August 21, 2020

The Covid exodus from the city: ‘That’s it, I’m calling the real estate agent’

[The Guardian, Getty Images]

From Berry to Kyneton to Torquay, regional towns are becoming the destination for many Australians now working from home, seeking affordable housing and better lifestyles

While Melbourne was lifting out of its first lockdown, Briony Towers, like many of the city’s 5 million residents, was facing the prospect of unemployment.

She had just been told that $70,000 in funding she had squirrelled away would no longer be available to her, and that her contract as a research fellow working on bushfire recovery may not be extended past 30 June. The career she had worked for was falling apart, her mental health close behind it.

Then her aunt slipped on an acorn, which sent her careening into a wall. The impact broke her shoulder in six places. She needed live-in help at her home in Kyneton, 88km north of Melbourne.

Towers was, suddenly, very available. She locked up her one-bedroom flat in Thornbury and turned on to the Calder Freeway. That was 14 May. Four months on, she tells Guardian Australia, she is never leaving the Macedon Ranges town.

 The Campaspe River near Kyneton in central Victoria. Photograph: Southern Lightscapes-Australia/Getty Images

Towers is only one many Australians leaving cities for regional towns as the pandemic fertilises a longing for escape that, in some cases, has been germinating for years. “I genuinely think that coming up here saved me,” she says.

When she thought she had lost the funding, “I cried for about three weeks. I said everything I have worked for for the past 12 years is over … and then my aunt broke her shoulder and that’s when I moved up here.

“She slipped on an acorn and that just seems so crazy to me – that an acorn has completely changed the course of my life.”

Towers was able to negotiate to save the funding and extend her contract to December, and has been working remotely from Kyneton. But the drive to be in academia at all costs is fading, replaced by the joy of being able to see all the stars at night. The world is in chaos, the university sector is falling apart, she is having to re-examine her career, and yet Towers is happy.

“This is all because of Covid,” she says. “I never would have thought about any of this stuff. I would have just kept trying to make my job work.”

To a psychologist who specialises in natural disaster response, the coronavirus pandemic has been a worldwide simulation. “It has lifted the veil on how weak all of our social, economic and political systems really are – and, as a disaster researcher, I knew they were weak,” she says. “I think Covid is causing existential crises for a lot of people.”

Her aunt is recovering well and Towers is looking at houses in the area. She is still renting her flat in Thornbury but each month she considers letting that lease go.

The reasons for living in the city – easy access to the office and the vibrant cultural life that comes from living where millions of bodies are crushed up against each other – are, at least for now, gone. All we have left is pottering around at home and taking a daily walk. And where better to do that than the country?

 The highway into Berry on the NSW south coast. Photograph: James D Morgan/Getty Images

Rachel Lonergan made her own move in February, leaving the Sydney suburb of Balmain for Berry on the New South Wales south coast. Her trigger was one particularly bad day in traffic last November, when it took 70 minutes to drive from Balmain to The Rocks, a distance of 7km.

“I just made a decision that day to call some real estate agents,” she says.

Lonergan runs her own business and says though the move raised the eyebrows of some professional colleagues when she first announced it last year, the wholesale adoption of working from home has made such relocations less unusual.

She has never regretted it. “It’s just so pretty,” she says. “It gives me a sense of calm. I can’t even really describe it – whatever the opposite is of that feeling I had sitting on the Anzac Bridge with traffic not moving.

Tree changers from Melbourne have been moving in to Castlemaine, a formerly working-class town 40km north-west of Kyneton and 130km from Melbourne, for the past decade. Now a community of artists and writers live alongside those who work at the town’s two largest employers: Loddon prison and the Don KR smallgoods factory. “It’s the strangest town,” says Genevive Cantwell, a real estate agent.

 Piper Street in the historic township of Kyneton is alive with cafes, restaurants and shops. Photograph: John Crook/AAP

She fielded a lot of calls from Melbourne-based buyers in the brief window between the first lockdown lifting in March and the second lockdown starting in July. “The Covid experience has clearly demonstrated to people that they can work from home, at least some of the time, and that makes a regional lifestyle more attractive and more practical,” she says.

There are still large sections of the community who cannot work remotely, or haven’t the luxury of choosing a greener prospect. But those who do have the choice are exercising it.

It’s as if the whole world had a midlife crisis at once. There is a banner showing the global death toll whenever you turn on the news, a daily reminder of our own mortality. The usual beats of the year – the weddings and birthdays and conferences and parties, and possibly even Christmas – have fallen silent. A life spent keeping up with things and saying you would love to live in the country “some day” no longer seems enough.

“I have had one of those Domain alerts for ages,” Shauna Dunnart says, referring to the real estate website. “But then when Covid started to hit I thought, you know what, life really is short.”

Dunnart lives in Sydney and this month put in an offer for a block of land in southern Tasmania, sight unseen. (She is familiar with the area and has driven the road the block is on, and had the property checked by surveyors and a friend.) If the offer is accepted, she will fly to Hobart as soon as the borders open, which as of this week will not be before 1 December.

“Could you believe I actually bought something I have not walked on?” she says.Advertisement

The soil is not great but that’s OK. After years of tossing up between retiring to a hobby farm in South Australia and a regenerative bush block in Tasmania she has chosen the latter. Now all that remains, once the borders reopen, is to visit Landcare for seedlings and to think about building a house. What is important, she says, is that she will not have to face the prospect of retirement in Sydney.

“It’s hopefully one last adventure,” she says.

She encourages me to take the same plunge. Now is no time for a 10-year plan – who knows what the next decade will bring? “If there’s one thing Covid has triggered in us all, it’s that tomorrow could be the end of it,” she says.

The Byron Bay realtor Diana Green had sold some houses remotely before the pandemic but it has now become the norm. Usually, she says, the buyers are regular visitors to the northern NSW town and know the area well.

 The picnic and barbecue area at Byron Bay’s Main beach, in northern NSW. Photograph: Craig Ferguson/LightRocket/Getty Images

“Like this one [that I sold] today: they knew the area, they knew the street,” the Byron Beach Realty proprietor says. Many of the calls are from Australian expats who have lost their jobs – and visas – and have to come home. Some own properties that are rented out. “Every day somebody calls and says, ‘Yep, just lost my job, I have to come back to Australia,’” Green says. “Here’s the difference we are seeing: people who are coming to buy are coming to live. They don’t want to holiday-let.”

Houses are selling overnight and rents have increased significantly. Professionals from Sydney and Melbourne have taken out months-long leases on short-stay holiday rentals. One man paid $36,000 for several months, another couple called saying their rental budget was $2,000 a week.

At one inspection, the queue of prospective renters stretched down the street as they were slowly shown through two-by-two, in accordance with the NSW government’s Covid-safe rules for real estate viewings. “The neighbour got freaked out, they didn’t know why so many people were in the street, they called the cops on us,” Green says.

It is a great time to be a real estate agent. “For how bad Covid has been, it’s given us quite a few bonuses.”

For most, though, a key attraction of living in a regional town is that it is more affordable. Ben Harrap and his partner moved from a studio apartment in Footscray to a house in Ballarat at the start of March.

It’s a 90-minute train ride to the city, and Harrap did the commute for four weeks before the first lockdown was declared and his employer shifted staff to working from home. The attitude of some of his friends has transformed from incredulity to envy. Now a 90-minute commute, presuming that regular work life resumes, seems a reasonable trade-off for having space to spread out.

“Being able to walk out our back door and having green space has been really good for both of us, mentally,” he says. “Having the trees and nature around has been awesome. I think it would have been much harder if we were cooped up in a studio apartment and didn’t have access to that.”

Jade Lloyd moved to the seaside town of Torquay, 100km south-west of Melbourne, a month ago, just as the city was returning to lockdown. The plan came together suddenly: her employer, who had not agreed to a remote work proposal pre-pandemic, had said she could work from home indefinitely and a friend had a bungalow for lease. The rent is $100 less than what she was paying in Melbourne and she is putting the difference towards a house deposit. If she was having to commute to the city, that difference would be eaten up in train tickets – until she was able to work from home the move did not make financial sense.

Lloyd says she initially thought it would be lonely to move to a new community as a single person, “but it’s lonely anyway in lockdown”.

 Surfers at Bells beach in Torquay, Victoria. Photograph: Michael Dodge/AAP

“Covid has made you realise what you value most, and what I used to love about the city I no longer use.”

Now the beach is a few hundred metres away and her dog is “living his best life, making friends with everyone”.

Gil Fraser is in a similar position. The personal trainer just put her South Yarra apartment on the market and plans to move to Ocean Grove, a small village next to Torquay. Her mother is in an aged care home there, and the restrictions mean she has been unable to visit.

“When we went into stage four [lockdown restrictions] I just thought: that’s it, I am calling the real estate agent,” Fraser said.

The plan had been brewing for some time and solidified in March. Fraser’s work stopped and she was forcibly ejected from her “happy hamster wheel” for the first time in decades. “It’s like you have that space to think about it, and have that moment of clarity,” she says.

Whenever she had thought about leaving before, there was always something in the way: work or an event or a holiday, some reason why now would not be the most convenient time. “You think, ‘Oh, I have that thing coming up,’” she says. “Well, you don’t have that thing coming up. Not any more.”

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By  Calla Wahlquist

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