Anger grows at brutal social cleansing

June 24, 2017
Public housing (left) is being displaced by privately-owned 'social' housing (right).

The adage of moving house being the most stressful time of one’s life has been proved at a West Brunswick public housing estate. Resident Lindi told Green Left Weekly: “One hundred residents are being compulsorily moved. The latest notice on the move is it will be in July.”

In the midst of winter, residents are trying to come to terms with the idea that their homes will be demolished and replaced by an eight-story private housing estate. Many, including the disabled, pensioners and families, have lived in the block for 25 years and are distressed by the move.

Where they will move, as well as when and if they will return, plague their minds. “The government even said only 20% return,” Lindi said. “That’s standard for redevelopment projects.”

The low return rate is largely due to three-bedroom homes being rebuilt as one- and two-bedroom units. As well, the expected rise in rent for the government’s “social housing” makes affordability impossible for many residents hopeful of returning.

Residents’ suspicions

The government has assured residents of payments for moving and utility connection costs. But residents’ suspicions are heightened by the wording of the government’s “return policy” and “social housing”. Lindi said previous public housing redevelopments showed “social housing is a red flag for privatisation and more rent”.

There is also fear of developers and corporations separating the public and private housing mix with walls. “They are very good at changing and twisting terminology and say they are putting up more public housing stock. But we will see a big decrease in Brunswick.”

West Brunswick residents are not alone: about 6000 public housing tenants will be forcibly moved in 2017–18. Melbourne’s inner city public housing is up for demolition and sale to big developers.

With little consultation, the state government is implementing a $185 million public-private partnership (PPP) model for Melbourne’s public housing. In the glossy tender documents, a giant map stands out from the corporate terminology. There is a yellow target circle around 2500 homes in Northcote, Brunswick West, Heidelberg West, North Melbourne, Clifton Hill, Flemington, Prahran and Preston. An ominous second dotted line adds outer suburbs to the growing circle.

The government says the project’s aims are to increase public housing stock by 10% (250), reduce waiting lists and revamp time-worn public housing.

Resident action groups

Residents from the housing estates have been left fuming. As resident action groups grow in Ashburton, Preston and Northcote, a community-wide protest is growing. For a policy that brings only 250 extra homes, the government has given itself a public relations disaster.

A hot-tempered minister is telling critics that they will condemn people to public housing for life. Another minister is barred from the process because of conflicts of interests. Friends of public housing are linking up a grand coalition to oppose “developer greed and forced public housing eviction”. Meanwhile, other action groups oppose 10-20 storey developments.

Grassroots opposition is not necessarily against building new multi-storey public high-rises. Greens federal MP Adam Bandt at a public meeting called for massive public housing growth across the CBD with public ownership models.

Now openly siding with the opponents are the inner city councils. Brunswick Council wants “at least 50% more public housing on the Brunswick site — public housing only and a 7.5-star energy rating”.

The community pressure for more public housing is intensifying. Melbourne University’s high-profile report calls out the PPP model as flawed because, as researcher Abdullahi Jama says, there is a “transfer of public land into private ownership, the losses of public tenancies and separation of public and private residents”.

A key source featured in the detailed Melbourne University study is Moreland Socialist Alliance Councillor Sue Bolton. Active on the issue for 20 years, Bolton said: “Residents and critics are vocal and angry because they believe the government uses the euphemism of social housing to cover privatisation, and the demolition of public housing does not deliver a 10% increase in public housing.”

Bolton lists several concerns: “80% of residents don’t return, and there’s often the 10-year timeframe. Three-bedroom homes become one-bedroom. Elderly residents and families don't return. Public housing residents are separated and become disconnected. In the end, developers just don’t stick to the small 10% increase in public housing agreed.”

Carlton’s redevelopment

Indeed, if a past redevelopment in Carlton is anything to go by, the big developers often decrease public housing while increasing profits.

Carlton as a whole is historically significant. Like many 1960s housing estates across Melbourne, the Carlton high-rises were built to accommodate those residents displaced by the 1950s CBD “slum clearing” policy. In 2006, when those same high-rise estates were in turn labelled “rundown slums”, the Labor government redeveloped the site. Labor now believes the Carlton outcomes are first-class models on which to underpin CBD-wide redevelopments.

But according to two different reports, the 11-year project produced two major outcomes: $300 million profit for developers and noticeably less public housing.

According to Flinders University research, the Carlton project decreased public housing by 45% at stage one of redevelopment. By stage 3, Melbourne University researchers found 140 residents had opted not to return. A 24% public to 76% private ratio followed when the developer rushed to meet the 10% target by constructing smaller flats, rather than the promised family homes.

As well as heights, landscapes, and buildings, the developers tweaked the PPP contracts because, hit by the GFC, “they needed to sell units to private homeowners to make the project financially viable”, according to the research team. Residents returned from the 11-year waiting period to find privatised parking spaces and even walls. Returnees discovered: “A wall was built that prevents public tenants from entering the (communal) garden.”

Today, residents shop at different places, drink coffee at different locations, their very divergent social lives rarely overlapping.

One returned resident provides an emotional summary: “We feel like they show us we are the second, like, the lowest class, you know. There is upper class always blocking you.”

Residents stop redevelopment

After the Carlton redevelopments, a counter block formed, with action groups and residents stopping further northern developments.

The Melbourne University report highlights: “Government efforts to redevelop Fitzroy and Richmond in 2013 were met with such opposition that the program roll-outs on those estates have been indefinitely deferred.”

The good news is that residents and groups actively forced the government to undertake alternative models in Fitzroy. The successful outcomes included: renovating existing public stock, building community gardens, installing renewable energy, and employing residents as building workers.

At the West Brunswick housing estate, residents are not backing down from demands for transparency and fairness. Lindi has now seen the recent planning documents. “It's updated with 7-star energy ratings,” she said.

“But what is real in the [new estate] sketch? That worries me, they can't even get the crossing right on roads and buildings are missing.”

She sent me a scan of the document. The plan, which does not even list the 10% social housing, is just as confusing and ambiguous as the overall redevelopment policy.

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