The Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) called a meeting to inform residents about its housing development, the Pemulwuy Project, at the Block in Redfern on March 9.
About 200 people packed the Redfern Community Centre to ask questions of AHC about its plans to increase the size of the development. After just 25 minutes, AHC closed the meeting down as the audience loudly voiced its opposition to the radically enlarged plans.
The new plan means that the Pemulwuy Project will grow from six to 16 stories and provide accommodation for 522 students, up from 154. There will be no new social or Aboriginal housing, which remains at just 62 homes. The AHC plans to sell the newly built student housing to commercial operator Atira on a 99-year lease.
AHC chairperson Alisi Tutuila told the meeting the rent would be paid upfront, allowing 62 affordable homes for Aboriginal people to be built at the same time as the rest of the development with “no financial burden, no debt, no handing over of debt or legacy to the next generation”. She said no part of the land would be sold.
AHC general manager Lani Tuitavake then attempted to frame the Pemulwuy Project as the realisation of The Block's Aboriginal history.
“This is for the next generation,” she said. “For years we have endured substandard housing, crime and mismanagement. There are people out there that deserve an opportunity to be able to raise their children and to be able to live in good standard housing for Aboriginal people.”
Her comments were met with shouts of “You sold us out”, “We don't want it” and “You don't speak for Black people”. “Our generation has been displaced,” a young woman shouted from the back of the hall.
Lyall Munro, the sole surviving member of the group of eight who in 1972 were given a grant of $530,000 from the Gough Whitlam government that allowed the AHC to buy its first houses in Redfern, spoke out against the new plan, despite the microphone being cut off.
“Your plan is not a reflection of our plan”, he said, before describing the AHC's proposal as an “Asian student Taj Mahal”.
"This has become emotive. However, it's been an emotive situation for many, many years."
“Where here has it been mentioned about the Aboriginal homes, about the dreams of the founders of this place?” he asked.
“It's not just Martin Luther King who had a dream. There’s Aboriginal people, Black Australians who had a dream and that dream’s been thwarted and it’s sad.”
The meeting was due to run for 90 minutes but was brought to an abrupt end as a lone female protester carrying a banner reading "Battle for the Block round 2" tried to enter the meeting. She was roughly shoved and pushed out of the room as shouting and heckling from the floor increased.
Munro's speech showed the deep divisions that have emerged between the AHC and sections of the Aboriginal community since the 1970s. Critics of the AHC say it is now a private operator that has long since abandoned its community organisation roots.
The Redfern Tent Embassy occupation over 2014–15 only ended after it was given assurances that Aboriginal housing would be prioritised at the Block. Specifically, the protesters were assured that all 62 dwellings in the Pemulwuy Project would be built for Aboriginal families. This is not the AHC’s latest plan.
"I'm not shocked it ended this way," Nathan Moran, Chief Executive of the Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council said after the meeting.
"Given that this is the only time the community's had a chance to talk about this project or hear about it with some factual information, it was natural that we would have that response and reaction.
“Originally the place was Aboriginal affordable housing for a community and now we’re talking about commercial developments for the benefit of non-Aboriginal students.
“On so many levels this project fails the community.”