Homelessness spikes as NSW government attacks public housing

Cartoon: Charm

Ben, a friend of ours, lives in public housing in Glebe. His house has been flooded three times in the past two years. His roof needs repairs and he has been told by a bureaucrat that the $27,000 cost to fix the problem is “too much”.

Despite two rounds of mediation in the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) — which resulted in the tribunal issuing a notice of order by consent of both parties and an instruction to the government to conduct major repairs — his house remains in the same sorry state. 

The roof is still ridden with holes, the carpet with mould, and the corridor and bedroom dotted with buckets.

Ben continues to battle to force the government to carry out the repairs needed so that he can stay in his home.

His is a common story among public housing tenants in NSW.

A 2018 Productivity Commission Report on Government Services found that “one in four public housing properties [in NSW] were in an unacceptable condition, meaning they had fewer than four working facilities or more than two major structural problems.”

Homelessness

NSW state governments are running down public housing as the rates of homelessness and housing stress (where households pay more than 30% of their income on rent or mortgage) rise at unprecedented levels.

Homelessness in NSW skyrocketed by 37% between 2011-16, and by an astonishing 70% in the City of Sydney. This compares to a national rise of 13.7% in the past 4 years.

The 2016 census found that in NSW about 40,000 people were homeless in while 50% of households experienced housing stress. 

Over the past five years, Belmore and Wentworth parks in the inner city have been periodically filled by a sea of tents as young, middle-aged and older people without homes rough it out — only to be moved on by police.

On August 10, 2017, a crackdown on a homelessness protest and safety zone resulted in the removal of the Martin Place Tent City. Wanting to remove this visible evidence of the homeless problem, the Coalition government displaced 157 individuals from the 24-hour kitchen and safe Tent City.

Stagnant wages and the rising cost of housing, electricity, transport, health and education have all contributed to homelessness and housing stress.

Meanwhile, homeownership rates in NSW have declined, adding to housing insecurity.

In 2001, 68% of households were owner-occupiers, but this fell to 64% in 2016.

On the other hand, between 2011-2016, 63% of the net growth in the number of NSW households were households in rental housing, with 42% of those including children.

Overall, in 2016, one-third of households were outright homeowners, one-third were mortgagees and one-third were renting. Of those renting, 27% were private renters and 5% lived in social housing.

Sale of public housing

Both Labor and Coalition state governments have presided over the sale of public housing and the emergence of a cut-throat private rental market.  There is a drive to destroy public housing and force people into the rental market — or onto the streets.

The current NSW Coalition government has attacked public housing at an unprecedented rate since it was first elected in 2014.

In 2014, it evicted 590 public housing tenants in Millers Point and sold off 293 properties, including the iconic Sirius building.

In 2015, it announced the sale of the Waterloo-Redfern public tower. The aim is to replace 2000 dwellings with a housing development that would host 7000 dwellings, only 30% of which would be dedicated to social housing. 

There is currently a shortfall of 100,000 affordable homes for low income households in NSW.

The time for those on waiting lists for social housing in Sydney is a minimum of 5 years and, in most cases, more than 10 years.

It’s no surprise then that NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s recent promised to halve street homelessness in NSW by 2025 was met with cynicism. 

Under capitalism, a certain amount of homelessness is endemic — and positive. It is a visual reminder for housed workers that their situation is precarious and that they should be “grateful” for their situation. 

Alternatives

Socialist Alliance candidate for the Western Sydney seat of Parramatta Susan Price told Green Left Weekly: “We need less hyperbole from governments and more action. The situation is unacceptable.

“The NSW government can spend billions of dollars on rebuilding football stadiums, but they say they cannot build 40,000 new public homes to house the homeless people in this state.

“The Socialist Alliance is calling for 60,000 public homes to be built over four years.

“Around 10% of vacant dwellings in the state need to be audited and filled with tenants where we can.

“Private and public rent should be capped at 30% of residents’ income, and 20% of all new apartment blocks should be built for public housing.”

The battle to maintain Sirius in public hands has not been lost yet and the fight to keep the Waterloo-Redfern towers is not over.

A mass Sydney Town Hall public meeting on public housing in the lead up to the state elections could help restart public housing defence campaigns.

For now, Ben continues to battle to keep his home in Glebe, and is set to win a second hearing in NCAT. 

He has joined the Hands Off Glebe action group, launched an online petition and met with neighbours to talk about his issues.

He is certain others in the area are being intimidated, like him, to move out.

[Rachel Evans is the lead Legislative Council candidate for the Socialist Alliance in the March 23 state elections and lives in a housing co-operative. Toby Davidson is a teacher who is trying to survive in the cut-throat private rental market.]

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