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Byron Shire
March 31, 2023

Flood victims at rental risk as insurance cover expires

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February 28, 2023 marks one year since we received a year’s worth of rainfall in one week resulting in catastrophic floods that left thousands without a home.

The anniversary also marks the cut-off date for insurance companies’ obligation to pay rent for those who are unable to occupy their damaged home. That means hundreds of people in our region who have been covering rent on properties, some of which were formerly on the short-term holiday letting market and priced at the top of the market, will no longer have capacity to pay rent as well as the mortgage on their unliveable property. 

Melissa is a 69-year-old Mullumbimby resident who is in treatment for cancer. She has spent the last few months on the phone to her insurance company negotiating an extension. She was successful, but it’s just two months’ grace. 

Dealing with the insurance company is next level

‘Dealing with the insurance company is next level,’ says Melissa who echoes the sentiment of many of the flood-affected people I spoke to who estimate they spend two to three days per week making calls to their insurers. ‘You are allocated a case manager, who disappears. They don’t keep good notes. Nothing happens without 10–15 phone calls and emails. I started asking for an extension in November, I got approval for two months, this week.’ 

Currently, an extension on the rental coverage period has to be made by the insured person individually. That means, without government intervention, thousands of people are going to have to negotiate compassionate terms with their insurer on their own. 

Sharon, 73, is a Mullumbimby resident who heads up a small group of affected residents pushing for action, both with insurance companies and on the timeline for commitments made by the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation (NRRC). 

‘It’s the vulnerable leading the vulnerable,’ she says. ‘It keeps us in a negative reactionary role’. 

A few weeks ago she collapsed from the stress and was taken to hospital. Many of the people I have been speaking to in Mullumbimby who are struggling to project manage their rebuilds are older women like Sharon. They range in age from late 60s to mid 70s. The group, who also meet with support staff from the Mullumbimby Recovery Services (formerly Resilience NSW) have drafted a letter addressing rental cessations that they will be sending to NRRC and ICA (Insurance Council of Australia). 

Individual negotiations are long, slow and tedious

Individual negotiations with insurance companies are a long, slow and tedious process. Extensions are of paramount importance. 

The letter reads: ‘We are asking that you interpose, within this immediate next week, on behalf of all the devastated communities across the Northern Rivers, who are being faced with uncertainty around termination of their (insurance paid) temporary accommodation support. We are asking for a public announcement within the week that ensures that emergency accommodation payments will not be ceased.’ 

The letter cites stories of elderly community members, including a gentleman in his 80s, who will be severely affected by the end of the insurance coverage for their temporary rentals. 

So what safety net is in place for flood-affected people who are still waiting for scope of work statements from their insurers, who can’t get builders, or who are uncertain of how to progress their situation because of lack of clarity from NRRC? 

Courtney Franz, a spokesperson from the Mullumbimby Recovery Service suggested that emergency accommodation would be available through the DCJ (Department of Communities and Justice) known as the ‘At Home Camper Program’. This is a non-means tested program that places a caravan on the flood-affected property while the resident completes their rebuild. 

Concerns were that this would not be appropriate for some of the elderly residents, people with disabilities, or someone with a DVO (domestic violence order). 

So, what plans are in place to support affected residents when they can no longer pay rent on their emergency housing? 

Deeply concerned for the wellbeing of the affected community

Greens MP for Ballina, Tamara Smith, has been at the coalface of the recovery since the beginning. She is deeply concerned for the wellbeing of the affected community if clear pathways to recovery aren’t actioned very soon. 

‘It’s darkly Orwellian from my vantage point, as my office and I have triaged hundreds of flood victims in the last 12 months and witnessed how the hegemonies of state departments and insurance companies are re-traumatising people at every stage of the recovery process,’ she says. 

‘A typical exchange sees us spending hours supporting someone in the community who is not getting responses from the relevant government department, me raising their matter with said department, me being told thank you and we are actioning, then double checking with the community member then me showing correspondence from the same department saying “Sorry we cannot action this any further”.’ 

‘The Insurance Council of Australia is doing nothing to push the insurers further to support vulnerable members of our community to project manage their rebuilds, the NRRC says it’s beyond their remit to case manage anyone who falls outside of their resilient homes program. So vulnerable people are left isolated and living in dilapidated conditions with no government support, and zero empathy from insurers.’ 

Temporary solutions

This is a community fast getting tired of temporary solutions. Where possible, they want to be back in their homes. It seems the answer for those who can rebuild, retrofit or raise their home, is to do just that. In the long term, it’s economically the more sustainable option. And it’s the option everyone wants. The challenge, even for those with insurance, is enormous. ‘I am an elderly woman trying to build a house,’ says Sharon. 

Step one is to ensure safe and secure housing for affected residents while they rebuild. 

The Insurance Council of Australia and insurers will be conducting in-person meetings, in four locations in northern NSW in March in a continuing effort by the insurance industry to assist policyholders and finalise flood-related claims.

The meetings are an opportunity for policyholders who lodged claims after last year’s severe weather event to discuss any part of their claim with their insurer. The meetings will commence at midday through to 8pm. 

• Monday 6 March at Lismore Workers Sports Club, 202 Oliver Ave, Goonellabah. 

• Tuesday 7 March at Mullumbimby Golf Club, 600 Coolamon Scenic Drive, Mullumbimby. 

• Wednesday 8 March at Casino RSM, 162 Canterbury Street, Casino. 

• Thursday 9 March at Ballina RSL, 1 Grant Street; Ballina appointments are essential. 

To book go to www.insurancecouncil.com.au/bookings.

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  1. Having nothing but respect for Tamara Smith
    a mover and shaker ..Waterlilly park is but one
    Tamara has gained funding for ..as for emergency accommodation it’s part of one’s insurance cover
    Generally 10% of your building cover is used
    For emergency accommodation this can be
    Negotiated with your insurance company
    You can go to 20 % ..however it will cost you more..
    As for emergency accommodation ending after
    12 months as part of your insurance..its what ever comes first ..12 months or the total amount
    Generally 10 % of your home insurance building cover .. now for all that maybe at the mercy
    Of insurance companies trying to gain a extension
    For your accommodation.. ask your insurer
    About “Catastrophic events ” check your own
    Product disclosure statement if not mentioned
    Ask the question..extra funding is available. !!

    • Good information Barrow. Seems like a good thing to reformat and submit as a letter to the editor.
      Personally I find it simpler to have two houses, each in a different area.


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