Regional Australia is facing a major housing affordability and supply crisis.
And while governments tend to focus on the affordability side of the problem, not enough is being done to address the issue affecting almost every regional town in Australia - that there just aren't enough houses.
Talk a walk by the rivers in Wangaratta and Wodonga and you will see an increasing number of people living in tents along the banks.
I recently visited the Wangaratta Care-van, a volunteer-run mobile soup kitchen, meeting with people who are sleeping rough to better understand the challenges they face finding somewhere to live.
Their situation is seriously difficult.
Many of the people I spoke to are either in casual work or actively seeking work, but doing so is almost impossible when you have nowhere to shower, wash your clothes, or when it takes two hours to walk into town from where you are sleeping in your tent.
We simply do not have enough social housing to meet demand and rental prices have escalated to historical highs.
In my electorate of Indi in north-east Victoria there are 1600 people on the waitlist for social housing, including 782 on the priority list. The total number on the waitlist has gone up 65 per cent since 2014 and the priority list has more than doubled.
Those on the priority list are waiting more than 12 months for somewhere to live.
Record spending has been pledged in social housing spending by the Victorian government, but this alone will not solve the problem.
Governments at all levels need to be investing much more into social housing, especially in regional communities where pandemic-era house price rises are still biting, and where, if you are priced out of your town, there is simply nowhere else to move.
We must also address the lack of diversity in housing offerings, to cater for younger people who move to our towns to take up much-needed roles in the workforce, and for older people seeking to downsize.
It means using land smarter, infill developments, small-scale medium-density developments in the centre of towns, and it means investing in infrastructure so that services are not overwhelmed by population growth. We also just don't have enough housing full stop.
I have spoken to a woman who applied for more than 170 rentals before finding somewhere to call home.
In regional and remote areas people can't just look somewhere else - the next town over will be further away from work, likely inaccessible by public transport, and the accommodation situation will be just as difficult.
We need federal investment in critical infrastructure that is holding back housing supply.
In Wangaratta, the local government can't significantly expand housing supply because the main sewerage line is at capacity. The work that is needed is expected to cost more than $100 million.
Down the road in Benalla, $10 million of drainage works must be done in the north and north-west of the town before that land could become housing.
These stories are repeated across the country. Small rural councils do not have that kind of money.
This is why I am pushing for the government to set up a new $2 billion rural housing infrastructure fund. It would specifically help regional towns to build the infrastructure needed to open up new blocks of land much more quickly and ensure there is mixed housing stock developed on that land.
The fund would be mandated to spend a quarter of its allocation every year for four years, so the government can't sit on it while people go without a roof over their head.
People are desperate to move to regional Australia.
Those who are already here are desperate to stay.
Employers are desperate to have them.
Addressing the problem isn't easy, but it starts with increased spending on social housing, creative thinking to use land smarter, and investment in much needed infrastructure to open up more land and create neighbourhoods that can accommodate people of different incomes and life stages. Regional Australia is a great place to live, the government needs to step up and make it easier to actually do so.
- Helen Haines is the independent MP for Indi