After months of inspections and rejected rental applications young mother Kel Eason is staring down the barrel of a life-altering decision.
Should she keep trying to find an affordable rental, or finally accept her home town of Goulburn is now financially out of reach - and move to a smaller, more remote area?
A single mother, Ms Eason re-entered the workforce in December 2021 after giving birth in April so she's no stranger to a tight budget.
She moved in with her mother on the NSW Southern Tablelands to save money and pool resources, thinking it would only be a matter of time before she found her own small place to live with her one-year-old son Levi.
Reality hit hard and quickly.
"I've gone to look at well over 100 [properties] and I've been knocked back for every single one of them," Ms Eason says.
"Because it's just me and my one-year old son - a single income with no rental history - it's really hard to get into the market."
The median weekly rent in the Goulburn Mulwaree council area is $320, according to 2021 Census data.
But Ms Eason says the overwhelming majority of homes she's applied for have been above $400 - the very limit of her budget.
And the competition is fierce.
I might have to think about picking him up and moving and that means starting somewhere else away from all our friends and family.- Kel Eason, Goulburn NSW single mother
"When you're doing your applications ... you can change the price that you want to pay for the place. Essentially it's becoming a bidding war," she says.
"It's almost like you're trying to buy the bloody house."
Forced to move
While determined to stay and raise her child close to her support network, Ms Eason is half-resigned to the fact she might soon not have a choice.
"It would just be nice to have a place to call our own," she says.
"I don't want to but, if push comes to shove, I might have to think about picking him up and moving and that means starting somewhere else away from all our friends and family."
Regional housing oasis dries up
For decades Goulburn has been one of those towns where people could forge their dream. Just off Hume Highway between Sydney and Canberra, the home of the Big Merino tends to be bypassed or used as a Maccas pit stop.
Now the bulging property markets of the national capital, Australia's largest city, and Southern Highlands luxury are rapidly encroaching on the oasis.
A report from Commonwealth Bank and the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) found an eight per cent increase in migration to Goulburn Mulwaree over the first three months of 2022 compared to the same period in 2021.
And a sharp spike in Goulburn's development applications numbers show people aren't just moving in - they're building.
There were just 399 applications to council for new developments in 2019-20. In the following year that figure almost doubled to 637 and is expected to leap above 700 in 2021-22.
The 2021 Census revealed 35.3 per cent of households in the region were owned outright, above the national average of 31 per cent.
The COVID effect
The trend doesn't surprise Mission Australia area manager and Goulburn Mulwaree councillor Daniel Strickland.
"Post-COVID we've seen people relaying they don't need to be up in Sydney in the office and people who have made the tree change to regional communities which again adds to the impact on the rental market and housing affordability," he says.
Real Estate Institute of NSW chief executive Tim McKinnin agrees and says Goulburn is an ideal spot for workers since the global pandemic struck.
"We have certainly seen growth right across the state," he says.
"Goulburn is very well positioned to be attractive to tree changers because it is within striking distance of Sydney. You wouldn't want to be doing it everyday but if you only have to do it once a week [it's doable]."
Chasing affordable towns
When a pregnant Cassie Thompson and her partner Mark moved to Goulburn in 2011 to start a family they thought they'd found their forever home.
"We had been living on my parents property in Tarago [40 kilometres south of Goulburn] in a caravan but needed a house. We got our very first rental with the first application," she says.
"I wanted to raise my kids in Goulburn and made the best start to my kids' lives there."
Five years later an accident at home led to both being temporarily unable to work, precipitating a downward spiral before they eventually ended up homeless.
As much as I love it here, I hate that this is where we ended up. Goulburn was supposed to be our forever.- Cassie Thompson, Yass NSW resident
Fearing they would lose custody of their children, Ms Thompson and her partner took the plunge and moved to Wagga Wagga in the Riverina where they quickly secured a home and work.
Since 2016 they have been inching their way back home, but Ms Thompson's still staring through the window at her dream.
"Years later my partner was offered a job in Canberra and I got the first job I applied for in Yass," she says.
"We have since moved back close by, but not Goulburn. We settled just outside of Yass in the first rental we applied for too, and have been here a year.
"As much as I love it here, I hate that this is where we ended up. Goulburn was supposed to be our forever."
Lower end of the property market gone
As a local councillor working for Mission Australia Daniel Strickland is aware the property squeeze is making it harder for people to simply survive.
"The demand for properties and access to properties that would have been at the lower end of the market for clients we work with, that has disappeared," he says.
"That's not just Goulburn, it's right across the state and country. Access to that affordable housing is just few and far between."
In his area alone, there are 234 people on the waiting list [for social housing] and they can stay there, waiting, for five to 10 years.
"We're working with families whose tenancies are at risk, or they've been given eviction notices because owners want to renovate and make it available for Airbnbs or to get more money in the private market."
In the market for local fixes
According to property analyst SQM Research, the weekly asking rental price in Goulburn rose slowly between 2012 and 2020 with totals sitting at $339 and $341 in June of each year respectively.
By June 2022 that figure had blown out to $492.
Property prices increased from $387,072 in mid-2012 to $539,775 in June 2020 before skyrocketing to $796,168 just two years later.
But it's not all doom and gloom. Mr Strickland says the town should be grateful people are flocking to it.
"We don't want to see that stop, but ... we're having discussions about [it] in council at the moment which is how we can have crown land released and made available, perhaps, for affordable housing. That would be great to see around. That's something local councils can explore with state and federal governments."
My story: Dominic Unwin
I'm a 26-year old journalist who has swapped city life for the Southern Highlands and Tablelands. While initially skeptical of the rolling hills, quiet streets and wide open spaces I have grown to love living in regional Australia.
But something changed in my neck of the woods during the COVID-19 pandemic. Traffic started building up, the main street footpaths became well worn - and don't get me started on parking spaces.
One change stood head and shoulders above the rest - housing. My own rental search in late-2020 didn't leave a lot of choice when it came to cost. And rising property prices across the region have shelved any plans of home ownership for now.
There are lots of people out there who, like me, feel trapped and hopeless in a market that seems to move faster than they can keep up.
Among the stories of struggle are glimmers of hope. That's why I'm sharing this story.