Communities organise to stop Berejiklian’s destruction of public housing

Hands Off Glebe protest on January 30 in front of the award-winning complex set to be demolished. Photo: Peter Boyle

In early November, residents of the Franklyn Street public housing complex in Glebe and the Explorer Street public estate in South Eveleigh received notice from NSW housing minister Melinda Pavey informing them that over the next couple of years they would lose their homes.

At a Hands Off Glebe rally in January against the redevelopments, a number of Franklyn Street residents spoke of their distress.

Despite being told they’ll be housed in the new development, they don’t know when they’ll be leaving, where they’ll be going to in the interim, and if they’ll ever be back.

The 30-year old low-rise Franklyn Street buildings are to be replaced by three high-rise apartment towers. The sizeable garden areas within the estate will become roads. And the community that’s developed within the complex — that received a design award in the past — will be destroyed.

The new apartment blocks are set to contain 425 dwellings. The 108 public housing units will be replaced by 130 “social housing” units. Yet, when the math is done, this doesn’t mean there will be more social housing tenants than there currently are.

The New South Wales government is promoting the new units as “social housing”. However, it really is community housing – 70% of which is private and 30% which is community housing. This has been the department’s public housing “redevelopment” theme for two decades.

Public no more

Dr Alistair Sisson told Green Left that social housing is “a catch-all term” for non-market housing.

This includes public housing — “housing owned and managed by the state government” — as well as community housing — that is “managed and sometimes owned by not-for-profits”.

When it comes to government information about the “redevelopment” of public housing estates — such as the huge project in Waterloo — the undefined social housing units are really community housing, run by non-profit entities such as Mission Australia and Bridge Housing.

“That’s what’s expected from the Glebe and South Eveleigh developments and from all of the estate redevelopment projects under the Communities Plus program,” Sisson said.

“It’s happening at Ivanhoe estate in Macquarie Park. It’s underway in Telopea, Parramatta and Riverwood.”

Sisson is a research associate at the University of New South Wales City Futures Research Centre. He said that, under the guise of improving social housing, public housing sites built on land of higher value are identified and rezoned. Following that consortiums of developers and community housing providers pitch their plans.

Once a consortium is awarded a contract, the public land is handed over for free. Public housing residents are notified they will receive new homes — after years of construction. Non-for-profits bear the cost and responsibility for the upkeep of community housing rather than government.

As Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) Sydney Branch secretary Paul Keating told the January 30 rally in Glebe despite the Berejiklian government spruiking the benefits of redevelopment, its plan is really to “contract out social services to non-government organisations”.

Cannibalising public housing

“This is a model of privatisation that consecutive governments - whether Labor or Liberal - have been executing,” NSW Greens MP for Balmain Jamie Parker told the rally.

“But, this government is doing it more than it has ever been seen before.”

According to Parker, the process began in the Howard-era, when the federal government stopped funding public housing. While most states started constructing their own housing, NSW turned to the privatisation model with the 70-30 split.

The first such redevelopment was in the Minto public housing estate, announced in May 2002. It marked a shift in the government’s relationship with public housing tenants when it suddenly notified them that their homes would be bulldozed and they would be displaced.

The proliferation of public housing redevelopments comes under the NSW Land and Housing Corporation’s Communities Plus program, which was launched in 2016.

There are currently 28 redevelopment projects underway, with Franklyn Street and South Eveleigh being the latest editions.

Parker went on to explain that even though the allocation of community housing in the Franklyn Street redevelopment involves 22 more units, the current public housing complex contains 254 bedrooms, while the new community housing units will be “almost exclusively one bedroom”.

Gentrification

Sisson said there are three main reasons why successive state governments have been so keen on the 70–30 redevelopment model.

The first is a genuine aim to improve housing stock, although this method means they don’t have to outlay any money.

“Another reason is if they can transfer the tenancy off the books of the state government and onto community housing providers that means it’s a cost that they save as well,” he said.

The federal government also provides rent assistance funding to the not-for-profit community providers.

The third is “trying to capitalise on land values”. This entails the government moving to transform certain areas into more upmarket locations. Sisson added that he’s sure property developers have been eyeing off certain locations for years and putting their plans to politicians.

Uncertain futures

Franklyn Street resident and Hands Off Glebe Secretary Emily Bullock said the housing minister’s claims to have sought advice from the tenants was not true. She said that they had been left completely in the dark.

Bullock said that instead of tearing down estates like Franklyn Street, the government could refurbish them and spend less. She said that there were more than 50,000 social housing applications on the waiting list.

Friends of Erskineville secretary Andrew Chuter said the group was concerned about residents living in the Explorer Street public housing estate in South Eveleigh. He described the government's redevelopment program as a “bonanza” for property developers.

“In Erskineville’s Ashmore Estate, the Goodman group bought land in 1995 for $16 million. It was upzoned and sold in 2015 for $350 million,” Chuter told the protest. “At Lewisham Estates, upzoned land went from $9 million to $50 million in just 7 years.”

“We need to demand that money back,” he concluded. “We need to defend and extend public housing, not demolish it for private developers’ profits.”

[Sign an online petition calling on NSW housing minister Melinda Pavey to halt the demolition of the Glebe and South Eveleigh public housing estates. A rally to Save Explorer Street estate in Eveleigh is being organised by Friends of Erskineville on February 13 at 12pm. Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist who writes for Sydney Criminal Lawyers.]