Canberra Times March 24, 2015
Nearly 90 per cent of Canberra homeowners caught up in the Mr Fluffy loose-fill asbestos crisis have signed up to the government buyback scheme, as special arrangements are considered for elderly and vulnerable residents in affected properties.
Delivering his latest update on the territory’s $1 billion asbestos clean-up program, Chief Minister Andrew Barr told the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday that 902 of the 1021 homeowners had joined the scheme so far and 609 had accepted offers for purchase.
Homeowners have until June 30 to join the scheme and have been given repeated blunt warnings that no better offers are coming from the government after the cut-off date.
The toxic Mr Fluffy legacy spans 58 Canberra suburbs.
Mr Barr said as of Tuesday, the government owned 208 houses and was overseeing the security and maintenance of the properties. $1.3 million had been spent on more than 1000 asbestos assessments and $4.1 million paid in financial assistance to families.
Officials from the government’s asbestos response taskforce were considering the needs of elderly and disabled residents.
Mr Barr said officials would work to make changes as easy as possible for vulnerable homeowners and residents.
“Many of these homeowners thought they would not need to move houses again in their lifetime, others may have put the asbestos insulation in themselves and then went through the original remediation program, and like many thought it was now safe,” Mr Barr said.
“Others purchased the homes as they aged to move closer to family, friends and services. We know these are real, emotive and considerable issues.”
Homeowners have five years, until June 2020, to leave homes with loose-fill asbestos and longer settlement periods can be negotiated with homeowners being paid when they hand over the property.
Measures designed to assist elderly residents include consultation with the Council of the Ageing, special morning tea information sessions and efforts to have payments exempted from asset tests related to social security and pension payments.
An advocate or partner program could be created, where retired public servants or professionals support elderly residents in completing paperwork related to their home sales and other arrangements.
Mr Barr flagged minor amendments to the Territory Plan to allow for rezoning of properties bought in the buyback scheme, to “assist in alleviating some of the cost pressure to the territory”.
He called for the Assembly to support the amendments, being finalised by Environment and Planning Directorate officers ahead of a consultation period.
Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson said residents faced “a looming threat” of being evicted from their homes and called for negotiations to continue with homeowners who have not signed up to the buyback.
“For people who have been in their homes for many years, who are elderly, who have not contracted any disease as a result of the amosite asbestos in their homes – why is this arbitrary date of 2020 there?
“This is the question they repeatedly ask me,” Mr Hanson said.
He warned being forced to move within five years could have a far more damaging impact than continuing to live in Mr Fluffy affected homes.
“The consequence for those people, in their 70s, 80s or 90s, and as they get forced out of those homes they have lived in for many of them [for] almost all of their lives. Where do they go?”
Mr Hanson said elderly and vulnerable residents would be displaced from their community and could be forced to join Canberra’s rental market.
In December, it was reported 739 homeowners had joined the buyback scheme and 56 sale offers had been accepted.