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Issue #1587      March 27, 2013

Public housing crisis as tenants face eviction

Hundreds of public housing tenants face eviction from their homes in Sydney’s Miller’s Point, Waterloo and Redfern. The NSW Land and Housing Corporation is currently preparing an “assessment” of public housing in these suburbs, with forced evictions the inevitable result if government privatisation plans are realised.

The Redfern Towers.

Speaking about the government’s approach to public housing residents, Sydney Greens Councillor Irene Doutney declared: “… they go in and do this community consultation but all the time they are just assessing what they will get rid of, what they will demolish and what they will sell.

“You already have these high-rise [private] developments being planned for Redfern and Waterloo right on the side of the area [where] all this public housing sits. Developers are not going to want to put these sites here for a wealthy market if they are being overlooked by public housing.

“In Redfern and Waterloo the proposal was to remove 700 public housing dwellings but where are these people supposed to go? The majority of these people are good members of the community and they are just being brushed aside. We have over 50,000 people waiting to get into public housing as it is.”

The “Hands off Glebe” community group has also been campaigning for the government to construct a mix of public and private housing on a vacant site in that historic suburb. The government resumed decision-making power for the site from the Council, and created an advisory panel of specially selected councillors and government appointees.

Their decision constituted a partial victory for the community group. The proposed development includes public housing for pensioners. However, this consists of a single isolated building of meagre finish, painfully different and visually stamped as the poor relation of its neighbours.

And now the Victorian government wants to resume parts of the landscaped areas around Melbourne’s 1960s high-rise flats for further development!

History repeated – but with nasty variations

The nation’s first public housing was located predominantly in the inner city, because that’s where the majority of the population, including those most in need of housing, were living. Construction began late in the 19th century, and after the First World War the delightful and innovative little Sydney suburb of Daceyville was built for returned servicemen.

After World War II an appalling housing shortage was met by government acquisition and demolition of inner city blocks, to facilitate construction of multi-storey groups of flats. The policy was welcomed enthusiastically by the construction industry.

In a 1950 planning scheme most of the dwellings in Sydney’s historic inner city suburbs, including Woolloomooloo, Paddington, Surry Hills, Redfern, Chippendale, Annandale and Balmain were officially classified as “sub-standard housing” and earmarked for eventual demolition.

The site density of public housing projects was maximised to reduce land acquisition costs. Smart design was not considered a high priority for the working class, and the resultant buildings were often huge, impersonal and appallingly ugly.

However, the subsequent relocation of secondary industry from the inner city and the spread of outer-suburban housing developments resulted in a sharply renewed demand for inner city real estate. This put the interests of private property developers at odds with the official policy of constructing not-for- profit inner city public housing.

The ability of the private sector to adversely influence public housing policy was dramatically illustrated in the 1960s, when the Victorian Housing Commission, which had built some of Australia’s first high-rise public housing, succeeded in getting 284 reluctant working class residents of the inner suburb of Carlton to vacate their small single-storey terraces.

The Commission paid them a total of $300,000, but subsequently decided to sell the properties to a private company at a loss of $100,000, (at that time a huge sum). The company then demolished the terraces and built Carinya Gardens, a complex of dwellings which they sold on the open market for a handsome profit.

No one on the Commission’s waiting list gained one of the new homes. The former residents, who could only afford to buy new homes in the outer suburbs, exchanged very brief journeys to work for greatly extended journeys, while the newly-arrived and wealthier Carlton residents enjoyed the convenience of living adjacent to the city and local industry.

In the 1970s many of the appalling practices that had bedevilled public housing design were abandoned after community resistance and the union green bans prevented mass clearances.

The very sensitive adaptation of Sydney’s Woolloomooloo as a mix of private and public housing, with careful conservation of historic buildings and no visually-stigmatised public housing monoliths, showed the way for vastly improved urban planning. But then the rot set in.

The homeward path

The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) has pointed out that adequate housing is a fundamental human right, that public housing is intended to meet the needs of the majority of the population, and is not just a welfare initiative. The provision of public housing benefits the entire community, apart from private landlords and property developers, by driving down open-market house rental and purchase prices.

More than 176,000 Australian households are currently on public housing waiting lists. But now the very existence of public housing is under threat, because governments in NSW and other states aren’t interested in public housing as a social asset but rather as real estate of potentially huge value for the private sector.

The logical extension of that mindset is for the state governments to sell off their entire public housing stock, and to provide housing applicants with rental subsidies to help them pay market rental rates – in short, to revert to the odious old system of charitable handouts to the poor.

Nor is the Commonwealth likely to intervene, because under the Commonwealth Housing agreement responsibility for public housing has been allocated to the states.

The tactics of the various state governments are being resisted by community groups and left-wing and progressive parties. But providing an effective plan for public housing requires a major change in the political makeup of the state and federal governments. And it’s up to the public to make that happen.   

Next article – Recall Records workers maintain tactics and defiance

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