Australia’s bushfire victims locked out of govt’s home builder grants

Orangeville residents defend their property as a bushfire approaches. CREDIT: ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

CANBERRA, Jun 21, 2020, The Age. Bushfire victims fear they will miss out on the federal government’s HomeBuilder scheme due to the tight deadline to have contracts signed and begin construction. Those fears have prompted calls for the scheme’s rules to be changed to give those who lost their homes more time to get approvals, The Age reported.

Chris Kezik and his wife Megan are eager to rebuild after their Bilpin home was razed in the black summer bushfires but six months on the family is yet to sign a contract with a builder.

Mr Kezik said he would like to apply for the Morrison government’s $25,000 HomeBuilder grant to help with the cost but fears he will miss out due to the strict rules limiting the scheme to those who sign building contracts between June 4 and the end of the year.

“I very much doubt we will meet the deadline, with all the assumed delays through council,” he said.

“We are only just starting the process with builders. The Bushfire Attack Level rating took its time, and coronavirus slowed it up.”

Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, urging him to “make special considerations around access to the HomeBuilder program, so that bushfire victims … are not unfairly excluded from the scheme”.

“This group of people have been through a massive trauma in losing their home … for some, the clean-up is not even complete,” Mr Albanese writes in the letter, seen by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

“Bushfire victims need time to work out what options are available to them and cannot make significant financial decisions sooner than they are ready.”

New building codes determining what materials could be used in bushfire-prone areas were adding to the process of development approvals and costings that made rebuilding a time-consuming affair, Mr Albanese writes.

“They need to work out if they can afford it. Many are also unintentionally uninsured or under-insured, so are going through this process with financial anxiety.”

Means-tested HomeBuilder grants will be available to buyers of new properties – whether first homebuyers or not – where the house and land value is less than $750,000 and construction begins within three months of the contract date.

Federal Labor MP for Macquarie Susan Templeman said the Keziks still had “a lot of work to do before any contract can be signed” and to make sure they could build a house within their budget that would meet the required approvals.

“It’s just not realistic for them to achieve all this by December 21 and it’s just not fair to put the pressure on them or any other survivor rebuilding from bushfire,” Ms Templeman said.

Mr Morrison told Parliament he was in talks with state and territory leaders on “how we can escalate and more rapidly ensure that approvals are given, not just for these types of cases but more generally, [to] get the projects happening again”.

“People in affected areas are eligible for the grants – subject, of course, to the income restrictions,” Mr Morrison said.

“I’ll be working closely with the states and territories to ensure that they can accelerate the rate of a home approval, not just in these areas but everywhere, because this is critical to job creation. It’s
absolutely urgent for those who are impacted by the bushfires.”

State governments were managing the demolition work jointly funded with the Commonwealth as part of the bushfire response, Mr Morrison said, with clearing of damaged properties in NSW expected to be finished next month.

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