As the communities based in New South Wales’ Northern Rivers continue to wade through the debris left by last week’s “rain bomb”, early figures have suggested that thousands of residents have become displaced.
It’s a displacement that comes alongside a growing demand for resources from the federal government, as major hubs like Lismore, Mullumbimby, and the Byron Shire have been left to organise recovery efforts largely amongst themselves.
On Monday, New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet confirmed that, out of the 3,500 houses in the region that had been inspected, almost 2,000 were confirmed as uninhabitable.
Samantha Doyle, a resident of the Northern Rivers, was residing temporarily in the town of Myocum while in between houses when the floodwaters came through.
“When the floods happened, I was trapped [inside] for two days by myself,” she told VICE.
“On Saturday, I hiked up to Wilsons Creek, where there are a lot of houses that were destroyed from floods and from landslides. Lives lost up there - and just the nature - is completely destroyed. And all those people that live up there are displaced.
“A lot of them got stuck there for four days, completely cut off from any water source or any food. We didn't have reception for a week – the Telstra lines were down for a week. You could only pay for petrol and food with cash, but there was no cash left in the ATMs. There was no internet to transfer money or anything like that.”
Byron Shire Mayor Michael Lyon told VICE that the two biggest concerns his community is facing right now are financial assistance and housing.
“We declared a housing emergency 12 months ago in the Byron Shire, and this is obviously going to be a massive exacerbation of that,” he added.
“So we have an immediate need for housing. We have an immediate need for planning reform to enable council to put small homes, transition homes and pods onto council owned - and managed - land.”
“At the moment we've got the pods, and we've got the land, but we don't have the planning permission from state government to do it.”
This distinct need for housing for those displaced across the Northern Rivers presents an immediate concern. But this has only been furthered by the region's already-existing housing crisis.
“I would be very pessimistic about [the chances of those displaced] finding another rental in the area that they can afford because the rents are skyrocketing there because of a strained supply. And that's just going to get worse now,” Dr Tony Matthews, a Senior Lecturer in Urban & Environmental Planning at Griffith University, told VICE.
“Broadly, the floods are going to mean that housing affordability is going to get worse in the area.”
Prior to the floods, the Northern Rivers exhibited some of the highest housing costs in the country. According to latest figures from Domain, the median weekly rent for a house in the greater Byron Shire is $850, a sum $250 higher than in greater Sydney, while the median value of a house is $1.7 million.
Compounding this is the region’s lack of housing availability, with SQM Research property data placing the percentage of the North Coast’s available rentals at 0.6 percent – a figure well below the minimum 3 percent considered for a “healthy” vacancy rate.
Dr Matthews anticipates a series of new and existing factors that will combine to intensify the region’s housing problems:a sudden loss of income for residents, supply chain disruptions impacting the materials and trades needed to develop new properties and owners potentially electing to sell rather than to rebuild.
“It's going to post the usual difficulties with increasing rents and purchase prices and so forth. So people will be displaced, but there's not really anywhere for them to go,” Dr Matthews said.
“[These] kinds of events, like what just happened with the floods, is the sort of thing that pushes marginal households over the edge. And then they end up homeless.”
Tony Davies, the Chief Executive Officer of Social Futures, a community non-profit organisation that assists in homelessness across the Northern Rivers echoed Dr Matthews’ prediction. He anticipates a spike in both homeless rates and calls towards Social Futures’ service.
“So psychological support, material aid, and a lot of those things will start to ramp up. We'll be seeing more family violence, household violence; mental health issues will probably escalate,” he said, adding that he also expects all alternative accommodation will be taken out of the market.
"I went to a colleague's place on Saturday, and with a team of volunteers, we essentially had to pick up his life and throw it out his living room window onto the sidewalk to be picked up by a rubbish truck.”
The outlook is bleak. According to a 2021 NSW government-funded street count, roughly 37 percent of the state’s homeless residents were based in the Northern Rivers despite the region containing only 4 percent of the total population.
“The fundamental issue for the government, at this point in time, is to rapidly come up with a solution for where people can live now,” added Davies.
John McKenna, the CEO of the North Coast Community Housing Company, a housing not-for-profit that manages 975 properties in the region – up to 200 of which are expected to be impacted by the floods – told VICE that while he also expects these floods to worsen these housing crises, the greatest pressure will be felt by those reliant on social and affordable housing.
“It used to be you’d turn up to a real estate open house for a rental and there’d be 50–60 people. You’ve got another 800 people that are homeless now all going to be looking at the same thing,” he said.
“Guess what's going to happen again? Rents will be pushed up because when you've got 100 people turn up to your house, [a landlord will think] ‘I might get another extra $50 a week here’.”
“This is exacerbated by the fact that the Federal government refuses to work on social and affordable housing,” McKenna added. “They keep pushing it back to the [state governments].”
In context of this imminent crisis, coupled with government inaction, McKenna said that while innovative solutions to provide temporary housing and aid are necessary, so is a long-term approach to fund, develop and provide equitable and secure housing.
“Most of the people that have lost their houses, particularly in North and South Lismore…very few of them would have been insured because they couldn't afford it.”
“Our cleaner looks after 26 clients – 23 of them inside the Lismore CBD. Of the 23 clients that have all been totally devastated, we are the only one that were insured.”
“The reason that people live in North and South Lismore is because it was affordable housing. The fact that it was in a flood zone made it affordable.”
“I think you're going to see a flow-on effect from this.”
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