A single mother who is subletting part of her house to an elderly couple, one of whom has cancer, may become bankrupt if she is forced to pay developer contribution fees by Lismore City Council.
Local teacher Chloe Allen detailed her desperate situation at public access during last night’s council meeting, provoking a heated debate among councillors and prompting mayor Jenny Dowell to warn council not to ‘make policy on the run’.
Ms Allen, a full-time working single mother and the prime carer of a child, has had to sublet part of her home in order to meet mortgage repayments. She bravely spoke of her financial position and explained how current contribution plans may force her into bankruptcy.
She said she was surprised to find that council’s existing rules on granny flats are more than 20 years old and inconsistent with the direction surrounding local councils and state planning authorities have taken.
Byron Shire Council, for example, now approves the building of granny flats in residential areas without developer contributions as a way of increasing the stock of affordable housing.
Councillors did however vote to expedite their full section 94 (developer contributions) review process, which was due to come before Council in September along with a full review of section 64 contributions for water and sewer.
‘I only recently found out that my granny flat downstairs was illegal,’ Ms Allen told council. ‘I had put in a removable divider between up and downstairs and found some tenants. My response was to apply for dual occupancy and have it all above board and expected the fee to be around one to two thousand dollars.
‘I have since been advised that the costs of s94 and s64 will be around $20,000, which does not include the costs of a planning consultant quoted at around $3,000. This is a big amount for me.’
Ms Allen had found older tenants who needed to be near the hospital as one of them is undergoing treatment for bowel cancer. She provided them with a clean, cheap and safe living environment.
‘The consequence of these high costs is that they will have to find other living arrangements, I will be forced to sell my home at a loss in the current market and I will be effectively bankrupt,’ she said.
Ms Allen made it clear in her address that she is not against the regulation of granny flats, rather that the fees are ‘prohibitive’. She also made reference to the state affordable housing laws that ‘councils are under obligation to make provision for affordable housing’.
‘My granny flat did exactly that, it provided affordable housing for me and my daughter, and my elderly tenants,’ she said.
Deputy mayor Simon Clough put forward the motion to speed up council’s review process but had to leave mid-debate due to a conflict of interest.
‘Our s64 and s94 costings are completely against affordable housing,’ Simon said. ‘There are many inconsistencies with our current policy. For instance, if you have a three-bedroom home you can add two bedrooms to it without the contribution levies. So this favours people who are already housed and well off and penalises poor people in this society.’
Cr Clough made reference to neighbouring Byron Shire Council dropping its levies on granny flats.
‘To me this is a very sensible move. It is encouraging the growth of the community with infrastructure already there. This is the sort of growth we want. Lismore is backed by many organisations; nearly $300 million spent in health, $30 million recently spent by Southern Cross University
‘Lismore can go places, but we won’t go very far for the people less well off in the community while ever we have these charges.’
Cr Graham Meineke spoke against the motion only because he believes that the wording didn’t go far enough and quickly enough for the changes that need to take place to abolish contributions in these circumstances and made further reference to state policy.
‘The State and Environmental Planning Policy (Affordable Rental Housing) was specifically brought in to facilitate this sort of development we are discussing here,’ Cr Meineke said.
‘It does say that if there is an inconsistency between the state policy and any other environmental planning instrument made before or after the policy, the state policy prevails to the extent of the inconsistency.
‘I believe our current s94 could be seen as inconsistent with the state policy.’
Council’s manager of integrated planning, Steve Denize, told council that there is funding in place for the review of development contributions and for councillors to be aware of funding consequences when waiving certain fees.
Ironically it was Greens Cr Vanessa Ekins who was the least supportive of reducing or removing contributions on granny flats.
‘It is crucial that we do a review of this but strangely enough the reason I want a review is I would like to see some of these contributions increased, for footpaths and cycle ways… if people are going to take advantage of sub leasing their house they will need to contribute to the infrastructure that we all rely on and use.’
Cr Ekins did show sensitivity to the particular case by inquiring about council’s capacity to deal with current cases on the books. Mr Denize suggested that council may be able to assist in costs associated with planning consultants but this too will bring down revenue associated with DAs.
‘I urge council to not leap into these changes quickly as they are very complex and have consequences,’ he said.
Cr Neil Marks acknowledged the need for affordable housing but questioned the application of the contribution waiver.
‘Are we going to consider this if the people of the North Lismore plateau want to put affordable housing in? It will be a considerable drop for them but also for us. Are we prepared to do it for Pineapple Road and Invercauld Road?’ he asked.
‘Should we be pressured to rush through this when there are bigger questions out there to be answered? What will this mean – are we going to change these plans on the go to fit every individual case at any one time?’
Further reference to neighbouring councils was made by Cr Marks.
‘Richmond Valley Council has had a look at their contributions and has set some very low fees, and has been very successful in attracting development to their town. They have worked their balance; we need to work ours in all areas of this.’
Cr Gianperro Battista echoed Ms Allen’s urgency in requesting changes to the current contribution plans and urged council to respond to her plea.
‘Her case is just the tip of the iceberg, there are hundreds and hundreds of situations like these in our community,’ Cr Battista said.
‘This area has a high percentage of single parents who will be hit now with changes in federal government assistance; we have high unemployment so everything is combining to tell people that you cannot live in Lismore.
‘We have known for three years that if you want more infill development, you need to drop s94 and s64 contributions. We have failed people like Chloe for not providing the right policy.’
Council’s general manager Gary Murphy reminded councillors that they could waive contribution fees on a case by case basis but reminded them that they had decided as a council that they would not do this ‘pending the review’.
Cr Ekins supported this stance, saying it was ‘dangerous to work on an ad-hoc basis. It will only be a few months; we need to go through a proper process.’