Is there such a thing as “undercrowding”? There may well be with the centres of some of our biggest cities turning into ghost towns as Covid-19 restrictions bite, workers flee to the suburbs and foreign students and workers stay away, writes Sue Williams in Domain.
Living in one of the biggest apartment towers right in the centre of Sydney, accountant Monica Tambayong had become used to the hustle and bustle of city life.
Her multi-storey building was always busy, she’d often chat to fellow residents while waiting for the lift or in the common seating area, and its pool, gym and barbecue area were in high demand.
And, right on her doorstep, all the CBD cafes, restaurants, bars and shops were constantly abuzz with life.
But these days, her building is strangely quiet, and the area around it has only a fraction of the usual number of customers.
“It’s not as quiet as it was back in March when COVID-19 first hit,” said Ms Tambayong, 31, who’s lived in the same apartment for the past 13 years. “But it’s still quiet.
“The building manager says there’s a lot of vacancies in the building now. We always had a lot of international students living in the city, and they’ve now all gone. So it’s still a little bit empty.”
Her block is perhaps typical of those in the Sydney CBD where the rental vacancy rate hit 5.6 per cent for the past two months, compared to just 2.4 per cent at this time last year.
In Melbourne, the situation is even more dire, with the CBD vacancy rate now at 13.1 per cent – that’s compared to 2.6 per cent a year ago – and the highest ever recorded in Domain Group statistics.
With the number of students down dramatically over the pandemic period, others have also been avoiding the most densely populated areas of the cities.
Meanwhile, many tenants who lost work, mostly in the hospitality, arts and recreation sectors, gave up their leases in the heart of the city to move in with parents, families and friends, or into cheaper share houses in the suburbs.
The lack of tourists wanting to rent short-term has led to a further ballooning in the number of empty rentals.
In March, there was a rush of removalists as tenants moved out, leaving behind near-empty corridors and an eerie silence in so many CBD blocks in both Melbourne and Sydney.
Although they now show more signs of life, particularly in Sydney, the formerly teeming city apartment buildings are still subdued, and centres are often strangely quiet with so many people still working from home.
“I’ve often been the only customer in the shops and cafes that did remain open,” said Ms Tambayong, who rents her apartment from her parents.
“Usually this area is so busy but one Saturday afternoon when I went out, there was absolutely no one on the streets. It was so empty.
“I’d usually get something to eat from the food court on my way back from the office at 5.30pm but by then, everything was closed. The most life in my building has been all the cleaners coming back and forward, coming to wipe door handles and lift buttons …”
Weekends were usually by far the quietest times in such buildings, but now in Sydney – bizarrely – they’re probably the busiest, says real estate agent Deon Young of Century 21 City Quarter.
“Because there are so many vacancies, a lot of agencies are doing open inspections through the week and especially at weekends, so the lifts are busy,” he said.
“There are so many agents around trying to let apartments now, that sometimes we find ourselves having to queue for the lifts then.”
In contrast, in Melbourne there’ve been few private property inspections booked since the easing of the ban on people being allowed to visit city apartments.
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