Crowded house: How the Sydney property takeover is pushing locals out


imageSkyrocketing house prices are pushing Sydneysiders north — and vastly changing the Central Coast

[Maani Truu]

The Central Coast, according to some, is quickly becoming part of Sydney’s outer suburbs.But as skyrocketing house prices push Sydneysiders north, who’s being priced out?

A few metres off Umina Beach’s main drag — an economic and social hub called West Street — there’s a McDonalds.

While the fast-food chain, ubiquitous in small towns along Australian motorways, is rarely seen as a harbinger of gentrification, its arrival in the small beachside suburb a decade ago was controversial.

It would take away business from the handful of family-owned fish and chip shops and other takeaway outlets along the strip, one argument went.Local families and summer tourists alike would opt for the familiar option during a day at the beach, leaving small businesses in the cold.

Meanwhile, people on the other side of the issue argued another fast-food chain would provide much-needed jobs for young people.This perspective says a lot about the suburb at the time; opportunities for young people were few and far between, leading many to move to Sydney after school to pursue their careers.

Ten years after the golden arches opened, many of these small takeaway shops still exist — but West Street has changed in other ways.

Where once there were mum-and-dad craft stores, family chemists and a Bi-Lo supermarket, there’s now an Aldi, Chemist Warehouse, boutique cafes and a co-working space.

Most locals have an opinion on the changing face of the Central Coast, and the peninsula — a collection of suburbs surrounding Brisbane Waters at the region’s southern end — in particular.Often this comes in the form of complaints, offered freely and without provocation, about traffic and “rich out-of-towners” who clog up parking at the beach.

But recently one topic of concern has surpassed all others: skyrocketing property prices.

In Umina Beach, one of the closest beachside suburbs to Sydney, the median property price for a standalone house has jumped from $415,000 in 2013 to $1.04 million in 2021, according to property website .Similar booms are taking place across the region.

Much of this growth has happened over the past few years, with increasing prices in Sydney, proximity to the city and the pandemic push to working from home making the Central Coast an attractive option for Sydneysiders.

“We’ve really seen a rapid acceleration since 2020, during the first COVID lockdown,” says Lucy Wicks, the federal member for Robinson, the electorate that covers the southern end of the Central Coast.”This hidden, beautiful region is hidden no longer.”

But this wave of migration has come at a cost to some locals, who say they’ve been pushed out of the first home market and forced to look further afield or face long-term, expensive, and insecure renting.

Feeling the squeeze

Among those who have been forced out are Jordan and Danielle McFarlane, who recently bought their first home in Sunshine, a small lakeside suburb on the outer limits of Newcastle.

The young couple grew up on the peninsula and had hoped to remain there near family.

But when they had saved enough for a deposit, about 12 months ago, they struggled to find anything in their $700,000 budget.

“We were looking around the northern end of the coast, which is typically the cheaper end, and we were finding there was really nothing in our price range, shy of a two or three-bedroom townhouse in a really built-up area or an absolute shack where we’d be spending just as much money to rip things down,” he says.”It was just another reality check”.

As a real estate agent, Jordan has seen first-hand the impacts of the property price surge.

At the beginning of 2021, he says he sold a piece of land for $400,000.By December that year, an identical block six doors down went for $600,000.

“We’re seeing a lot of people priced out of Sydney and slowly moving here,” he says.

“Those people who would have been buying in the inner city are now buying in the northern suburbs, up to Hornsby or so, and those people looking to buy at the northern end of Sydney are starting to look at the southern ends of the Central Coast.”

The pay-off of moving outside the Central Coast is stark.Where the couple were struggling to afford a townhouse, they now have a big backyard “that takes a couple of hours to mow”.But even with an enjoyable lifestyle, filled with kayaking on Lake Macquarie, it “has been a sacrifice”.

“When we moved away from the peninsula, we knew that we would be away from family.The regular trips that we were doing two or three times a week, we’re finding that we’re really only doing two or three times a month,” he says.

Like Jordan, psychology student Joshua Keane grew up in Umina Beach, where he still lives a stone’s throw away from his former high school.

Over the last few years, the 28-year-old has been saving up for a deposit but has watched in dismay as prices keep outstripping his savings.

“I didn’t think of the Central Coast as somewhere I couldn’t afford to live, but it’s impossible at the moment,” he says.

“The growth in house prices has made it an exclusive property market but it still doesn’t have the veneer of an expensive area.”

“Unless something changes, whether that be a drastic shift in policy from the government or some external thing happens that makes the housing market deflate, it’s not going to be somewhere for first homeowners to buy.”

According to data from the 2016 census , 25 per cent of Umina residents had a gross weekly household income of less than $650, compared to 20 per cent nationally, while 9 per cent reported making more than $3,000 a week, compared to 16.4 per cent nation-wide.The median weekly rent in 2016 was $360.

In a 2019 submission to the Federal Government in support of increasing Newstart and Youth Allowance payments, the Central Coast Council described the area as “characterised by pockets of high socio-economic disadvantage”.

The submission reads: “Although the Central Coast has historically been an affordable area, a range of factors has made the area less affordable than Greater Sydney for local residents, with higher rates of housing stress and higher rates of growth of primary homelessness and those who are marginally housed.”

As of 2019, they said, “Virtually everyone who moved into the LGA in net terms since 2011 came from Greater Sydney”, adding: “Increasing pressure from the Sydney housing market is placing significant pressure on the available stock of lower-cost housing.”

This pressure is all too familiar to Joshua, who currently rents a home with his mother.But he also fears another unintended consequence of declining housing affordability.

“It’s going to force families apart,” he says, “because parents and grandparents live here and their children aren’t going to be able to live where they live.”

For many in that older generation, who have owned their homes for decades, the increase in demand from Sydneysiders may be a good thing, driving up the value of their properties.But it could also wear away at the very reasons they wanted to live there in the first place: to be part of a quiet, close-knit coastal community.

“It does inevitably change the community feel,” Joshua says, “whether that’s a good or bad thing I don’t know.”

Shaking up the status quo

Business partners Juan Iocco and Glitta Supernova are unequivocal that the changing demographics of the area are a good thing.

The pair run their arts and culture organisation Naughty Noodle Fun Haus from a small office outside Gosford train station.

While it’s located on the main street of what is the Central Coast’s CBD, looking around there’s none of the hustle and bustle usually associated with such a title; empty shopfronts dot the footpath, as a tiny number of pedestrians trickle by.

“We do everything creative,” Glitta says, “from cabarets and shows to exhibitions and dance parties.” Their upcoming events include ThursGAY, a “travelling social club”, Coastal Twist, a five-day LGBTIQA+ arts and culture festival, and Rayon Riot, a showcase of female artists to mark International Women’s Day.

It wasn’t always this way.When the pair moved to the Central Coast from Sydney’s inner west 10 years ago they say they quickly realised “there was something wrong with this area in regards to arts and culture”.

“When we first came to the Central Coast, it was like ‘wow, this place has so much potential,” Glitta says.”This is like Brighton is to London, or Brooklyn to New York, this little bit outside the city that has so much potential to be a cultural mecca as well as a beautiful getaway.”

But despite the fact the Central Coast is NSW’s third-largest urban centre — behind Sydney and Newcastle — they found artists were skipping it on their Australian tours.When they asked why they were told the region was seen as a “cultural wasteland”.

In 2018, they started Naughty Noodle Fun Haus to change that.

The result has been repeated sold-out events, while Glitta — who is instantly recognisable in her bright, patterned outfits and oversized glasses — was named a finalist in the NSW Women of the Year Awards.

Both say they’ve noticed a demographic shift over recent years, with more young people, queer families and multicultural households moving in.But when it comes to the audience at their events, the biggest change has been the number of non-locals buying tickets.

“People are now coming to the Central Coast to see amazing arts and culture, which was not on the radar three years ago,” Glitta says.Juan adds, “It would have been laughable to think someone would come from Sydney to the Coast.”

Five minutes down the road from Naughty Noodle Fun Haus is the office of Lucy Wicks.Like Glitta and Juan, the Liberal member is adamant that the region is in the midst of a much-needed shake-up.

“Over the last 10 years, we’re beginning to see the Gosford of the future start to emerge from the ashes,” she says.”But it’s been a long haul.”

While the wave of Sydneysiders has brought opportunities for the local economy, it’s also driven up housing prices and driven down rental affordability which she describes as “big challenges”.

An almost-lifelong Coastie, Wicks moved to Point Clare — a leafy suburb bordering Gosford — when she was 12 years old.The family lived behind the local ambulance station and her father was the principal of a local Christian school.

But when it came time for university, she was among many young people who promptly made the pilgrimage to the city.

She describes the Central Coast of her childhood as a “region of disadvantage and lack of opportunity”.Since then, she lists a number of big changes, including the University of Newcastle’s new Gosford campus and Central Coast Research Institute.

These developments will help “the rest of Australia see the Central Coast as a region in its own right, as a sort of economic powerhouse,” she says.”And I think Sydneysiders can see that too, they can see the potential.”

Now, her dream is to see the trend of people leaving the region for work or education opportunities reverse, so one-day “people come from Sydney and Newcastle to work here, not the other way around”.

Building new community

Mother-of-three Grace Bowe is one of the growing numbers of former Sydneysiders who, as Wicks predicted, saw the Coast’s potential.

After 10 years living in Manly on Sydney’s northern beaches, Grace and her husband were faced with a common predicament: they wanted more children but didn’t have the money to fork out for a bigger home in Sydney’s expensive property market.

“I think my husband said it best,” she says.

“He said, ‘we don’t want Sydney house prices to dictate our family size’.”

With the classic Australian dream of a big backyard for their growing family front of mind, the couple decided to buy in Umina Beach three years ago.

“We loved it straight away, we’re big beach people,” she says.

But it was also a compromise: both worked full-time in the city — which meant five days of long commutes — but they saw it as an acceptable trade-off for a “wonderful lifestyle on the weekend”.

That wouldn’t be the reality for long.

With COVID’s arrival in 2020, the couple, like many others, transitioned to remote work.Wicks describes the work-from-home push as a “game-changer” for the Central Coast — something Grace also quickly identified.

Speaking to parents with city jobs during the lockdown, Grace saw a gap in the market for a co-working space in Umina Beach — a place where people working from home for the first time and long-term freelancers alike could come during work hours.

“Given especially that the Coast is such a commuting population we thought ‘oh my gosh, this is a game-changer’,” she says.”It can really give young families time back, for people who want to work not necessarily at home, but closer to home.”

They chose a location just metres from Umina’s beach, looking over West Street, and fitted out the space with pastel couches, meeting rooms, named after local beaches, and indoor plants.

She says all the regulars who use the co-working space — bar one nicknamed “the OG” — have moved to the area in the last three years.

She’s experienced a similar phenomenon elsewhere in the community.

Recently, she says, her child’s school principal told her more than 90 per cent of families in the kindergarten year had recently moved from Sydney.

While their move was, in a way, forced upon them due to affordability issues, Grace, who works in local government, says she now couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

“I bore myself with my repetition, but every day I’m literally like, ‘how good is this life, didn’t we just make the best decision’,” she says.”That peace of mind of putting down roots, I didn’t even know it was something I needed.We’re in our forever home.”


Words and production: Maani Truu

Photographs: Jack Fisher.

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