Judy Mundey: ‘More public housing is needed now’

March 14, 2024
Judy Mundey at the Save Greater Sydney Coalition protest, March 12. Photo: Linda Eisler

Judy Mundey gave the following speech at the Save Greater Sydney Coalition rally outside New South Wales Parliament on March 12.

• • •

About three years ago I spoke at a rally in Sydney in support of the need for public housing.

Since then, homelessness has increased.

We still have people sleeping in railway station tunnels, pitching tents in public parks, squatting in abandoned buildings and reportedly sleeping in motor vehicles because they have nowhere else to go.

There is no doubt we have a dire shortage of affordable housing and that the lack of such housing is a major contributing factor to the cost-of-living crisis.

NSW Planning Minister Paul Scully says that Sydney is one of the least affordable cities on the planet and our government says it has a commitment to improve housing affordability.

But the private property market, the free market, is clearly not going to achieve that outcome.

The provision of quality, rent-controlled public housing built by the government would certainly go a long way to addressing it.

This is not a new idea.

More than 100 years ago, in the early years of the last century, the government of the day built public housing.

Following the World War II our society faced a serious housing shortage. In response, the government built public housing: 26% of homes after the war were built by the government as public housing.

The government was still building public housing in the 1970s. The privatisation of public assets had not then extended to our public housing assets.

Some people here will know that arising from the struggle to preserve the historic Rocks area of Sydney in the 1970s, an agreement was reached between the Neville Wran government and the Builders Labourers Federation, which had imposed a Green Ban on the area.

The agreement was to build public housing for Rocks’ residents, who had been displaced during that ultimately successful battle.

Flowing from that agreement, the Sirius building was constructed by the Housing Commission of NSW, with waterfront views of the Harbour, Opera House and [Sydney Harbour] Bridge.

It contained 79 public housing units, ranging in size from one to four bedrooms.

Its design was similar to another public housing block of units of one, two and three bedrooms, also built in the 1970s on a site acquired by the government at Sans Souci.

These developments, and many more, were designed, planned and built by the government through the NSW Housing Commission, with government architects and planners and government employed building workers, with nary a private property developer in sight.

They were quality built, unlike some of the privately built disasters like Mascot Towers, and rent controlled, thus affordable, with a social mix of residents who ranged from single pensioners to sizable families, and they had security of tenure.

Security of tenure is no longer the case.

Some 37 years after residents moved into the Sirius building at the Rocks, they were given notices to quit. They were evicted. They lost the security of the homes that had been built for them 37 years earlier.

The building itself was saved, but was sold off to the highest bidder. It is no longer available for public housing tenants.

Other public housing is being allowed to deteriorate by neglect and is then sold off to the private sector thus reducing publicly owned and rent controlled housing stock at a time of great need.

This loss of public stock eliminates the price control restraint that was imposed on the free market, both in terms of purchase price and rental costs by the countervailing effect of the public housing sector.

Thus rents and house prices are now at historic highs making both ownership and rentals inaccessible for many.

The government is aware of the need and is proposing higher density. But even leaving aside other problems associated with increased density, this would not, of itself, ensure the availability of affordable housing.

If we are going to increase availability, the government needs to accept responsibility for housing.

We need to re-establish public sector involvement in the provision and maintenance of public housing.

This is no more an extravagant concept than is public health care and public education. Housing is no less a basic necessity for a decent life.

Our Prime Minister famously, like many people, had the advantage of growing up in a publicly-owned Housing Commission home. It was no more than he and his mother deserved. That opportunity is increasingly being denied.

We need to urgently reinstate such a start in life, such a human right, for those who increasingly are being denied it.

[Judy Mundey, a retired barrister, was elected as the first female president of the Communist Party of Australia in 1979. She was married to the late Jack Mundey.]

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