Advocacy groups have criticised the New South Wales government for rejecting a proposal to use former disability housing for emergency homeless accommodation amid a housing crisis in Newcastle.
The Stockton Centre and the Tomaree Lodge, both previously used as residential disability accommodation, have the capacity to house up to 450 people.
But the NSW Department of Communities and Justice has said the buildings are not fit for purpose and that it would take a “significant investment” to fix them.
A spokesperson for the department said the government was spending $4.1m on homelessness in Newcastle and Port Stephens, and that the state had already funded “300 dwellings” in the Newcastle and Port Stephens local government areas: “Tomaree Lodge and Stockton … do not meet the level of service the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) seeks to provide.”
Rents have risen by 12.2% year-on-year, and Newcastle’s rental value index rose by 10.2% this year, according to CoreLogic.
Nicole Grgas, the coordinator of the Hunter Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service, said the centres could have at least been used temporarily.
“We could at least in the meantime use this as even temporary accommodation for families or single people,” she said. “Because we don’t have a lot of options for people at the moment.”
Grgas said the vacancy rate in the Hunter region was about 0.8% and there was close to “nothing” available to people on low income or benefits looking to rent.
“Almost half the people we’re speaking to are facing eviction at the moment. And that’s not necessarily due to breaches, they’ve just been priced out. And they’re saying to us they have nowhere to go.
“Families are being temporarily housed in hotels or motels, and that isn’t appropriate either. So when it comes to the Stockton Centre, why are we letting these assets just sit there when they could be put to good use?”
The Newcastle MP, Tim Crakanthorp, the Port Stephens MP, Kate Washington, and the shadow minister for housing and homelessness, Rose Jackson, joined representatives of the advocacy groups Jenny’s Place and Nova for Women and Children in calling for the Stockton Centre and Tomaree Lodge to be repurposed.
Nova for Women and Children, a local women’s service, said in a Facebook post that using the buildings for emergency accommodation would be more appropriate than leaving them vacant.
“The pressure on the government to make use of these types of vacant buildings needs to be a continual one,” it said. “Even as short-term use – these vacant buildings are better than someone sleeping in their car or a tent!”
Crakanthorp told Guardian Australia he was “very, very disappointed” by the government’s decision: “If this government thinks this solution isn’t viable, I challenge them to come up with some constructive alternatives, because they’re quite simply not doing that.”
He described the housing crisis as a “perfect storm”, saying the rising cost of living was coupled with people moving to the Hunter from major cities during the pandemic.
“These issues have pushed hosing prices and rent up astronomically. More people are trying to rent but we simply don’t have the rentals and there isn’t enough stock being built.
“It means people are forced out of their homes, people are couchsurfing, moving between friends and family. Our homelessness services are being overrun.”