DEMAND for affordable housing is at an all-time high and the rental market is frustratingly tight but almost 25,000 homes in the Hunter Region are sitting vacant.
An analysis of recently released census data shows 24,593 residential dwellings in the region were counted as being unoccupied.
Samaritans chief executive Cec Shevels said he was surprised by the statistic.
‘‘I just wonder whether some of those properties could be better used if there are so many,’’ he said.
Port Stephens, which boasts many holiday homes, had the highest number of vacancies, with 20per cent or 6802 of the state electorate’s houses, flats and units found empty.
Newcastle had 2980 empty homes but that was proportionally less than Lake Macquarie, where 10.5per cent of residential dwellings were vacant compared to Newcastle’s 9.6per cent.
The figures exclude empty shops, pubs and caravan park accommodation.
The empty buildings are thought to reflect the abundance of holiday homes in some areas, idle investment properties as well as failed mortgages, and renovation projects.
There were 2000 more unoccupied dwellings in the region than the last count in the 2006 census.
Real Estate Institute Newcastle Hunter divisional chairman Wayne Stewart said that what was good for the tourist trade would be squeezing the rental market.
‘‘It’s well known that the Port Stephens population swells by some 300per cent during peak tourism times, so a lot of people do keep their properties vacant and that’s probably not good for accommodation for tenants,’’ he said.
‘‘But the problem is getting short-term tenants in.
‘‘There’s a lot of tenants that want 12-month-plus leases but can’t get them because the landlord wants better flexibility than that.’’
Mr Stewart said the government should consider incentives to encourage people to lease their properties rather than leave them empty.
In Newcastle, the abundance of empty buildings in the city centre has sparked moves to encourage mixed-use developments and more residential accommodation.
Government developer Landcom is working with the GPT Group on plans to develop four city blocks into a mix of residential, commercial and specialty retail.
The state government’s draft Newcastle revitalisation strategy flags thousands of new residents.
Mr Stewart said it was a ‘‘wonderful’’ plan but there was no easy fix, with the high cost of city redevelopments still a challenge.
‘‘Very few of the empty buildings along Hunter Street would comply with residential building codes,’’ he said.
‘‘It becomes a huge problem – somebody’s got to pay to bring those buildings up to scratch.’’
Mr Shevels said ‘‘affordable not luxury’’ housing was the region’s biggest need, and partnerships between the public and private sector were the answer.