rent something in the market,” Professor Gurran said.
“And we have to face the fact that without regulating the growth of short-term rental properties, particularly in capital cities where we didn’t really have a tradition of holiday homes, [it will] continue to have an impact.”
The bigger problem
The impact of STRs is part of a broader issue of housing affordability in Australia, but experts say there are more potent issues at play.
The federal government last month declared housing affordability a “legislative priority” for 2023, announcing the formation of an independent National Housing Supply and Affordability Council and a $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund to address the issue.
Minister for Housing Julie Collins did not address the STR issue specifically but told the ABC the council would provide “independent advice” to government on ways to increase housing supply and affordability.
Professor Gurran said the government’s flagged initiatives would help “to some extent”, but a greater emphasis on supply and a focus on a “fairer” housing system was critical.
She said that would come through more social housing supplied by government as well as affordable housing provided by the private sector — such as superannuation funds — that offered secure leases at a discount.
“At the end of the day, housing in Australia has been always tipped towards property ownership and investment,” she said.
“We see Australians developing a property portfolio instead of shares [and] of course we’ve propped that up in the form of tax rebates such as negative gearing.
“You could accuse many of our politicians of crying crocodile tears over this issue.
“But the value of housing is very important in a macroeconomic sense, and the policy challenge is to recognise its importance but transition us into a housing system that’s a lot fairer.”
Back on the Gold Coast, Ms Wright just wants governments to “do something” to help fix the issue and enable families like hers to find an affordable roof over their heads.
“There’s people on the Gold Coast, people earning good money, sleeping in cars or camping out,” she said.
“It’s not good enough, these days it’s just a scramble for survival just to find shelter.”