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Issue #1633      April 2, 2014

Defend public housing

On March 19 the NSW Liberal government announced the sell-off of 293 public housing properties at Millers Point and The Rocks and the eviction of their tenants. The heritage value of Millers Point is not just in its buildings, but in its historic use as public housing, and in the long family and community ties of many of the people living there. The strong community spirit, cohesion and long history linked to the working harbour of the Millers Point community are major reasons why the area was included on the State Heritage register.

Major fight back

Millers Point public housing tenants have launched a campaign against the NSW government’s plans for forced evictions. Three separate community organisations have combined to form the Millers Point Community Defence Group. A community meeting to plan the fightback, organised by the Millers Point Defence Committee with the support of the Maritime Union of Australia and the City of Sydney, drew a crowd of 500 on March 22.

A lifetime resident of the area, Barney Gardner, said he and his neighbours would fight to stay, defying efforts to evict them.

“It will be a fight because we will have many, many supporters; we don’t want violence, but we are prepared to go to jail,” he declared.

“They will not take away your homes,” Paul McAleer, Maritime Union Sydney secretary, told the public meeting. “The MUA will bring the shock troops; we will bring other unions along with us to defend your homes. We will be arrested if we have to.”

Jack Mundey told The Sun-Herald that the fight to save The Rocks and Millers Point and Dawes Point is continuing and he called for support for the residents.

Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore has pointed out that the Millers Point community survived the plague, the Depression and war. “It is shameful that it is government that will destroy this proud and strong neighbourhood,” she stated.

Many residents have yellow ribbons tied to their front doors to highlight their fear of eviction.

Housing crisis

Housing affordability has fallen to its lowest level ever, yet over the past decade more than $3 billion was taken out of public housing. This has created a crisis, especially for low-income families.

About 500,000 lower-income households are already in housing stress and this will rise to one million by 2020. About 170,000 pay more than half their income in rent. Anglicare’s report, Rental Affordability Snapshot: April 2013, found that 600,000 families live in “serious rental stress”, paying more than 30 percent of the family income on rent.

The report also analysed the properties available for rental over a given weekend. It found that of 1,015 Sydney inner west rental properties available, only one was affordable for families on income support and only 11 were available for families on the minimum wage.

The wider social costs of homelessness; increased emergency accommodation demands, hospitalisation, family breakdown, depression and mental illnesses, are generally ignored.

Over the past decade Labor and Liberal governments in NSW have cut repair and maintenance budgets and privatised 7,000 public housing properties. The O’Farrell government cut $37 million from the housing budget in 2013.

It is criminal to privatise the dwindling stock of public housing when there is a housing affordability crisis. A home is a human right, not just another way for the rich to make even more money.

Why is this happening?

Engels, in The Housing Question, wrote:

“In reality the bourgeoisie has only one method of solving the housing question after its fashion – that is to say, of solving it in such a way that the solution continually reproduces the question anew. This method is ... the practice which has now become general of making breaches in the working class quarters of our big towns, and particularly in those which are centrally situated, quite apart from whether this is done from considerations of public health and for beautifying the town, or owing to the demand for big centrally situated business premises ...

“No matter how different the reasons may be, the result is everywhere the same: the scandalous alleys and lanes disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-praise from the bourgeoisie on account of this tremendous success, but they appear again immediately somewhere else and often in the immediate neighbourhood ...

“The growth of the big modern cities gives the land in certain areas, particularly in those which are centrally situated, an artificial and often colossally increasing value; the buildings erected on these areas depress this value, instead of increasing it, because they no longer correspond to the changed circumstances. They are pulled down and replaced by others. This takes place above all with workers’ houses which are situated centrally ...”

Labor and Liberal governments have been committed to an intensive program of privatisation. At federal, state and local government levels, government responsibilities are being gradually handed over to the private sector.

Neo-liberal policies being inflicted everywhere by capitalism include privatisation of public services and areas of governance itself as well as the withdrawal of the state from taking responsibility for the well-being of the people and society at large.

Public housing has taken a hammering over recent years, with public housing stock gradually being neglected and/or privatised.

Privatisation results in a fundamental change in the objective of service provision from one of providing government or the public with a service based on needs to one where the service becomes a vehicle for making private profits. The NSW Liberal government’s plans for Millers Point are yet another case of private profit winning out over community needs and wishes.

The O’Farrell government will not only not have to spend money maintaining the heritage properties but it will also gain windfall profits by selling properties which have been in public hands for over 100 years to private buyers.

It is no secret that there is a push to gentrify the area, with a six-star hotel and high-rollers-only casino planned for Barangaroo, just streets away. Millers Point residents point out that NSW Minister Pru Goward has said they all have to be gone in two years which is just when Barangaroo will be up and running.

The link to Glebe

A cruel and greedy plot linking the Millers Point evictions to earlier evictions and privatisation of public land in Glebe is gradually being exposed. The government claims the 99-year leases it is selling at Millers Point will fund the new development in Cowper Street in Glebe, but that site was already promised to its former residents who have now been waiting almost four years.

Public housing on the Glebe site was demolished in 2011 under the former Labor government and 130 tenants were evicted, breaking its promise to provide more public housing and to rehouse its former residents.

The O’Farrell cabinet approved construction plans for 153 public housing units, 95 affordable housing units and 247 private apartments. Glebe residents fought hard to keep all the land for public and affordable housing.

Now we learn (The Sun-Herald, 23/3/2014) that “Treasurer Mike Baird will sign over the title to a large parcel of vacant public housing land in Glebe to community housing groups within weeks ...

“Non-profit community housing groups City West and Bridge Housing will construct and manage the new properties ...

“If construction starts this year, the project is expected to be completed in December 2016, which coincides with the timeline for moving elderly Millers Point tenants.”

The work of Communists

Communists have a proud record of fighting for public housing and for a better deal for public housing tenants. Communists were in the front line of battles to stop evictions in Redfern and other areas of the inner city during the Depression in the 1930s.

They were in the front line when The Rocks were saved from the developers by residents and Green Bans imposed by the NSW Builders Labourers Federation in the 1970s.

But their record goes back further than that.

Patrick Troy says the role of Communist-led unions was crucial in the drive to increase home ownership in the 1960s and writes: “CPA pamphlets, especially during election campaigns, recording the party’s policy on housing referred repeatedly throughout the mid-1940s and 1950s to the need to control house rents and called for a major increase in house construction.

“In its submission to the Commonwealth Housing Commission in 1944 the CPA argued for a massive public housing program. It also proposed that housing be built for private ownership and sold on terms that restricted its sale for a period in order to dampen speculation and to prevent the reappearance of large property owners.” (Accommodating Australians by Patrick Troy, Federation Press 2012, p 135)

Our alternative

The development of a large public sector, where enterprises and services are run on the basis of public need, not private greed, is a fundamental pillar of CPA policy.

The CPA also fights for a number of important principles including:

  • A decent home should be a basic human right, not an opportunity for more profit making.
  • The state must take responsibility for the provision of basic infrastructure and services to meet the needs of the community and business.
  • There must be universal access to services – education, health, public housing, public transport and so on.
  • The state must provide support for those unable to provide for themselves on an ongoing basis or during specific times such as during unemployment, old age, disability, sickness, homelessness, poverty.

It is all a question of social priorities. The government should re-direct massive, wasteful funding for environmentally unsustainable road infrastructure like WestConnex, and invest the money into positive, socially progressive and sustainable projects like more public housing.

The basic demands for public housing are:

  • Public housing which is accessible, good quality, affordable, well-maintained and safe.
  • Increased government funding for more public housing and proper maintenance of existing public housing stock.
  • Government planned development in response to social needs, not the wishes of greedy developers.

Join the campaign to defend public housing! Fight the sell-off of public assets!

Next article – Culture & Life – Royals, aristocrats and unearned income

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