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CHRISTINE Anderson is physically disabled and mentally debilitated by clinical depression and now, thanks to the Lismore City Council, she’s also homeless.
After weeks of negotiation and pleas for compassion, the council on Saturday sold Ms Anderson’s home of more than 20 years to satisfy an unpaid rates bill.
Council general manager Paul O’Sullivan yesterday defended the decision, saying it followed years of effort by the council to get Ms Anderson on to a payment plan.
The sale of the house at an auction at the Lismore City Hall for $175,000 – the lowest price for a house in South Lismore for more than a year – came despite the fact Ms Anderson had begun trying to repay the debt.
She had agreed to a direct debit plan – the first payment came out only days before the auction – and despite the fact the council had been told she would have been able clear the debt within two months.
The decision to sell the house also came despite medical advice, seen by The Northern Star, warning taking Ms Anderson’s home would cause “severe” damage to her already fragile mental state.
It followed more than a month of intense negotiations between the council and family friend David Slatter, who stepped in after learning of Ms Anderson’s situation about five weeks ago.
Mr Slatter said Ms Anderson’s mental illness meant she was unable to face the problem when the council told her in October last year it would sell the house over a $16,000 rates bill.
The rates debt dates back years – Mr O’Sullivan said it went back to 2000 – and started with a refusal to pay over the council’s failure to fix roadside drains that flooded the property when it rained and eventually ruined the home’s foundations (the council has never been asked, or offered, to compensate Ms Anderson for the damage the blocked drains caused her home).
Ultimately the rates bill grew out of control. Mr Slatter said the actual debt was about $14,000, but blew out to more than $16,000 after adding interest and other charges.
Mr Slatter accused the council of pursuing Ms Anderson over the rates debt without informing her of her rights or, despite knowing she was in difficulty, taking gen-uine steps to help her.
Mr O’Sullivan said the council had spent years trying to sort out Ms Anderson’s rates. It repeatedly tried to get her on payment plans and when moves began to sell her house it sent around a council staff member to talk to her about the problem face-to-face.
Mr O’Sullivan said the staff member was rebuffed by Ms Anderson, who was too ill to discuss it.
When it was suggested that Ms Anderson’s mental illness meant she was unable to communicate with council staff and that moves to clear the debt really only dated back a few weeks to Mr Slatter’s involvement, Mr O’Sullivan said the council had no choice in the matter.
Without the debt having been paid or clear evidence it would be paid, the council had to proceed with the sale.
A sobbing Ms Anderson said she was getting an early pay-out of her superannuation that would have covered the debt and let her fix up the house.
Mr Slatter said he told the council they needed “a month or two” to get the money.
Mr O’Sullivan said Ms Anderson had made that promise before and the money had never appeared.
Mr Slatter had been told Ms Anderson would need to provide a letter from the super fund saying it would release the money.
“If they had a letter from the super fund saying ‘yes, we can do this and it will take a couple of months’ ... , that would have been fine,” Mr O’Sullivan said.
Mr O’Sullivan said the council had sold the house at market value and the money, outside of what was owed for rates, would go to Ms Anderson. However, the money would not be enough for a new home. Ms Anderson said she did not know who bought the house. She doesn’t know how long she has before she has to leave and she doesn’t know where she will go when she does.
It is a bitter irony.
Ms Anderson has lost her home after struggling for years to clear her mortgage while receiving only the disability support pension.
By making heavy sacrifices, often going without meals, Ms Anderson about five years ago paid off the mortgage, gaining what she thought was the security of owning her home outright. Now it’s gone.