Open homes in Albury-Wodonga are attracting up to 50 prospective renters as growing demand forces up median rental prices.
But the competitive rental market also has a darker side, with homelessness experts warning low-income earners are struggling to secure housing or spending upwards of 40 per cent of their income on rent.
Elders Real Estate property manager Chloe Palmer said demand for rentals had been incredible in the region with most properties being leased within a week of being advertised.
She wasn't surprised a Domain report showed median rental prices on the Border were increasing.
"We're leasing things for say $350 a week that 12 months ago would have been $300 a week," she said.
"We're maintaining a zero per cent vacancy rate and leasing properties before the current tenant vacates.
"Traditionally we used to say to landlords allow for a four to six-week vacant period per year but due to the increase in demand we've been able to avoid that."
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Stean Nicholls' director Nicholas Clark said his agency was experiencing similar rental demand in Albury and Wodonga.
"The dynamics are changing and demand [for rentals] is surging," he said.
"We've had a zero per cent vacancy rate across December and demand has been quite strong."
The rising popularity of short-term rentals like Airbnb is sure to have taken some properties out of the usual rental housing pool, but Mr Clark said it didn't seem to be having a huge impact.
"Airbnb does seem to be growing in Albury but it's not a rapid growth, more so it seems the area is expanding both in terms of sales and rentals," he said.
"Quite a lot of people are moving to Albury-Wodonga, a real mix of demographics, professionals as well as families from the area."
Mr Clark and Ms Palmer both said a lot of people were moving to the area for employment, with rental open houses attracting crowds.
Ms Palmer said there was a huge amount of interest in rental properties, most finding tenants within a week of listing.
"We're having 20, 30, 40 sometimes even 50 people come through in one inspection," she said.
Ms Palmer said in a crowded market applying quickly and setting yourself apart from the crowd was essential.
"If you're looking at rentals you've got to be quick, we're leasing things nearly straight away," she said.
"When applications come across my desk you have to dive in and find out more information about people, so I like when tenants provide a cover letter.
"We don't actually actively ask for it but I find a lot of successful tenants provide cover letters and provide background information on why they're moving, how long they intend to be in the area, where they come from etc."
Recently released Domain rental market data shows the median cost of renting a property - units and houses combined - in Albury increased 6.3 percent last year, rising from $320 in December 2018 to $340 in December 2019.
Wodonga renters pay more than their Albury counterparts, with the median rental asking price in December 2019 for the city $360 a week, $10 or 2.9 per cent more than the same time in 2018.
In the five years from December 2014, the median cost of rent paid by Albury residents increased 9.70 per cent, while the median rental price in Wodonga has risen 12.5 per cent from $320 in December 2014.
The only rental market in southern NSW and North East Victoria where the median cost of rent actually decreased in 2019 was Towong shire, where the median asking price dropped from $275 to $270.
Alpine shire saw the most extreme increase in rental costs over the past five years, with the median rental price jumping 43.6 per cent from $275 in December 2014 to $395 in December 2019.
The stats show the increase in homelessness year after year, it's getting out of control, something has to give soon.Di Glover
In Benalla, the median cost of rent held steady from December 2018 to 2019 at $320, but over the past five years it increased 23 per cent from $260 December 2014.
Similarly the median cost of rent in Wangaratta increased 23 per cent since 2014, from $260 to $320.
From December 2018 to December 2019, Wangaratta's median rent rose 6.7 per cent from $300 to $320.
In Indigo shire residents commonly paid $340 a week in rent in December 2019, 6.7 per cent more than the $320 they paid in December 2018, and 9.7 per cent more than 2014's median of $310.
Di Glover, the chief executive of Albury-based homelessness service provider Yes Unlimited, said the rising cost of rent was making it near impossible for people on benefits or a low-income to secure a property.
She said in the competitive market residents with past rental issues could find themselves completely blacklisted.
"Absolutely [it's a struggle] trying to find something that's affordable to them, especially for people on Newstart or any other type of benefits, it's really difficult," she said.
"Just the competitive nature of it, you're up against people who for example might be earning a wage, they're probably more likely candidates in the private rental sector than someone on an unemployment benefit."
Beyond Housing's business development manager Laura Harris said a $10- or $20-a-week rise in rent over a year might not sound like much, but it could be hugely significant.
"You have greater competition for private rentals so that often pushes people on low fixed incomes out of the market and the people who are on medium incomes are paying more than they can afford in rent," she said.
"That $10 or $20 is only part of the picture because you also have the increase in living expenses whether it be fuel expenses, power, water and all the rest of it. Expenses are increasing while low incomes stay static, the impact is exponential."
Ms Glover said like the cost of living, rental prices just kept rising while the minimum wage and many Centrelink benefits remained stagnant.
"It's just increasing pressure the whole time," she said.
"The stats show the increase in homelessness year after year, it's getting out of control, something has to give soon."
Ms Harris said increasingly Beyond Housing was seeing people like this, who traditionally would have had the means to be in the rental market, but weren't currently because there simply wasn't anything available.
Others were able to find a home but were spending a large portion of their income on rent and often going without in other areas.
"While you might be able to afford to rent a property, you might psychically have the money to cover rent, the amount left over you have to live off is what people often the don't see," she said.
"You might have $70 a week to live off and with that you have to pay for your phone, power, food, parking or transport.
"If you are short on money it impacts your life, your health, your well-being."
Factors and fixes
There are many factors experts believe are contributing to a shortage of affordable rentals for low income earners - from high house prices in major cities drawing tree-changers to the area to people waiting to purchase homes.
"You have more people into the rental market who might have once bought," Ms Harris said.
"Most people you speak to, their goal, their aspiration is to have a place of their own, that's a fairly common feeling. But house prices are increasing and middle income earners are looking for rentals instead.
"There are also fewer units to rent, so if you are a single parent with one child you're looking at three-bedroom houses that are out of your price range because there are no units available.
"The other thing is as we fill up the more affordable rentals, people then aren't moving out so you have a bottleneck all the time."
Ms Harris and Ms Glover agreed that incentives should be in place to encourage investors to develop more affordable housing and more units.
"When we look around Albury-Wodonga there's a lot of big properties with all the bells and whistles, but we're not catering for those lower income earners," Ms Glover said.
Ms Glover said Centrelink payments needed to be indexed annually to keep pace with the rising cost of living.
Ms Harris said a range of things needed to be done to address Australia's housing affordability, including building more social housing, creating more affordable housing to purchase and implementing mechanisms to secure more affordable rentals.
"There's no one answer, there's no magic bullet for this but I think having a national housing affordability strategy ... that will help," she said.