Lack of housing options leaves flood-affected Northern Rivers residents in limbo

Northern Rivers residents whose homes were destroyed by record-breaking floods say a lack of funding for long-term housing options has left many in limbo without a way to move forward.

The federal and New South Wales’ governments have this week announced an extra $800 million in additional flood funding, which excludes the grants offered to Queenslanders to rebuild, raise or sell their flood-affected homes.

Of the more than 14,000 buildings assessed so far across the seven Northern Rivers local government areas since February 28, state government disaster recovery body Resilience NSW said 8,359 are damaged, 3,585 are uninhabitable and 754 had water above the ceiling.

Nationals Page MP Kevin Hogan said the most recent flood funding delivered on what the NSW government requested.

“The Queensland agreement was driven by the Queensland state government … (and) this is the package that the New South Wales government have come to the federal government on.”

One of the many roundabouts in Lismore on Ballina Road or Bruxner Highway is submerged by flooding.(Supplied)

The most recent announcement includes relief payments for infrastructure, cultural facilities, social housing, back home grants and environmental projects.

It also included $70m for Indigenous housing in communities like Cabbage Tree Island in the Northern Rivers, which was left decimated by flooding.

Hopes to ‘never face this again’

Lismore resident Gary Shallala-Hudson said he was facing an uncertain future after recent floodwaters ripped through his home, stopping just inches below the ceiling.

Despite the house sitting above the one-in-100-year flood level, the February 28 disaster left it an uninhabitable shell, stripped of all basic furnishings and belongings.

Mr Shallala-Hudson works locally, has a mortgage and said the value of his home would have taken a hit post-disaster, so the prospect of selling up and buying elsewhere was out of reach.

A gutter interior wall in a hallway
The interior of Gary Shallala-Hudson’s gutted Lismore home after the February 28 flood.(Supplied: Gary Shallala-Hudson)

He hopes the governments will announce a life raft in the form of a land-swap or voluntary buy-back scheme.

“I wouldn’t be too upset to go into a little bit of debt but I don’t have the wear-with-all to go into much debt.

“I think there’s going to be thousands of people like me, especially over the more vulnerable part of town, where there’s concentrations of people with lower incomes.”

Uncertainty remains

Tony Davies, head of Northern NSW social justice group Social Futures, said there was a lot of uncertainty from residents, particularly in the areas hardest hit by the floods about if and how they should rebuild.

“There are a lot of people who don’t know what to do right now,” he said.

“Some people are worried that they’ll be forced to re-locate so there’s a lot of anxiety around that.”

Mr Davies said prior to the February flood disaster, the region was facing a housing affordability and rental availability crisis and now – seven weeks on – there is simply no housing available.

Statue hands holding a red heart with flood damaged pot plants on the road.
Lismore’s main street has been impacted by flooding.(Supplied)

“There are no rentals, there are a lot of people staying with friends or in informal arrangements that are starting to break down,” he said.

The most recent flood funding announcement included $168 million to fund new social housing infrastructure and to replace social housing lost during the disaster.

More flood funding to come

NSW Emergency Services Minister Steph Cooke said the $800 million was not the last of the flood funding announcements but rather a “brick in the pavement.”

Ms Cooke said people had been working around the clock for the past six weeks to identify community needs across housing, primary producers, not-for-profits, arts, sports and Indigenous communities.

“It’s going to take months and years.”

A pile of rubbish on a street with a book in the center that says 'My Life'
A pile of rubbish in one of Lismore’s main streets after the record-breaking February 28, 2022 flood.(ABC North Coast: Leah White)

Calls for less bureaucracy, more clarity

Lismore Labor MP Janelle Saffin said the state and federal governments needed to stop the piecemeal approach to flood funding and provide certainty around how flood affected residents would rebuild their lives.

“Are government agencies going to stay in the CBD? How are you going to reconstruct in the CBD? Is it going to be announcement by announcement, business by business?”

Ms Saffin has been calling for a Reconstruction Commission to oversee the flood recovery with one chain of command that included all levels of government.

“It’s still agency by agency, department by department and no cohesive body driving it and making sure that no-one’s left behind,” she said.

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