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Issue #1632      March 26, 2014

Eviction plan for oldest suburbs

Massive land grab

The NSW government plans to evict more than 400 public housing residents from Sydney’s historic Millers Point and The Rocks within two years, and to sell off their houses and flats. The move would destroy a community whose ties stretch back five generations.

The Sirius complex was built to rehouse public tenants who had been displaced after a controversial redevelopment of the historic Rocks suburb during the 1960s and ‘70s.

Residents received the catastrophic news of the government’s decision in a letter pushed into their letterboxes or under their doors, like an advertising leaflet. There was no prior discussion. It was a grossly insensitive act and an insult, but it also showed that the government is worried about resistance.

The government claims that rental subsidies are too high in these areas, and that selling the properties would provide funds for construction of new public housing, and would eliminate the high costs of maintaining the old buildings. They warned that resistance would slow down the provision of new homes for the 27.000 people on the public housing waiting list. (Rental subsidy is the difference between market rent for the area and public housing rent.)

However, there is no guarantee that the sale proceeds would be ploughed back into public housing. They’ll almost certainly just disappear into consolidated revenue.

Moreover, not all the buildings concerned are old. The Sirius building, a reinforced concrete block of 79 flats, (which featured in Ruth Park’s novel Playing Beattie Bow) was built in the 1970s.

And whether buildings are old or new, failure to maintain them over a long period actually increases costs, because what was at first a simple remedial process eventually becomes a major exercise after surfaces or building elements fail.

Successive governments have not allocated sufficient funds for necessary works to the public housing stock in the area, and have let some of the buildings become uninhabitable. The O’Farrell government is using the dilapidated condition of some of the 298 dwellings as a convenient excuse to forcibly evacuate and sell off all of them.

The purchasers of the 50 buildings sold to date were certainly not deterred by high maintenance costs. They couldn’t wait to get their hands on buildings that have wonderful character and magnificent views, and are a short walk from the heart of the city’s central business district, including Barangaroo.

One estate agent gushed: “It’s a spectacular area and once it’s gentrified … it will be such an exclusive suburb”. A house recently sold by the government was auctioned for more than $3 million, and the maximum price paid for a property in Millers Point in the last 12 months was $6.3 million.

Location, location!

The Rocks and Millers Point, Australia’s oldest suburbs, have seen major battles over recent decades because of their high real estate value. They were originally inhabited mainly by the families of wharf labourers and storemen, and many of the houses were provided for them by the former Maritime Services Board.

In the 1970s, the NSW government approved a major redevelopment of The Rocks that would have involved demolition of most of its early buildings. That appalling initiative was defeated after a campaign that involved concerned citizens, the National Trust and community organisations.

The campaign was led by the Builders’ Labourers Federation, which placed the world’s first green bans on the proposed demolition sites. That caught world attention and spurred the formation of “green” parties in Australia and overseas.

The union was attempting to preserve the rights of the residents, not just to save the buildings. Last week Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, wrote: “Many residents in the neighbourhood have connections that go back generations. They can talk vividly about Sydney’s history as a working harbour. They have an irreplaceable connection to their local neighbourhood.”

Millers Point is listed on the State Heritage Register as “a living cultural landscape”. The listing provides the buildings with a degree of protection against demolition or abuse, but the community which also contributes to the area’s significance is now under threat.

Peter Phibbs, professor of urban planning at Sydney University, described the eviction plan as clumsy, inhumane and inconsistent with the government’s policy regarding ageing. He commented acidly: “It seems to be driven by people trying to get their hands on some quick cash …”.

More than 40 percent of the current residents are now aged 60 or over. A government report warned that the mental and physical health of residents with long-term ties to the area, especially the aged, would be damaged by enforced relocation.

It also noted that low-income rental stock in the city of Sydney had fallen by up to 45 percent between 2006 and 2011, and recommended the provision of affordable housing in the area for some residents.

The Minister for Community Services, Pru Goward, replied that the government would “make every effort to assist tenants to find a property close to their preferred area,” but would not build any more public housing in the Rocks or Millers Point.

Resist and defeat!

The government certainly has an obligation to use its resources wisely, to satisfy the demand for affordable housing. However, it is also obliged to respect residents’ emotional and cultural links to places their families have called home for generations.

But the government intends to sell off the properties to the super-wealthy as fast as possible, and is far too impatient to even allow the current residents to live out their time in dignity in their current homes.

Implementation of the Rocks/Millers Point eviction plan would set a precedent for the eviction of tenants from public housing in the inner city suburbs of Balmain, Glebe, Kirribilli, Woolloomooloo, Redfern, Surry Hills and Waterloo, all areas of rapidly rising rental prices.

Moreover, the logic of the government’s economic rationalist argument is that all public housing tenants should be relocated to the areas of cheapest rent, the city’s outermost suburbs.

The eviction plan has been condemned by community organisations, the Council of the City of Sydney and the Tenants Union of NSW. The NSW Council of Social Services stated that the plan dumps the “social mix” policy that is crucial for the success of public housing projects.

A rally was held last Friday and others are planned for this week. Guardian readers are urged to attend and to participate in this vital campaign to save public housing in The Rocks and Millers Point.

Next article – Editorial – “Free speech” for whom

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