WHAT DO YOU do when the destruction goes beyond anything you had previously imagined? How can a community rebuild after being submerged under the mud?
A new national flood research centre at Southern Cross University was formed after the devastating 2017 Lismore deluge. With my strong interest in community and agricultural resilience, I was a part of this centre, but it was eventually was shelved after it’s director took a voluntary redundancy. The centre never received any government funding.
Lismore has rebuilt and reinvented itself many times before, priding itself in being resilient to flood. Shops and houses are designed to take a bit of water, actually quite a lot of water. The surrounding towns of Woodburn, Mullumbimby, Broadwater and Grafton have all seen the water rise before.
Nobody envisaged a flood as big as this
As the floodwaters rose three metres higher than they ever had before, I texted friends to check they were safe. Several young friends in Lismore had bought houses close to the river, the only affordable places in town. Now they had beautiful gardens, young children, and had worked hard to create comfortable homes.
“It’s all gone”.
I heard these heartbreaking words over and over.
The river flowed down the valley, turning vast low-lying areas into a lake and my own home town of Evans Head became an island.
Cane farmers John and Dianne Sykes were eventually rescued by a fellow community member. At that point they were up to their armpits in water wondering if the water tanks floating by were theirs, when they. John left his glasses and hearing aid in the water somewhere.
It’s essential to plan for the future, but what was already a critical issue in our region has quickly descended into a tragedy of biblical proportions:
Where are the at least 10,000 displaced Lismore residents going to live?
Where will the thousands of people from the flooded towns live now? Where will they go? How will we rebuild?
Through the rain of recent weeks I’ve been thinking over and over, where do the homeless people go? Some days ago I read a sobering post from a colleague, Lismore resident Melissa Gulbin:
“If you want to see how many people are sleeping rough in Lismore, drive through town in the early morning during a minor flood. Heaps more than last flood I reckon.”
Before this flood, ‘The Ending Homelessness in Australia ‘report showed that the poorest households in our region are spending about a third of their income on housing, with almost 40% of Northern Rivers households in a state of “Housing stress”.
I had no idea just how bad our housing crisis is
In the weeks before the flood I travelled up and down between Coffs Harbour and Kyogle meeting with community leaders in support agencies across housing, mental health, aboriginal health, domestic violence, disability care and youth homelessness. I was impressed with the incredible work being done, but highly concerned at the fragmentation and short funding cycles across the sector.
Even where emergency accommodation was available, there was no-where for people to go from there.
I am embarrassed to admit that I had no idea just how bad our housing crisis is for so many people. While house prices have never been higher, more houses are turned into holiday lets and lie empty while families squeeze into overcrowded accommodation. Young people surf couches endlessly, subject to violence and abuse.
My federal electorate, Page, is the 8th poorest in the country when it comes to the proportion of people below the poverty line. I’ve been told that the criteria for rental support and housing provides a significant barrier to many.
In our region, it is common to have been on the social housing list for more than 15 years – I’ve met several elderly people in this boat. The only people who can find their way into housing must be on an emergency list, which requires you to be either homeless or subject to domestic violence. There is a huge body of evidence that shows how safe housing reduces levels of mental distress, depression, and anxiety, with even psychotic symptoms significantly reduced.
The head of the Tenancy Advice Bureau, Brendan Ross, explained:
“Social housing is supposed to be the safety net – but the safety net is so stretched.”
There are close relationships between mental health and housing insecurity. Brendan said “The flow on effect is endless.” Housing insecurity, short or leases terminated without cause was rife, especially as some landlords sought to raise rents on par with the market.
Regional Australia gets left behind time and again
Across the state, social housing supply sits at around 4.5 – 5 percent, but in our region it is about 3.5 percent. Short funding cycles and development processes continually favour city-based development. Many people I have met across the region are still living in sheds and makeshift dwellings since their homes burned in the 2019 bush fires.
Now, our region will need to house up to 20,000 displaced people, many who have lost everything. I saw them coming into the evacuation centres in Evans Head, without so much as a mobile phone or an ID card. I recognised the shock in their eyes, the disorientation, the tears. I picked them up from roofs, I ferried them to safety, I took them supplies. I’m still doing all I can, but these efforts are just a drop in the ocean.
The important question right now is, where will these people go?
We need a short-term emergency housing plan, but we must also address our housing crisis so that all in the region have the opportunity to prosper. All developments in London must include 50% affordable housing. In Berlin, a hybrid model is enabled by rental housing cooperatives that enable tenants-owners to build up equity and more inclusive communities. There is a plethora of examples out there that have enabled low income earners and the young to find an affordable home.
Major reforms are needed to fix Australia’s ailing housing system. What Australia needs is a Royal Commission into affordable housing for Australians now and in the future.
Future planning must also take into account significant events, such as the Northern Rivers flood and 2019 bushfires that will experience more of in a future of climate disruption. We need to fund research and projects that will provide accurate modelling and prepare our communities far, far better for the next extreme event we face.
Also by Dr Hanabeth Luke – My life’s road to standing as the #IndependentsDay candidate for #PageVotes