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Hellishly Hot Tiny Town Offers ‘Free’ Land. Hundreds of Calls Came In.

MELBOURNE, Australia — From the air, the tiny outback town of Quilpie, Queensland, appears to be in the middle of nowhere. It lies on dusty land the color of rust. About 20 kangaroos sometimes take up residence on the school lawn. Summer temperatures can reach 113 degrees Fahrenheit. The nearest city is a 10-hour drive away.

But Quilpie suddenly found itself the object of global desire recently when it unveiled a plan to combat a housing shortage and lure new residents by offering “free” plots of land.

Officials initially had a modest vision, hoping that five new homes would be built in the town of 575 people. But in the two weeks since the word went out on Oct. 11 via local news media, Quilpie (pronounced QUIL-pee) has received more than 300 inquiries, officials said, including from as far away as Hong Kong and Europe.

The flood of inquiries from home and abroad was a testament to the desperation of Australians who fear homeownership is becoming increasingly out of reach, and to the global crunch in affordable housing.

“It’s been quite incredible,” Justin Hancock, the chief executive of the Quilpie Shire Council, who came up with the plan, said about the interest the scheme has drawn. “Some people are just calling up because they’ve heard ‘free land.’”

Yes, there is fine print: New homeowners would have to pay $12,500 upfront for a plot — but if they built a house there and lived in it for more than six months, they would receive a refund on the land value.

Mr. Hancock’s idea is a merger of two forces seen the world over: the need to find cheap housing and the push by small or waning towns to expand or inject new life into their communities.

Some picturesque towns and villages in Italy made international headlines by giving away dilapidated houses for a mere 1 euro in an attempt at revitalization. The city of Gary, Ind., too, sold abandoned houses for $1 to those willing to fix them up.

In Australia, two of the biggest cities — Sydney and Melbourne — are also two of the most expensive housing markets in the world. House prices have soared during the coronavirus pandemic, rising 11 times as fast as wage growth over the past year, according to an analysis from CoreLogic, a property data company. Sydney’s median house price is $1.3 million.

Quilpie, which is 543 miles west of Brisbane and whose primary industries are agriculture and mining, has struggled to get homes built because of a combination of factors. Banks require higher deposits on mortgage loans in regional Australia than in the cities, and the region has had a shortage of tradespeople, according to Mr. Hancock.

Mr. Hancock said he came up with the housing plan to address the shortage. While he doesn’t expect all 300 inquiries to translate into plots of land sold, he estimates that 15 to 20 buyers are seriously considering the offer.

Because the pandemic is not over — Queensland’s borders are closed to other Australians, and international visitors are barred from entering the country — prospective buyers may need to wait a few months to visit the town.

But for those thinking of moving to Quilpie, the town offers a free swimming pool, a 24-hour gym, two grocery stores and a lake. It’s known for its opal mines, and the bones of some of Australia’s largest dinosaurs have been unearthed on its outskirts. Cultural events happen nearly every weekend, Mr. Hancock said, including “opera in the outback,” horse races and triathlons.

Robina Meehan, 41, put in an offer on one of the plots even before she knew about the refund because, she said, “even $12,500 seemed too good not to take up.”

There’s a freedom and self-sufficiency to living in a rural town that you can’t find in the city, Ms. Meehan said.

“Here, you can drill a bore, light a fire, kill a cow to eat,” she said. “Whereas, in the city, you can’t do any of that. You can just plant a little garden full of lettuce.”

Ms. Meehan moved to Quilpie with her husband and two children 18 months ago from their farm in New South Wales. It was supposed to be temporary, but became longer term after many cities were placed into lockdown.

“To get here costs money, and maybe your groceries cost more because of inflation,” she added. “But life’s so simple. Living is so simple.”

Tom Hennessy, 24, who recently bought a plot with his fiancée, Tessa McDougall, said in a recent phone interview: “There’s no place you’d rather raise a kid and start a family. It’s quiet, everyone knows each other, if something’s wrong half the town puts their hands up to help.”

Referring to his friends who rent in cities, he said, “It sort of makes you feel like we’re going to be getting a head start on our friends the same age as us who probably won’t be able to own their own homes for a while.”

The locals aren’t the only creatures who find Quilpie appealing, he said: Wildlife often wanders into town.

“There’s kangaroos and emus everywhere,” he said. “At the school Tessa teaches at, I think there were 20 roos living on the lawn.”

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