REBECCA and Darren Webber say they knew they were in for a rough ride when they decided to go through with the purchase of a property in Kinglake after Black Saturday.
They had paid a deposit for their dream home weeks earlier, and when it was destroyed by fire, they thought the insurance they had taken out on it would pay for rebuilding.
Instead, they have battled a series of misfortunes that left them homeless. “We didn’t know it would be this rough,” says Mrs Webber, her voice breaking.
With their three small children, including four-month-old Eden, the Webbers have spent the past six weeks living in a friend’s shed.
Mrs Webber had wanted to move to Kinglake to give her children the benefits of the great outdoors — fishing, hiking, bike-riding — but instead has been fighting to keep the great outdoors from invading them with mice, wasps and millipedes.
Their immediate housing problems were solved last week, when they were given the keys to a unit in Kinglake’s temporary village for bushfire survivors.
The Webbers qualified for the unit and for a bushfires case manager, and had earlier qualified for a bushfire caravan and portable bathroom that housed them for several months.
Mrs Webber says they had to move out of the caravan because it was too small after the baby was born: “There wasn’t room for all the stuff you need to look after a baby, and there was no way to keep her warm.”
But the Webbers do not qualify for any grants from the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund. They applied for a rebuilding grant and for a transitional housing payment and both were refused. They appealed on compassionate grounds and this was also denied.
The vendor of their property, who was the formal owner of the house on the date that it burned down, qualified for payments and took them. He was paid final settlement by the Webbers on March 20 last year.
It is the Webbers who now find themselves bearing bushfire-related hardships that they had not anticipated. They are paying a mortgage, but the 12 months of accommodation payments from their insurance company have run out, and the house is not rebuilt.
They are reeling from the extra costs involved in having to rebuild to fire-resistant standards. They also made a mistake in asking an architect to design their new home. They told him the budget was $300,000 but his design was costed by builders at $900,000, so the $50,000 they spent on design and surveying for that project was lost.
After enduring illness with a high-risk pregnancy last year, Mrs Webber, a credit manager, has had to return to work early and become the main breadwinner as her income is higher than that of Mr Webber, who is a plasterer.
Mr Webber says, “More than anything, I am disappointed in the way this has been handled, how long it’s taken, and the fact that we only ever acted on the advice of our case managers and basically all of that has been thrown back in our faces.”
In a statement to The Age, the bushfire fund said it operated on the principle that anyone whose primary place of residence was destroyed or damaged in the fires was in hardship, and that $140 million had been paid out.
“In the circumstances of Mrs Webber and her family, they chose to go ahead with the purchase of a property that was destroyed by the bushfires. They did not own the property at the time of the bushfires. The appeal fund money was not intended to go to people in these circumstances.
“If the Webbers signed a contract that in some way locked them into the sale, regardless of the condition of their property, then the fund may reconsider their case. However, to date they have not provided the appeal fund with that evidence.”
Mrs Webber says, “What they are saying to me is, ‘You made your bed and you lie in it, you and your children.’ Nobody could have predicted what it was going to be like trying to rebuild. We couldn’t foresee all of this when we decided to go ahead with buying the house.”
The fund said that the Webbers’s case was not affected by the fact that the previous owner had already claimed grants for that address: “The owner’s case was considered separately and that individual’s circumstances taken into account when providing support.”
The house was to be the Webbers’s first home.