Fighting for better housing on Melbourne's mean streets

August 5, 2016

Activists evaded eviction from vacant houses and apartments in Parkville on August 3. The homes had been acquired for the East West Link, a project axed under community pressure by the incoming Labor government in 2014, with a promise to use the properties for public housing.

The Parkville occupation follows a Collingwood occupation []; both actions organised by the Homeless Persons Union of Victoria (HPUV) and Houses Need People, People Need Houses, demanding the promise be kept.

The activists have been dismissed in media reports as “squatters” on public land.

But HPUV activist Pat 'Spike' Chiappalone told Green Left Weekly that “130 of these supposed public properties are — in the midst of a housing crisis — still empty two years after the East West Link debacle. We've seen rental listings and police-escorted real estate agents have attempted entry to organise private rentals.”

In the midst of a bitterly cold winter, more people are doing it tough on Melbourne's streets. In June, Melbourne City Council found 247 people sheltering on central city streets, a 74% increase in two years.

Those sleeping rough at any time are a small minority of the homeless. People cycle precariously through homeless services, friends' couches, boarding houses and the streets.

Housing insecurity often results from a combination of the sharpest aspects of capitalist inequality and alienation — lack of secure work, unaffordable housing, family violence, drug dependency and lack of services.

The increase in rough sleeping in Melbourne's CBD is part of a national trend. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has estimated the number of people on the streets or in precarious shelter to be 89,728 at the 2006 census, increasing — after an economic downturn — to 105,237 people in the 2011 census.

A frenzied housing market is fuelling the crisis. Low-cost rooming houses and hotels have been bought up and often added to the stock of properties left vacant to increase prices. A report by Prosper estimated that in 2015 there were 83,000 properties vacant in Melbourne, 5% of the city's stock.

According to the ABS, in the decade to March 2016 in Melbourne house prices increased by 194% and rents by 149% .

Governments have eroded non-market options. The previous Coalition state government slashed annual spending on social housing from $900 million to $430 million between 2011 and 2015. A quarter of the cut has been restored by the Labor government, leading to a marginal improvement in the public housing waiting list from 34,000 to 32,500 in the two years to June 2016.

In one local government area, Moreland, the ABS estimated that there were 770 homeless people at the 2011 census. Socialist Alliance councillor Sue Bolton recently convinced the council to agree to provide assistance to these people such as a shelter with showers and hot drinks.

She told Green Left Weekly: “While we can't solve massive problems at the local level, it's important to win measures that can both ameliorate the effects of the economic crisis and raise solutions as a way of encouraging people to mobilise.

Socialist Alliance calls for a massive expansion of good quality, publicly built and owned, community-controlled housing; strict regulation of the private sector including nationalisation of dodgy developers and landlords; and immediate help for those in most need such as the homeless, First Nations people and people with disabilities”, Bolton said.

Chiappalone told Green Left Weekly that campaigning through direct action and events such as the HPUV's successful public meetings are all about “developing a culture of resistance from the bottom. It's people having a lived experience rejecting second-rate solutions like crisis accommodation, and standing up for our right to secure housing”.

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