Industry, civic leaders band together to find homes for workers

A jobs boom is coming in the Murraylands – but where will all those workers and their families live?

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The Murraylands’ big employers, such as the Beston Global Food Company, need to find somewhere for their workers to live locally. Photo: Beston Global Food Company.

Every square inch of available space will be needed to house Murray Bridge’s growing workforce over the next 12 months, local business leaders say.

At a forum last week, representatives of the Murraylands’ biggest employers forecast that they would hire at least 700 extra workers during the next year.

Many of those workers and their families would need to move into the region from elsewhere.

But a severe shortage of rental housing, and long delays in the construction industry, might leave them without anywhere to live.

Beston Global Food Company chief operating officer Frank Baldi suggested desperate measures might need to be taken.

“Dormitory-style housing” could be built using shipping containers or mining camp buildings.

Maybe industrial structures could be re-purposed, or incentives could be offered for people to rent out their spare rooms.

Whatever the solution, he said, it needed to come quickly.

“Right now we can’t bring people into town to work,” he said.

“They’re driving from Adelaide and going back to Adelaide at night, and we’ve had a couple of safety issues with that.

“Things have to change.”

Last week’s forum at the Bridgeport Hotel was intended to help local decision-makers come up with solutions.

Thomas Foods International, which will make the lion’s share of the new hires in 2021-22, was represented; as were Beston, Costa Adelaide Mushrooms, developers, real estate agents and civic leaders.

There is plenty of room at housing developments such as Newbridge, but employers and developers both say construction can’t keep up with demand. Photo: Newbridge Living/Facebook.

Why is there a housing shortage in Murray Bridge?

About 1000 homes would be sold in Murray Bridge this year, council executive Kristen Manson said, and development approval had been granted for 140 new builds.

However, the supply of rental housing – the housing most likely to suit families who were new to the region – was very limited.

Just 13 properties were being advertised on on September 22.

Making things worse was a shortage of construction material for new homes, Kookaburra Homes owner Steven Walker said.

“If you sign a contract today, we can’t put a frame up for 24 months,” he said.

“In Adelaide you get (builders) paying to get people out of contracts because they can’t fulfil them.

“It’s a scary time.”

Even if new houses could be built, investors were typically more attracted to Adelaide or the Adelaide Hills, where property values were currently growing more quickly.

But that was partly a reputation thing, developer Kym Burke said, something the Murray Bridge council’s recent beautification efforts would help to fix.

A bigger problem was that planning law changes had made residential development riskier and more drawn-out in South Australia, he said, with higher up-front costs.

“We could sell out every block (at the Newbridge development) right now,” he said.

“We’ve got people screaming for houses.

“But we won’t have stage three until October 2022.”

Employers, developers, real estate agents and civic leaders discuss the housing crisis at the Bridgeport Hotel last week. Photo: Peri Strathearn.

What are they going to do about it?

A survey has already been sent to workers at businesses affiliated with two local groups – the Murraylands Food Alliance and Business Murray Bridge – to ask about their current and future housing needs.

Did they commute into Murray Bridge, or live locally?

If they already lived in Murray Bridge, did they rent when they first moved to town, or buy a property straight away?

Would they prefer to live on a quarter-acre block, or pay less for a smaller unit?

Once the survey results are in, the Murray Bridge council will lead the development of a worker housing strategy as a matter of urgency.

What might that strategy contain?

Regional Development Australia chief executive Ben Fee suggested the burden of supplying housing might fall on employers.

Mr Pasin hoped the federal government might include new initiatives in its mid-year budget update, in December.

Whatever the answer, Mr Baldi said, it had to come soon.

“Twelve months, 24 months for a house ain’t gonna cut it,” he said.

Read more about our housing crisis

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