Local price shock
When Horsham couple Jobie Green and Tom Iredell Burke first entered the housing market, they decided to build.
"We weren't looking for that big block - we were just looking for something small," Ms Green says.
"We were after a three-bedroom home to be able to grow, so when we do decide to have kids there is enough room."
The 26-year-old works as an activities instructor at a local nursing home and Mr Burke, 23, is a teacher's aide at a local school, bringing the couple a modest but steady income.
When they started dipping their toe in Horsham's property market, they were shocked to find ever-increasing prices and big city investors speculating on any parcel of land available.
We both worked very hard, saved all of our money, and lived within our means. Very rarely splurged because we had a goal.- Jobie Green, young property owner in Horsham, Victoria
"We wanted to build originally, but to buy a block of land locally - the prices just keep jumping up and up.
"People keep putting offers above what the asking price is. We just couldn't get ahead in that way," Ms Green says.
Out-of-towners snap up local investments
"You get people from Melbourne and Adelaide wanting to buy investment properties in town because it is a lot cheaper than in the cities," she says.
Every property they were interested in was snapped up quickly.
"As blocks of land have gone up, and the prices to build and resources aren't available due to COVID, it looked like the dream was impossible."
House prices jump 50 per cent
Horsham in the Wimmera region of western Victoria is like many other regional centres across the country - it's undergone an unprecedented COVID-era disruption to the local housing market.
At the beginning of 2022 the Victorian town topped the state with 54.1 per cent growth in median house prices, according to data from the Real Estate Institute of Victoria.
Data from Real Estate Investar shows a 16.66 per cent increase in median rental prices.
The tightening market is also reflected in Horsham's residential vacancies figures, which reached a 10-year low of 0.3 per cent in January 2022 and rebounded only slightly to 0.7 per cent in May.
Settling for less
For the Horsham couple, saving for a deposit meant restricting day-to-day spending and finding a cheap place to rent.
"We were renting a cheaper house in not a great area. We both worked very hard, saved all of our money, and lived within our means. Very rarely splurged because we had a goal," Ms Green says.
Their story is repeated across the country as a new generation of regional young people meet a dynamic and changing property market head on.
Ms Green says the pair decided to set their sights on buying an existing home.
"It all happened so fast. To get your foot in the door you have to try and beat everyone," Ms Green says.
"We looked at it on the Thursday, the open house was on the Saturday and we messaged the real estate on the Friday saying, 'We want it'."
The 1960s weatherboard came ready-made.
"We bought it off of a young couple who did a few modifications to it; they had kids and wanted to sell it to a young couple who wanted to do the same thing," she says.
For some regional Australian communities the housing crisis has been an opportunity to rethink housing with unique, community-led solutions.
Examples include the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, one of the first places in Australia to establish a community land trust for affordable housing - catering especially for women.
A community land trust allows the land beneath a property to be in shared ownership, removing it from the cost of the building on top which could be leased or owned, making it more affordable to live there.
Western Sydney University Professor Louise Crabtree-Hayes has spent years researching sustainable and affordable housing and is working with the residents of Katoomba in the upper Mountains to establish the land trust.
The growing 'deposit gap'
She says the model lowers many of the barriers to entry for young, prospective homeowners.
"We ran focus groups in Melbourne with people aged 25 to 34 looking to enter the housing market but couldn't," Ms Crabtree-Hayes says.
"The barrier to entry was that even if they had the deposit saved up, the deposit gap kept growing.
In Australia we have a far more simplistic housing system and it is not working.- Professor Louise Crabtree-Hayes, Western Sydney University
"They were either not able to buy near their places of work, or by the time they found something the market had gone up so quickly that their deposit was no longer adequate.
"Even for people who had money put aside, the fact was the market was so hot they were constantly running to catch up."
Unlike the open market, community land trusts own the land upon which people buy the physical structure, offsetting some of the deposit and mortgage repayment costs.
Overseas land trusts overseas in places like the US and UK also offer a variety of housing options, including rental tenancies for lower-income earners.
Taking the profit out of property
In western Victoria's Yarriambiack shire the community is leveraging state government funding to push forward with a new affordable housing development.
The regional local government area takes in the towns of Warracknabeal, Rupanyup, Minyip and Murtoa - places with small, ageing populations and few new developments.
The Easing Yarriambiack's Affordable Rental Housing Shortage project uses a not-for-profit community housing model to build assets on council land.
"Using a community not-for-profit enterprise approach to manage rental housing is a proven model for success in maximising local benefits via a structure in which the housing assets and land are owned by council and operated and managed by the local incorporated committees," Yarriambiack mayor Kylie Zanker says.
Make community-led housing easier
Community-driven housing, such as the schemes found in the Blue Mountains and Yarriambiack, are new to Australia and face regulatory and funding hurdles.
Ms Crabtree-Hayes says the main challenge is access to land on which to build the homes.
"Overwhelmingly, the challenge is access to land without having to take on massive amounts of debt," she says.
"There has also historically been a bit of unfamiliarity with the banks - the banks aren't exactly familiar on how a mortgage would work in that situation."
But state governments can begin the conversation by providing a proper regulatory environment for affordable housing - something she says developers are crying out for.
"Councils are wanting consistency from the state because so many are having to work in an inconsistent framework, or even have their drive towards affordable housing targets knocked back by the state," Ms Crabtree-Hayes says.
"When you look overseas there are more options available for affordable housing which are supported by regulatory bodies.
"In Australia we have a far more simplistic housing system and it is not working."
We want to stay regional
For Ms Green and her partner living regionally remains a top priority, despite the barriers.
"We have family here. That was a huge reason to stay here. We both have really good jobs and love what we do," she says.
"We just love the country. I don't really see us moving anywhere else. We have everything we need here."
My first experience of regional living came when I left Melbourne at the end of 2020 to work full-time as a journalist with the Wimmera Mail-Times in Horsham, Victoria.
Trying to find a rental with short notice was not easy. The search often involved attending home inspections with lines stretching out around the block, with big families as eager as I was to snap up whatever property was available and in their price range.