Like many small towns around the world, Cumnock in southeast Australia has gone through a long period of population decline and fading fortunes. It was once a key railway stopover in the state of New South Wales, but the closure of the train station and opening of a new highway turned the bustling small town into a picturesque but quiet place, largely off the grid. As its population dwindled to its current count of fewer than 300 people, residents for years feared that the town's primary school might eventually have to close, which would have been a devastating blow for Cumnock.
So residents began to wonder how this community - in a region regularly affected by drought and about a four-hour drive from Sydney - could expand again.
Cumnock did not have expansive shopping malls, attractive restaurants or world-famous museums. But it did have lots of empty houses from all the people who had left.
So in 2008, an idea was born: Give those houses to anyone willing to move here, not only for a fair price, but essentially for free. For houses in need of renovations, the town would charge a symbolic weekly fee of less than $1. Renovated cottages would cost slightly more but would still be extremely cheap.
When Nicole Lewis read about the program four years ago, it immediately captured her attention. Shortly afterward, she left her city life and moved to Cumnock with her husband and five kids. "Everyone was so welcoming - it was an instant fit," she recalled of her first few weeks. The couple still pay about $100 a week in rent for their three-bedroom house, with fireplaces, a back veranda and no immediate neighbours. "It's the typical Australian country home feel," she said.
More than a decade after Cumnock launched its experiment, the concept has been picked up by more than a dozen other towns across Australia and around the world. Italy's hilltop town of Sambuca made headlines this week when it announced it was selling homes for less than $2, in an effort to halt its population decline as more young residents move to bigger cities where they are pursuing degrees and have better chances of finding employment. The campaign may sound similar to close observers of the Italian real estate market: In 2014, the Sicilian town of Gangi launched a similar scheme, offering 20 properties for less than $2. In both Italian towns, like in Australia's Cumnock, applicants had to commit to renovating the homes.
For young urban families, Cumnock's initiative may be more attractive now than a few years ago. Researchers in Europe and Australia have observed that while more people are moving from rural areas to cities, there's also a growing number of people who now find cities so unaffordable that they are forced to move back into suburbs or smaller towns.
That could be great news for the Cumnocks, Gangis and Sambucas of the world. The more unaffordable bigger cities become, the more attractive life in smaller towns might appear.
The urban flight of Nicole Lewis's family and others who have since joined her in Cumnock certainly won't stop the world's growing urbanisation, with the proportion of the world's population living in cities expected to increase from the current 54 per cent to 66 per cent in 2050. In fact, these families' arrival in Cumnock couldn't even prevent the recent closure of the local pub and hotel. But it might be able to offer these shrinking towns, which are tapping into the right mood at the right time, a much-needed lifeline and boost in confidence.
"The hope is that the $1 program will bring younger people back into town," said Lewis, who said Cumnock had recently seen a resurgence in community groups targeting families and younger residents. While some families in the area are struggling through a drought that has lasted for more than a year now, Lewis is optimistic about her own family's future in Cumnock. "The kids love it," she said. After several years in the military, her husband has found work as a correctional officer in a nearby town, while she is pursuing a degree in nursing.
In the local bowling alley that now also serves as the town pub, there was widespread agreement that Lewis and other newcomers should be welcomed with open arms - at least if they really commit to life in rural Australia.
"Overall, I'd say it's been successful. It highlights that rural areas' lifestyle is actually better than in Sydney, and more affordable," Phil King said as he sat at the bar and drank a beer.
His friend Scott Reynolds agreed that the $1 program has been a boost for Cumnock: "It's put the place on the map a bit."